First released on Boxing Day 1940, does The Philadelphia Story still look as wonderful at 75? Hannah Dunleavy took a look.
What and why: The multi-Oscar winning, stardust-sprinkled comedy was first released this week 75 years ago, only to be yanked from cinemas for a few months in case its all-round splendidness affected the ongoing run of the play on which it was based.
Telling the story of the (second) society wedding of Tracy Lord – and later remade as a musical, High Society – the film stars Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. FFS.
Rated or dated: I first saw The Philadelphia Story lying on the sofa sick. I was about 12. The delirium that accompanies the required level of sickness to actually get a day off school, the zingy dialogue and the sheer joyous spectacle of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant combined to create a feverish love of this film. I’d seen it twice since (although not in more than a decade) and had no qualms in calling it one of my favourites. And I say that in full awareness that it is a rom-com. Man, I detest rom-coms.
There’s really no getting round the fact that anything at 75 is going to be dated. This is a remarriage comedy after all; a peculiar quirk of the genre, necessary at a time when things like pre-marital sex and affairs didn’t exist. Or certainly not in cinemas.
“Any film that contains Grant and Stewart and someone dressed in a striped tie, a striped shirt and a striped suit is going to be so relentlessly charming it gives you face ache.”
I had readied myself but when, in the opening scene, Grant pulls a fake punch before pushing Hepburn to the ground (bdum-tsh!), I had a little panic, paused the film and thought about just letting someone else do it.
This, it transpires, would’ve been a mistake, because The Philadelphia Story manages to be wonderful – in spite of many of its faults.
All through it, there are things you would never get away with in a film in the 21st century. There’s an almost unrivalled commitment to laughing off bum-pinching. There’s an ongoing jokey fascination with domestic violence. There’s some comedy stylings with a horse that I’m certain were a result of lax animal labour laws, a tight budget and a short shooting schedule. (The film came in under budget and early, which probably explains why when one horse basically wanders out of shot taking another horse with it, they leave it in. See also Grant – here playing Tracy’s first husband CK Dexter Haven – laughing in a scene with Jimmy Stewart.)
There’s also that whole Taming of The Shrew business, with almost all the men in Tracy’s life keen to take her down a peg or two and most of that criticism being generally couched in terms of her being a woman. Her father even goes as far as to blame his extra-marital affair on his daughter’s attitude. So far, so not so feminist.
That said, Mike (Stewart), a frustrated writer who cons his way into the Lord house on the eve of the wedding, is the working man’s voice of the film (“This is the voice of doom. Your days are numbered.”) He doesn’t want to put Tracy (Hepburn) in her place as a woman; he wants to remind her of her place as a member of the privileged class. And it’s a lesson she’d be wise to learn.
Mike’s also got a photographer partner Liz (the brilliant Ruth Hussey) who’s all sorts of empowered, despite being not-so-secretly in love with him. She also has an array of wonderful hats, which is irrelevant, but cannot escape comment.
And then, of course, there’s Katharine Hepburn, who literally becomes a star in front of your eyes. Considered box-office poison before this film and a huge draw afterwards, Hepburn is everything here – funny, smart, bold and absolutely divine. And she does the vast majority of it in trousers. Amen to that.
“There’s that whole Taming of The Shrew business, with almost all of the men in Tracy’s life keen to take her down a peg or two and all of that criticism being generally couched in terms of her being a woman.”
Yes, that dialogue is sharp (and funnier than I remembered) but in the hands, or y’know, mouth, of Hepburn it positively sparkles. Her summary of English history as “Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper” makes me smile like a fool and I doubt any proposal has ever been turned down as well as it is here: “No. Because I don’t think Liz would like it. And I’m not sure you would. And I’m even a little doubtful about myself.” She also wears something brilliant and elf-like to the library. She is a literal joy to behold.
And yes, any film that contains Grant and Stewart and someone dressed in a striped tie, a striped shirt and a striped suit is going to be so relentlessly charming it gives you face ache.
But for me, it’s actually what happens in that scene in the library that proves this is Hepburn’s film. Hepburn and Grant (never with a pocket without a hand in it) have chemistry, you can see that in any of their films together. But Jimmy Stewart? Well, he could do a million things well, but he couldn’t do that. If you want to watch Jimmy Stewart have chemistry you have to watch The Philadelphia Story, because what he does here with Hepburn, he does nowhere else in his career.
My, she was yar. RATED.
Think you can carry off a hat like Katharine Hepburn? Read Bertie Bowen’s guide to dressing like Tracy Lord here.3724 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.