Sunday 25 November 2012

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story
If you have Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in the same movie it cannot go wrong. No two ways about that. But you can also say that even a cliché, worn to pieces story can get reinvigorated if you just make the cast strong enough. If you then add a witty script you can even forget that you have seen this story a hundred times before. Et voilà, The Philadelphia Story.

I am so happy I got married in Denmark. Close to 40 years of watching American movies and TV series have made me fear that moment in the wedding ceremony when the attendants can object to the marriage or forever keep quiet. This is a most dangerous moment where roughly 2 out of 3 film weddings are called off or the cast is suddenly changed. Going into an American wedding must be the ultimate test of a relationship; you have no idea if you will actually get married and with whom. Fortunately this part is not a part of the Danish wedding ritual, neither in church nor at civil weddings so this is a safe place to get married.

In the Philadelphia story we for a change do not get to that moment, the last minute change in cast happens about 10 minutes before the usual critical moment, but otherwise the story fit the bill:

Woman is getting married for the second time. The ex shows up and brings the third guy along. In the proceedings the woman finds out (in the last minute) that she is marrying the wrong guy and the question is now if the groom will be replaced with the ex or the third guy and if the change of cast will be at that crucial moment in the ceremony or if they make up their mind before that.   

Now it is time to groan. Goddammit, not again, haven’t we had enough of those stories? I am personally fed up with this theme and this may be a major reason for me to avoid chick-flicks, the domain of this scenario.

Now enter our glorious trio of Hepburn, Grant and Stewart and a witty script and the nightmare turns into one of those happy moments where I can say that I really enjoyed the film. As much as I like James Stewart, the duo of Kat and Cary is so electric that they can get away with anything and they steal this show as well. Frequent readers of this blog will know that Cary Grant is my current favorite actor and while Katherine Hepburn has not been as frequently appearing on the list, the cases have been noteworthy. I loved her in “Bringing up Baby” and while her character in “The Philadelphia Story” is quite different, there is enough mischief and sassiness in it to fit the Kat. She is a force of nature in the Garbo caliber, but more enjoyable.

Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is getting remarried. She is of the old wealth families in Philadelphia, a haughty and aloof woman who divorced her former husband C.K. Dexter (Grant), a man of equal old lineage, for some vague fault involving drinking. Now she is marrying George Kittridge (John Howard), a successful man who worked himself up from obscurity to management in the Lord family corporation. He is also a wooden man, strictly adhering to form and utterly without a sense of humor.

Tracy dislikes the gossip tabloids with a vengeance so when Dexter arrives at the family estate shortly before the wedding for his obscure purposes it is with two representatives of that despised media in tow. Macaulay Connor (Stewart) is writer of fiction turned journalist to put bread on the table and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) is his fellow photographer, who work for similar reasons. While Macaulay is fretting under the insidiousness of his job, Elizabeth is resigned to do what it takes to secure an income. They gain unprecedented access to the Lord estate through a blackmail scam involving exposing Tracy’s father’s escapades with a chorus girl.

What happens next is a little unclear, but through witty and very fast dialogue Dexter charms his way back into the family, Tracy discovers that Macaulay is actually a decent writer and Macaulay uncovers the true nature of Tracy which is just as human and faulty as the other person. This is a surprise to Tracy as well and a little late the trio realizes that George, who sees her rather as an ornament and a goddess, cool and correct, is hopelessly wrong for her.

So what then? Is the wedding off or will somebody else take the place of the groom?

Surrounding the main characters is a host of interesting figures. Tracy’s sister Dinah hopes for Dexter’s return and adds the own incitements to the participants. Tracy’s mother, living on/off with her husband is a bit of an enigma. She seems to accept her husband’s escapades, yet supports Tracy in her new marriage. Uncle Willie is the house clown, brewing moonshine in the basement and hunting women (in particular Elizabeth) when above ground.

I enjoyed this movie for the actors and the dialogue while I saw it, though in hindsight I am a bit surprised. This is not a movie I ought to have liked at all. Thus the power of a good cast.


  1. This one is better than the typical film like this. The cast helps, as does a really good script.

    Just wait until you get to High Society--it's the same movie with more people.

    1. That was also my conclusion.
      I expect to see A LOT of movies with variation over this theme. It seems to hit a certain node, though this iteration is one of the better ones.

  2. I love this one. It's so quotable, and it's so much fun. I've seen it I don't know how many times. I never get tired of it.

    "Oh dear, one of the servants has been at the sherry again."

    1. That is the thing. On the face of it this should be a trivial movie, but it is not. It is wonderful. I liked it too.