The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Starring: Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, John Halliday
Directed by: George Cukor
Released by: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Synopsis: Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) is about to marry George Kittredge (John Howard). Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is sent to cover their wedding, and brings his comrades Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) with him. But what they don’t realize is that Tracy may still have feelings for Dexter, while Mike may be falling in love with her.
Review: The Philadelphia Story is one of the first films that I saw when I started this classic film experiment. Not only that, it was the first Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart film that I saw and immediately fell in love with these great performers, inspiring me to further investigate their careers and learn more about them.
Cary Grant is magnificent as Dexter Haven, the bitter divorcee who seeks to ruin his ex’s life on her wedding day. Despite the apparent bitterness Grant plays the role very well, being funny, believable and a gentleman above all. There are some very un-PC moments (like the opening scene involving a face shove), but Grant plays them to great strength.
Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Haven is a great character that is very familiar to her to great finesse as an actress. Like Grant’s character there’s a subtle anger and frustration in her that shows up through her awkward encounters with the characters, ultimately revealing a woman that is dissatisfied with her life but too proud to admit it.
Finally there’s James Stewart as Mike Connor. Like in most of his famous roles, he plays the well intentioned, shy man who is able to win the heart of the main character. Even then, his character has an edge to him like the rest of the cast. Shy at first, there are many scenes that show us what he truly thinks. Stewart proves once more than regarding the film or the character he plays he can be grand and dramatic or subtle and enjoyable. The Philadelphia Story showcases the actor’s both talents in a performance that manages to be familiar for Stewart fans but at the same time different from anything he had done before.
The chemistry between the three performers is great. The Philadelphia Story is a love triangle story, and you believe that the two men are secretly in love with the same woman. Both Grant and Hepburn had appeared in other movies together such as “Bringing up Baby” and “Holiday”, and the chemistry created in both of these films is carried over to Philadelphia Story. The two actors play off each other very well, regardless if the characters are expressing love or subtle indignation.
The chemistry between Stewart and Hepburn, however, is slightly different, but works for the type of role he is in. There is a clear difference between Stewart’s earnest and Hepburn’s determination, and Philadelphia Story pulls it off. I enjoyed their time together on-screen and believed that Hepburn’s character was truly in love with these men, but didn’t know how to handle it.
The rest of the cast also shines through, despite the presence of these three great talents. Ruth Hussey as Liz Imbrie plays her character well, despite being a secondary character. She is Mike Connor’s love interest, and like the three main characters she too has complex feelings of love that doesn’t quite know how to express while trying to remain professional throughout. John Halliday as Seth (Tracy’s Father) is very solid as well, giving us one of the best lines in the entire movie, effectively summarizing Tracy as a character and creating the film’s message. My favorite of all the supporting characters, though, is Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord. She is hilarious, presenting us her thoughts on her family’s ordeals in a precocious and even mean spirited manner.
My only issue with the film is that some of the acting feels a tad stiff and much rehearsed, often giving us unnatural characters that can be hard to relate too. This being a comedy of errors the plot can get convoluted, forcing us to try and follow a couple of stories, often in the same scene. Finally, The Philadephia Story just isn’t that romantic. Yes, there are a couple of scenes where we see Tracy lusting over her past loves, but the movie spends its time showing us how much these characters hate each other. It doesn’t ruin the overall movie, mind you, thanks to some fantastic writing and wonderful performances. Just don’t come in expect a romantic love story. This is all about how pride can lead to breakups and how awkward these feelings can be.
Regardless, The Philadelphia story is a magnificent film with some incredible talent behind it. All three lead actors get to strut both their comedic and dramatic skills while the supporting cast gets to have fun with them. It might not be romantic enough for some audiences, but the talent this film features is more than enough to create an enjoyable evening at the movies.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5