Criterion Review: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY Charms Anew on Blu-ray

Somehow, despite my longstanding affection for 1) Jimmy Stewart, B) Katherine Hepburn, and iii) Old movies where people talk really fast at each other and engage in hijinks of a romantic nature, I never managed to see The Philadelphia Story before now.

So thank you Criterion! Thank you for this gorgeous Blu-ray, now available, that lets you sink into the gorgeous black-and-white imagery of George Cukor’s madcap screwball comedy of lover musical chairs.

The Philadelphia Story opens with Hepburn’s heiress Tracy Lords calling it quits with her charming-but-soused husband, Cary Grant. Cut to a couple years later and Tracy is gearing up for another marriage, this time to new money drip George Kittredge (John Howard), in what is expected to be the social event of the season.

Enter Cary Grant. Y’see, Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven has been working for a tabloid magazine, and he’s got a scheme to sneak in some tabloid reporters to cover the wedding and sow a little chaos. Those reporters include Stewart as a cynic who cannot stop insisting upon his cynicism, and Ruth Hussey as Stewart’s stalwart photographer, Liz.

There are mistaken identities, there are schemes within schemes, and there are more scenes than you can count of Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart exchanging a machine-gun fire volume of insults at each other and anyone around them. The script is just endless home run after home run, and all in the cast line up to take their swings.

Stewart was notoriously unsatisfied with his performance, so much so that he took very little pride in his eventual Oscar for Best Actor. With all due respect to Mr. Stewart, it’s a bit hard to understand his hesitance with regards to his own skill. His Mike Connor is the perfect fit for Stewart: a sweetheart who can’t deny his innate decency and romanticism, no matter how much he insists otherwise. Stewart may be more well-known for his turns as the prototypical All-American everyman in various collaborations with Frank Capra, but The Philadelphia Story shows that he had a much wider range than that, laying the groundwork for the truly taboo-breaking work he would get up to with folks like Hitchcock, Ford, and Preminger.

If Stewart was challenging his own screen identity right as he was just starting to establish what that was, Grant was entrenched in his wheelhouse with the door locked. The Philadelphia Story is actually one of two movies that came out in 1940 in which Grant plays a cad so relentlessly lovable that he steals back an ex-wife from their fiancée on their wedding day (the other being the Howard Hawks masterpiece, His Girl Friday). And what’s wild is that you totally buy it! Grant simply exudes so much charisma out of his pores that you can’t help but love the guy, even when the first thing we see him do on camera is throw Hepburn face-first to the floor in the midst of a slapstick domestic spat. It helps that John Howard plays Kittredge as a truly historic-level douche, but it’s still a wonder to see Grant stroll the film and simply out-class everything and everyone around him.

As great as both of the men are, this is Hepburn’s show. Literally. The play that spawned The Philadelphia Story was written specifically for Hepburn, and she owned the rights to the story and was instrumental in the hiring of Cukor and her co-stars. Hepburn was coming off of a series of flops that had her labelled as box office poison, and the play and film both went a long way towards correcting that perception.

If Hepburn was at all worried about her career, it doesn’t come across. More than one character refers to Hepburn’s Tracy as being a goddess (not always as a compliment), and Cukor’s camera frames her as such. Tracy is the world around which all these bumbling and stumbling fools orbit. If The Philadelphia Story isn’t her finest turn in front of the camera (I’m personally partial to The African Queen, but that’s just me), it may be the single best showcase for why Hepburn remains such an indelible screen presence.

If there’s one element of The Philadelphia Story that will rile up a modern audience, it’s the same trap that so many other films about strong women (especially strong women played by Katherine Hepburn) fall into: They gotta put her in her place. The absolute nadir of this particular theme is a scene where Tracy’s father, who has been caught in an adulterous affair that has humiliated the family and split up his marriage, shows up unannounced at Tracy’s house and proceeds to deliver a lengthy speech about how it’s not really a man’s fault when he cheats, and in this specific case, it is specifically Tracy’s fault that he cheated.

There’s a kernel of a decent theme embedded in the heart of The Philadelphia Story (no one is perfect, accept and love people for their flaws), but that it is dramatized as poor Katherine Hepburn learning to roll over and let men act shitty towards her is very dispiriting (if not as nakedly, patronizingly displayed as in Woman of the Year). It’s especially galling since the whole “no one is perfect” theme never really gets turned around on the men. They don’t have to learn any lessons or change their behavior; Hepburn has to learn to forgive and forget all of it.

It’s probably wrong to critique a film that was made in 1940 for not complying with the gender politics of 2017, but it can’t help but be dispiriting that the underlying philosophy of a tart-tongued bit of candy like this is so glaringly broken. It doesn’t mean The Philadelphia Story doesn’t deserve to be a vaunted classic, it just means that there is more to the conversation than just, ‘Old movie, funny.’

As we have come to expect from Criterion, the Blu-ray for The Philadelphia Story is pristine. Cukor built a high society playground for his cast to inhabit, with crisp black and white contrasts, and the restoration gives the imagery a restored glow. The disc also comes loaded with special features, including rare interviews with Hepburn, a commentary track from film scholar Jeanine Basinger, as well as a documentary about the character and world of Tracy Lord.

Great as all these features are, the movie is more than enough to merit a buy. Delightful from the first, silent frames all the way to the giddy freeze frame that closes out the picture, The Philadelphia Story is an endless parade of charm.

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