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Sophisticated comedy of manners

by Brian Bromberger

Sophisticated comedy of manners

Alluring and luminous are not words usually associated with Katharine Hepburn, who for much of the 1930s projected a tomboyish image complete with her at-the-time scandalous insistence on wearing pants. After a series of box office flops (including two films now considered classics, "Holiday" and "Bringing Up Baby"), she was declared "box office poison" in 1938. Licking her wounds, she retreated to Broadway and triumphed in Philip Barry's play "The Philadelphia Story." Hepburn, assisted by her beau at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the screen rights. She cast herself in the lead, and hired her favorite director, the gay George Cukor. Cukor was also in somewhat of a career slump, having just been fired from "Gone With the Wind." Hepburn had wanted Clark Gable and Gary Cooper for the male leads, but they were unavailable, so she settled for Cary Grant (the fourth and final time they teamed together) and James Stewart. She had noted author Donald Ogden Stewart pen the witty screenplay.

"Philadelphia Story" is a sophisticated comedy of manners featuring a subset favorite genre of the period, divorced couples possibly reuniting. The film was a huge popular and critical hit, revitalizing Hepburn's career as Hollywood's chief leading lady. She never looked lovelier, an implied rebuke to David Selznick's assertion that she couldn't play Scarlett O'Hara because she lacked sex appeal. "Philadelphia Story" has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion in a glorious new 4K digital restoration, and with some minor criticisms retains its quirky charm almost eight decades later.

Tracy Lord (Hepburn), from a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line family, is set to marry nouveau riche George Kittredge (John Howard) in the wedding of the year. Two years previously she had divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a yacht designer, because he drank too much. He went to work for Spy magazine in Argentina. He returns for the wedding a recovered alcoholic and cedes to Spy publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell)'s request to help smuggle in two Spy reporters, Macauley "Mike" Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to cover the nuptials by introducing them as friends of Junius, Tracy's diplomatic brother. Tracy sees through the ruse, but because Kidd has proof of her father's affair with a dancer, to avoid scandal, she allows Mike and Liz to stay. After reading Mike's book of short stories, Tracy becomes friendlier towards him. The night before the wedding in a famous episode, both Tracy and Mike get drunk, resulting in an innocent midnight swim. With Dexter scheming behind the scene, George assumes they are having an affair and breaks off the engagement minutes before the wedding. Tracy decides she must go through with it, but whom will she marry, Mike or Dexter?

For all its comic hijinks, "Philadelphia Story" also exhibits biting social commentary, skewering snobbery of every kind, whether it be poor against rich, rich against poor, highbrow vs. popular taste, and self-righteousness opposing human imperfection, while dealing with such controversial topics of the day as infidelity, class conflicts, and tabloid journalism.

The film was nominated for six Oscars and won two: Stewart's screenplay and Best Actor James Stewart. Stewart was very good, but not as great as fellow nominees Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath" or Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator." Stewart's victory was seen as a consolation prize for not winning the year before, as the idealistic Senator in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a brilliant performance, losing to Robert Donat in "Goodbye Mr. Chips." Hepburn was nominated, but lost to Ginger Rogers in "Kitty Foyle." The acting is impressive all around, and Hussey's poignant unrequited love for Stewart netted her a Supporting Actress Oscar nod. But Hepburn shines with both Grant and Stewart, which is not to dismiss the subtle homoerotic chemistry between Grant and Stewart.

As we've come to expect, Criterion has added some excellent special edition features, including a new 22-minute documentary, "In Search of Tracy Lord," about the real-life origins of the character and her social milieu, with Barry scholar Donald Anderson, and Barry granddaughter Miranda Barry arguing that she was based on a composite of popular socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, Barry's wife Ellen, and Hepburn herself. Another new 19-minute piece analyzes Hepburn's role in the development of the film with filmmakers David Heeley and Joan Kramer, who produced several documentaries and books on her. Another supplement, almost worth the price alone, are two full episodes of "The Dick Cavett Show" from 1973 featuring rare TV interviews with Hepburn.

In "The Philadelphia Story," the judgmental Tracy (her mother in the film says, "She sets exceptionally high standards for herself, and other people aren't apt to live up to them") is cut down to size as she realizes her own weaknesses. Perhaps that is why the less haughty Tracy Lord remains many people's favorite Hepburn performance, though a feminist analysis might not be so laudatory. In the initial flashback scene, Grant pushes Hepburn to the floor after she breaks his favorite golf club. Then her philandering Uncle Willy goes around pinching women's asses. Both of these actions will rightfully raise #MeToo eyebrows, though Hepburn seems more than capable of handling herself in a patriarchal world on her own terms. While remaining the exemplar independent woman from 1940 on, Hepburn seems less abrasive. "Philadelphia Story" was rated #51 on the list of greatest 20th Century American films by the American Film Institute. This movie, in spite of its gender-role shortcomings, deserves to be remembered as one of the high marks in Hollywood's Golden studio era.

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