The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor)

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There’s no escaping that The Philadelphia Story isn’t much of a movie; it’s a filmed play, full of all the stagebound mannerisms implied by that. The scenes are lengthy and have the usual theatrical earmarks, the story is bound to a few clearly designated locations, and the dialogue is everything. It’s crucial in a story that director George Cukor can’t tell visually, nor could anyone. You watch this classic American remarriage fantasy for the words — the subtitle option on your DVD player will prove useful if you’re new to the film — and the performances, which are a source of even more amusement than you might expect thanks to the handy supporting roles of Ruth Hussey as a perpetually exasperated journalist-photographer, John Howard as a hapless and unconsciously priggish groom, and young Virginia Weidler as the bride’s sarcastic little sister.

But of course, it’s more than likely you come to this film, like so many before you, for the central cast, a three-way juggernaut of some of the best actors ever to work in Hollywood: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. Though they’re all superb, the film lives or dies — depending more than anything on your mood — by the clarity of its characterizations as delivered through Philip Barry’s tonguetwisting play, which gives the performers plenty to work with but also saddles them with lines about “holocausts” and an endless parade of self-consciously lyrical platitudes. But Barry also defines his characters and situations beautifully and comically, even if it’s all a bit too languid to be screwball comedy; as far as that goes, I’ll take Arsenic and Old Lace, but the excitement elicited by The Philadelphia Story is still hard to pass up.

To some extent, that’s because of its sense of urgency, an outgrowth of the classic American stereotype of a big internal revelation at a wedding, of a bride cutting loose and discovering herself just in time to avoid marrying an insensitive, conservative oaf. Hepburn’s society girl Tracy Lord is convicted about getting persistent ex Dexter Have out of her life for good, which seems the prime motivation for her marriage to a person far less interesting and worldly than she is, but a pair of journalists crash the party undercover and hilarity and confusion, of course, ensue. But there’s no slapstick, and very little that’s implied rather than stated, so the whole thing doesn’t really gel with my sense of humor — but I relate to the complexity, some would say unnecessarily convolution, it wrings out of a very simple tale. And I enjoy the way it ultimately becomes a love letter to someone. Maybe to Hepburn herself; it’s hard to say, but the rings of truth in a drunken speech by Stewart’s Macaulay Connor seem to come from deep within the heart of someone someplace.

Cukor isn’t given a lot of freedom here, as per usual for an MGM project, but he injects a little subversion into the film’s simultaneous fixation upon and condescension toward the idle rich, a reflection of our times as much as the film’s own. It’s next to impossible to see the movie as a separate piece of art from its source material, which it never transcends in any but the most superficial fashion. Cukor was always regarded as a great director of actors, and here he does what he can and gets everyone working at top caliber for a script that would otherwise seem quite innocuous. The constant bemused look in Grant’s eyes is charming; this seems the closest he ever came to playing his wily, witty self instead of the baffled oaf of most of his comedies or the dark-edged heartthrob of his Hitchcock thrillers. Stewart’s tired skepticism netted him an Oscar, and though he maintained that he was miscast, he handles his performance magnificently, particularly the transition from seasoned journalist to a drunk man in a pool enchanted by his companion.

It’s probably also a reflection of Cukor’s own personality how much the film’s finale thumbs its nose at classicist values of the sort MGM normally would’ve upheld — here we have impulsive behavior and something akin to a three- or four-way relationship treated as if its sensual nuances are no big deal at all. This all comes out of the performers, again; their chemistry is magic, and if you watch the film chiefly to see Stewart, Grant, and Hepburn interact, you won’t be disappointed or anything less than enthralled, with Hussey an impressive bonus. Hepburn herself never lets us forget she’s the real star, the reason for the film’s existence, and her embodiment of this role is absolute, her fast-talking intelligence defining its own sort of movie romance with an individuality that resonates long, long after the film itself — which, talky as it is, is nevertheless an essential date-night romp.

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