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Philadelphia Story, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Meets even its lead's high standards."
5 stars

"The Philadelphia Story" is darn-near perfect, a breezy romantic comedy from an era when such films were appreciated as more than simply disposable entertainment - it was nominated for and received several Academy Awards, and it may have deserved more. A part of me doesn't think it ends with the right pairings (or, indeed, that it needed to finish with pairing-off), but any disappointment I felt over the last couple minutes is of small magnitude, not nearly enough to tip the balance against the joy brought by the previous hundred and ten.

Two years ago, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had an acrimonious divorce. Now Tracy intends to marry George Kittredge (Josh Howard), a very serious former coal miner who worked his way to upper management, the polar opposite of the well-born and laid-back Haven. As the Lord family is one of the northeast's most prominent, Spy magazine wants pictures and a story from the wedding. To that end, they intend to send writer Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) in undercover - introduced by Haven, who will claim they are friends of Tracy's brother, an ambassador to a South American country who cannot make it back to the wedding. Tracy, being no dummy, twigs to the plot almost immediately, and has no interest in making their job easy.

Donald Odgen Stewart has famously claimed that the screenplay for The Philadelphia Story was the easiest money he ever earned, since there was nothing about Philip Barry's original play, which also starred Hepburn during its year-long run on Broadway, that needed changing. Whether that's true or false modesty, the film is filled with fast-paced, funny banter, opportunities for characters to steal scenes, and earnest observations on how relationships can fall apart. Director George Cukor and his cast take this material and fashion a movie whose comedy stops just short of zany (except when zany is really called for), but which can quickly take things down a notch to make sure the characters are taken seriously.

This is probably my favorite Katharine Hepburn performance; she tears her way across the screen like a regal tornado, spitting out lines like fireworks going off to either charm the audience or cut at those who don't meet her high standards. Tracy Lord comes from a rich family and while Hepburn lets us see that Tracy is often nave about the world outside her estate, she's not spoiled or stupid. She's so confident and used to being confident that doubt becomes horror, and when both her ex-husband and husband-to-be describe her as rigid and difficult to keep close, the hurt on her face stops the movie in a way that makes the audience realize the words are both true and terribly unfair.

Cary Grant gets top billing, although James Stewart is the one who does the most. Stewart's Mac is a sort of lower-class snob, predisposed toward seeing the rich as useless idlers and none too fond of the job of chronicling their idling. He's got an awkward voice and mannerisms to match his haircut, and where Hepburn's Tracy has her rough edges smoothed off when the champagne is flowing at a party the night before her wedding, Mac's are brought into sharp relief. Grant, meanwhile, is smooth and polished throughout, so much so that it's seldom surprising to see him just hanging around the Lord manor even when there's no real logical reason for him to be there. Scratch the surface a bit, and there is some new-found humility beneath his slick exterior, even if there is a bit of bitterness too.

Groom-to-be Kittredge doesn't stand a chance, but then, it's not like their wedding was ever about Tracy and George, anyway. Josh Howard does all right in the thankless role of the man too bland for the interesting girl to marry. The cast is full of people who are much more fun, such as Virginia Wiedler as Tracy's precocious little sister, just bratty enough to take the edge off any potential overdose of sweetness that may appear. The film could probably get a little more use out of Ruth Hussey, who has some nice banter with Stewart at the beginning but inevitably sees her role shrink to that of second prize.

That's what makes the end somewhat awkward; it makes sense in retrospect but it's a bit of a swerve. It's sweet, though, and it's tough not to be affected by the breathless joy Katharine Hepburn is projecting. Besides, if the previous hour and a half hasn't made some impression on you about forgiving the impressions of that which is otherwise great...

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11014&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/15/07 12:39:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/05/20 Suzanne absolutely perfect 5 stars
11/04/18 Anne very mixed 2 stars
7/21/07 gr117 Ha! I love the blurb at the top. 5 stars
3/27/07 MP Bartley Overrated, but the 3 stars are terrific. 4 stars
2/18/07 Nick Maday This is one of my favorite Cary Grant movies, and easily my favorite of his comedies. 5 stars
10/24/04 Tom Ciorciari Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn dazzle, but just watch Jimmy Stewart! 5 stars
10/07/04 tatum Funny enough screwball comedy, great cast 4 stars
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  DVD: 01-Mar-2005



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