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The Philadelphia Story

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on April 14, 2010

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

Holy crap, everyone! I started using my Netflix account again, and I watched an old movie to review like I set out to when I originally made this blog. Amazing, right? I promise, I’m going to be more diligent with this again. Besides, I want to feel like I’m not wasting all this money on my Netflix account and just letting these DVDs sit. Now let’s get on with the classicy goodness!

First, some background! It was adapted from the 1939 Broadway play of the same name, written by Phillip Barry, and the screenplay was expertly written by Donald Ogden Stewart, with the help of the uncredited–and later blacklisted–Waldo Salt (After the blacklist was lifted, Salt won an Oscar for both Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, and was nominated for Serpico). It was directed by George Cukor, director of such films as Adam’s Rib (which I actually have seen a long time ago, so it probably won’t be reviewed anytime soon), Gaslight (which is on my list) and My Fair Lady (a classic musical that you all should at least recognize). And this is where I shall veer off into another ramble, of sorts: I would wager that if I were to ask the majority of the people reading to name five classic Hollywood directors, they would come up short. This is a travesty, and I will not tolerate it! When picking out my films, I didn’t look at the name “George Cukor” with a cocked head and a knotted brow; rather, I exclaimed, “Oh yeah, George Cukor!” and happily added films to my list. This is because I was fortunate enough to have a film studies department at my university, and I took the opportunity to get a film major while there. Yes, plenty of people know a ton about classic films, including their stars, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc., without the help of a film studies background; however, too many people, especially amongst today’s youth, know tragically little about this golden age of cinema. And when Alfred Hitchcock, whom I adore, is the only classic director that someone can name… well, a special kind of rage starts to boil within my blood. This plays into why I created this blog: just because a film is “old” and in black and white, doesn’t mean the film isn’t spectacular! You simply cannot appreciate the films of today without appreciate the films of yesterday.

*Takes a deep breath* Back to this particular classic. If you were to look up “classic romantic comedy”, this film would be the defining example. It is on most lists of “Top Romantic Comedies”, often featured at the #1 spot. There is, of course, a reason for this: the formula for this film just plain works. It has many elements of screwball comedy without being absurd and overstated, which is where screwball often leads. The film is about an upper-class woman embarking on her second marriage, after having divorced her charming, yet troubled, first husband. Her soon-to-be second husband is not from the upper-crust, but made his money on his own. People are, of course, obsessed with the upper class and their marriages, so, naturally, Spy Magazine wants to cover the story and sends a journalist and photographer, who happen to be a couple, on an undercover mission. This is another ploy that is simply meant to complicate the situation for the bride-to-be, as Spy was tipped off by her ex-husband. Naturally, this leads to a whole mix of romantic complications that occur right before the new wedding (the female lead’s second) is to take place. This sort of theme is the old Hollywood workaround for ‘extramarital affairs’, which were banned by the classic Hays Code (or Production Code) of 1930. I trust that when I get into the cast, you’ll see why there are various conflicts and you’ll get that while I’m sort of spoiling elements of the film, I’m not really spoiling them. The premise is a bit silly in certain ways, but it’s really the snark and the humour that makes the film pop.

George Cukor is a director who clearly knows how to handle sharp-tongued, quick-witted characters. In fact, Cukor was known for a particular ‘specialty’: he was known as the “woman’s director” because of his ability to coax great performances out of his female cast members (he ironically directed more Best Actor Performances–including one in this film–than many other directors at the time). Cukor is largely the reason why the name Katharine Hepburn rings a bell: she was first cast in his film, A Bill of Divorcement, and while RKO had no idea what to do with her, Cukor knew EXACTLY how to use her in his films. This is made quite obvious in The Philadelphia Story, which is ever so much Kate’s film, and yet, is not. She has some stiff competition from photographer Elizabeth Imbrie, played excellently by Ruth Hussey. Her relationship with journalist Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) broke my heart, though. For such a strong, sharp-tongued woman, she certainly gave him a lot of wiggle room. But she has her fair share of great lines and moments in the film, and she riffs off the men just as well as Tracy Lord (Kate) does, if not sometimes better. The other female character that people talk about is Tracy’s kid sister, Dinah, played by Virginia Weilder, but I was not at all fond of this character. I get that she was SUPPOSED to be ridiculously over-the-top in various sequences, but she really bugged me. I’d hate my little sister if she acted like that. Honestly, it seemed like she really had it in for Tracy.

And now more about the cast! I have not yet mentioned the other star of this film, and the mere mention of his name basically spoils the whole relationship plot. That person is… Cary Grant. For anyone who has ever seen a Cary Grant film in practically any genre, you know that he is the man who gets the girl. I can’t even think of a comparable actor today, other than maybe George Clooney, but he doesn’t have the same thing going for him that Grant did. I love George Clooney, too, but there is no one like Cary Grant. Well, there are no stars like the classic stars, but I’m just depressing myself at this point. Anyway, I had gone into this movie pretty confused. I thought it was a clear love triangle set-up between Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant (playing the snobbishly-name C. K. Dexter Haven, Tracy’s ex-husband) and James Stewart… but Tracy’s husband-to-be was none of the above! She was set to marry George Kittredge, played by John Howard. How confusing! And poor George. He does turn out to be a man who is a little less than lovable, but he’s hardly a bad guy. He’s essentially the straight man who gets walked all over in order to set up the inevitable pairing of our main stars (which is why this is “comedy of remarriage” kind of film). Howard definitely played the part well. I will have to say, though, that for a Cary Grant movie, it was surprisingly somewhat lacking in Cary Grant. Not only that, but I haven’t seen many James Stewart films where he’s in a comedic role instead of dramatic, and I have to say that I absolutely ADORED him in this role. The Academy did, too, as he won a Best Actor Oscar for the part. This film is worth watching if only for the Jimmy scenes.

Do I recommend this film? Absolutely yes. There’s a reason why this is a classic, and why it’s on many “top film” lists, not only for Rom-Coms but for all film. I will say that I was quite… shocked and amused by some of what went on in the film. Being “loose” thanks to alcohol, even if you’re a woman, was apparently something fairly common and forgivable. And there was a bit of manhandling of Kate that happened right in the beginning that later was joked about (I know I always find “wifebeating humour” to be the best kind). Clearly this all fell in line with the times, but it’s interesting to watch it from today’s viewpoint on such issues. At the same time, I didn’t find the film to be particularly dated (more so than normal)– many of the relationship elements and comedic situations are totally recognizable within films today. And while you may feel somewhat spoiled by my review, I’m telling you that the film is very much so still worth watching. It’s clear how the plot will eventually work out for anyone who has ever seen classic films, but getting there is obviously what makes it fun. The performances re fabulous, the directing is basically perfect, and the screenplay (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar screenplay, might I add) is greatness. This is definitely a classic film that you SHOULD see. The Library of Congress even agrees!

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3 Responses to “The Philadelphia Story”

  1. Serryl said

    I don’t normally go for romance movies of any kind due to most of them being excessively sappy or cloying or unoriginal. However, this sounds like a fresh story (ironic for a classic movie). I’ll try to pick it up sometime. Thanks for getting back to the classic reviews 🙂

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      That’s the thing about classic rom-coms: they really aren’t like the schlock that Hollywood churns out these days. I said that there are elements from this film that are recognizable in the rom-coms of today, but I’m not really saying that they are of the same caliber. Not to say that no modern rom-com can be good– When Harry Met Sally is a great example of a modern romantic comedy, and is certainly far better than any of the typical rom-coms that dominate the box office these days. A number of classic romantic comedies are also considered good or great films in general, not just within that genre. This is one of those films :).

      Anyway, I am glad that you’re willing to give it a chance! I really hope you like it, especially since you had to be convinced just a bit into seeing it :P.

  2. […] Back In The Day Way back in the day, when things were simple, and there was far less to bitch about. « The Philadelphia Story […]

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