The Philadelphia Story is a classic film, a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who won an Oscar for it. The romantic comedy bit: Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a member of one of Philadelphia’s swankiest families, is about to remarry, but her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant, smuggles into the house party a reporter (Stewart) and photographer (played by Ruth Hussey) from the gossip magazine Spy, to get his own back on his ex-wife. It’s a fine film and I’d be completely happy to watch it again tomorrow.
The film is adapted from a play by Philip Barry that Hepburn also starred in, and it relaunched her then becalmed Hollywood career. The reason she’s surrounded by bankable leading actors is that Warners was trying to insure the success of the film, as it were.
Much of the comedy comes from the contrast from Hepburn’s high life (the musical remake is called High Society) and the more mundane worlds of Stewart and Hussey, where people actually have to worry about details like money. This is New Deal humour, with Stewart a year on from his breakthrough movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and arguably some of the earlier character washes through into Philadelphia Story. Either way, he and Hussey stand in for the audience in the face of the lavish wealth that’s on display in the story.
The script by Donald Ogden Stewart purrs along; the plot is tightly constructed; and the story is about climbing down off the pedestal and learning to live with human frailty.
A couple of moments. The first is in the office of Spy magazine, as reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey) are summoned to the publisher’s office to be given the assignment and to meet Dexter Haven. Just because it says a lot about both character and the relationship of the two characters. Here’s the script; it doesn’t seem to be online as a clip.
The second, as Hepburn unfurls the wedding present that Cary Grant has left for her, a scale model of the boat he’s built that they’d sailed together when newly married. The scene tells you everything you need to know about the triangle between Hepburn and her past and future husbands.
The sequence that plays out between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn just before the wedding ceremony at the end of the film (spoiler, but the link is here) was clearly filed away by the screenwriter Richard Curtis at some point, since a version pops up in Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
The poster at the top of the post is via Wikimedia.