The Philadelphia Story: Special Edition Review

One of the best romantic comedies to ever grace the screen, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ boasts the stellar cast of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart as well as a superlative technical team at work behind the camera. Nat Tunbridge reviews the excellent new 2-disk Special Edition from Warners.

What exactly does it mean when they say ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’? Usually it’s in reference to movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s, movies like ‘Casablanca’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or, indeed, ‘The Philadelphia Story’. As much as one feels that the statement has any validity (and I feel it does), I think it refers to a pretty complex combination of factors, including the power of the studio system, the comparatively limited (or localised, as in non-global) reach of the media in that period and the more parochial expectations audiences had of their ‘stars’ then, when they generally turned up to a James Stewart movie expecting to see much the same James Stewart they’d seen before, rather than a James Stewart who had lost four stone, grown a beard and learned ju-jitsu in order to play a rebel Tibetan monk. If I had to boil it down to one tangible quality, however, I’d have to say innocence. The so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hollywood occurred before the advent of mass-media marketing, GDP-sized budgets and obsessive audience testing. It’s not that performers of this era didn’t mug any less grossly than today or that there weren’t scads of terrible films, or that Hollywood was any less of a soulless, ruthless talent-gobbling machine. But the cinema was still a relatively new invention and the audience’s relationship with it had yet to be coarsened by repetition and betrayal. So films like ‘The Philadelphia Story’, even in their haphazardness and cliché, carry a sort of lovely scent with them, a whiff of something that is almost never detected in today’s multiplex: charm.

Following her divorce from alcoholic playboy C.K Dexter Haven (Grant), wealthy Pennsylvania socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is on the eve of her next wedding, to self-made businessman George Kittredge (Howard). Haven still has designs on her and tries to discredit the union by arranging for two reporters from Spy magazine to be invited to the Lord family home: struggling writer Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey). The two hapless journalists are pulled into a sequence of acid exchanges involving C.K, Tracy, her younger sister Dinah (Weidler) and Uncle Willie (Young). That evening, Tracy is forced to confront aspects of herself she has always denied and, during a long party, finds herself strongly attracted to the secretly sensitive Macaulay. As the day of the wedding dawns, Tracy has to choose which of the three men she will spend the rest of her life with…

Wealthy, high-spirited, sporty, upper class young socialite… the role of Tracy Samantha Lord could have been written for Hepburn… and it was! Philip Barry originally wrote the stage play ‘The Philadelphia Story’ for Hepburn and it was a huge success, helping return her star to the ascendant after a period in which she’d been deemed ‘box office poison’. Hepburn’s lover Howard Hughes bought her the film rights allowing her considerable control of the forthcoming movie project, though not enough to get her choice of leading men: she wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, she got Cary Grant and James Stewart – hardly a bum deal. Cukor had already worked with Hepburn and Grant (and on an Ogden Stuart/Barry piece, no less) in ‘Holiday’ so was a natural choice to direct and Joe Mankiewicz came in to produce. How could it fail?

Well, it doesn’t. In fact ‘The Philadelphia Story’ succeeds on just about every level. The way in which the idle rich of Philadelphia manipulate the less-well heeled into being audiences for their grandiose personal dramas – as if they are incapable of even swapping barbs without witnesses – is immaculately drawn. The film is also quite daring for 1940, intimating Grant’s alcoholism and Hepburn’s frigidity. The way these issues are referred to indirectly – even poetically – is quite fascinating. It’s another one of those instances where having to work in a much more censorious age forced the film-makers to employ ingenious methods to get their points across, with sometimes bewitching results.

It’s also an example of perfect casting, Grant as the suave and smarmy divorcee, Stewart as the chippy writer with the hidden poet’s heart and Hepburn as the icy socialite heading for a fall. Don’t think the terrific cast ends with the three leads; there isn’t a dull or ill-starred performer anywhere, standouts being Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s precocious younger sister Dinah and Roland Young as the amorous and amoral Uncle Willie. British actor Henry Daniell’s deliciously acidic tones also grace the film in an early scene, in his appearance as the publisher Sidney Kidd.

Most importantly, it’s extremely funny. There are many utterly brilliant exchanges in ‘The Philadelphia Story’, sometimes almost surreally dry. For instance, early in the film Grant enters the office of Sidney Kidd, publisher of sleazy Hello! predecessor Spy magazine; he regards him coldly:

KIDD: ‘I understand we understand each other.’

C.K: ‘Quite.’

Or when Grant meets Hepburn for the first time with her current fiancée, George Kittredge:

C.K: You should have stuck to me longer.

TRACY: I thought it was for life but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.

Or when Grant approaches Hepburn and Stewart, who are taking breakfast before a swim:

C.K: Orange juice? Certainly.

TRACY: Don’t tell me you’ve forsaken your beloved whiskey and whiskeys?

Or when Liz calls at C.K’s house to fetch McAuley, who is drunkenly forcing C.K to type a letter to Kidd:

LIZ: We’ve come for the body of McAuley Connor.

C.K: Can you use a typewriter?

LIZ: No thanks, I have one at home.

And so on. It’s just terrific, spot-on dialogue, perfectly delivered. Hepburn’s extraordinary voice, which makes one think of purring cats, burnt treacle and polished wood, lilts archly throughout the film. With Grant’s famously ironic tones and Stewart’s Pennsylvanian drawl thrown into the mix, the three leads weave a kind of hypnotic music simply through talking. This film is a delight.

Special Features

Disk 1
On the first disk there’s a commentary track by Film Historian Jeannine Basinger, Awards and a Cukor Trailer Gallery.

The Commentary by Jeannine Basinger is informative, well-researched and rather lacking in spontaneity. Basinger reads from prepared notes but at least makes the effort – unlike some similarly academic commentators I’ve heard – to match her comments roughly to what’s happening on screen. She gives her own insights into the nature of the film and its characters, the studio system of which it was a product and the Hollywood world of glamour of which it was a part. Obviously she’s very well informed and provides a lot of background to the film, taking the major players and departments (cinematography, wardrobe etc) and providing potted histories to the individuals involved. She also relays quotes from the period, Cukor on Hepburn, Hussey on Grant and so forth. There are also behind-the-scenes stories (I didn’t know that Stewart’s hiccupping during his ‘drunk’ scene with Grant was improvised, as was Grant’s response). Not all of this commentary is interesting, but Basinger’s genuine passion and love for the film is apparent.

The Cukor Trailer Gallery is actually quite a neat idea. As its name suggests, it presents trailers for Cukor’s titles. These obviously represent the style of the period in which they were released. I love the histrionic tone and dramatic captions of trailers of this period: ‘A new sensation of sheer loveliness glorifies the screen!’ and so on. There are trailers for ‘Dinner at Eight’, ‘Little Women’, ‘The Women’, ‘The Philadelphia Story, ‘Gaslight’, ‘Adam’s Rib’, ‘Pat and Mike’, ‘A Star is Born’, ‘Les Girls’ and ‘My Fair Lady’. The latter is quite extraordinary, lasting nearly quarter of an hour and effectively acting as a mini-documentary of the film. The trailers seem to have been cleaned up by the same process as the main feature, and look generally very good.

Awards lists the awards ‘Philadelphia’ won, which amounts to a Best Actor Oscar for James Stewart, a Best Screenplay Oscar for Donald Ogden Stewart and a New York Film Critics Best Actress award for Katharine Hepburn (Cukor would have to wait until 1965 before he’d get his Oscar, for ‘My Fair Lady’).

Disk 2
Here’s where the bulk of the extras are. There’s a Katherine Hepburn documentary, a George Cukor documentary, the short Robert Benchley film That Inferior Feeling, the cartoon The Homeless Flea and two audio-only radio adaptations of ‘The Philadelphia Story’.

Katharine Hepburn: All About Me – A Self Portrait is a rarity among the biographical documentaries I’ve seen on DVD. It hurtles through the circumstances of Hepburn’s life at breakneck speed, taking in her childhood, parents, early appearances in plays, break into movies and rise to stardom. What makes it different is that Hepburn herself, at age 85, narrates and hosts it. Its format is a mixture of direct-to-camera comments, footage of her household routine (which covers a lot) and flashbacks to her grand career, illustrated with photos and excerpts from her many films. At an hour and ten minutes, this is in its way a remarkable extra, a real testament to the talent and individuality of this extraordinary woman.

The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor is an interesting documentary, one of a series made by US film critic Richard Schickel on leading Hollywood directors of this period (others included Alfred Hitchcock). Narrated by Sydney Pollack, it’s short – in fact, microscopic – on Cukors’ personal history and long on his films, from ‘What Price Hollywood’ in 1932 to ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1964. There’s footage of Cukor from the 70s talking about his films, interspersed with plentiful excerpts. I was a bit disappointed that in certain areas – his sacking by Selznick when he’d started directing ‘Gone With the Wind’, for instance – we didn’t get to hear more from him directly, but at just under an hour, this is still a worthwhile extra.

The short That Inferior Feeling is a curiosity, a comedic look at the condition of baseless guilt. It’s got a few laughs and gives a good impression of the kind of thing movie goers might have seen preceding ‘The Philadelphia Story’ at the time of the film’s original release, but doesn’t give a real taste of the often brilliant humour its star, the actor, writer, sometime Vanity Fair editor and full-time Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley, was capable of. It lasts just over nine minutes.

The Homeless Flea further adds to the full MGM bill experience, a colour cartoon that lasts an impressive seven minutes.

The two radio programs are both broadcasts of ‘The Philadephia Story’ from 1942 and 1947 respectively, featuring the four leads and much of the original cast reading the script in front of live studio audiences. These are actually quite fun to listen to, especially the interplay between the leads. The sound quality of the first is a bit rough.

Given the film is 65 years old, this is a very good looking picture, for the most part sharp, clean and with decent black levels. Leading MGM cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg paints light over these beautiful people to make them look divine and
Warners has done a good job of cleaning up his work for this release, although no image restoration comparison featurette is included on the DVD. It’s not perfect – at times it betrays instability and wobble and there are some print marks – but it’s the best presentation of the film I’ve ever seen and a real delight if you’ve only ever seen it in dodgy TV broadcasts or on video.

The film’s age precludes any fanciness in the audio department, but the driving force of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ is dialogue and this is all clearly audible on the one and only soundtrack, which is English mono. Franz Waxman’s brilliant score comes across clearly when it’s used, which isn’t very often.

Richard Curtis’ sole directorial effort carried the unbelievably arrogant tagline ‘The Ultimate Romantic Comedy’. Such an appellation could, in contrast, truthfully be applied to ‘The Philadelphia Story’. The casting is perfect, the script dazzles and the chemistry between the leads could hardly be bettered. This multifaceted DVD from Warners really does justice to this wonderful film and is a required purchase.

Nat Tunbridge

Updated: Apr 20, 2005

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