Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Director: George Cukor                                Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart
Film Score: Franz Waxman                          Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and John Howard

One of the most popular screwball comedies of the era, it makes a lot of sense considering the star power of the cast, the A-list director, and a script based on a hit play. And, of course, The Philadelphia Story delivers. Written specifically for Hepburn by playwright Philip Barry, it’s the story of a rich socialite, Hepburn, whose ex-husband, Cary Grant, has made a deal with a newspaper man to burry an embarrassing story about her father, as long as Grant can get his star reporter, Jimmy Stewart, inside the house for her wedding to John Howard. What begins as a simple deception, quickly turns into class conflict as the working class, white-collar Stewart is disgusted by Hepburn’s wealth and apparent superficiality.

The story is really about the self-realization of Hepburn’s character after hearing the same thing from several different people in her life. One of the startling things about the film is seeing Stewart, Hepburn and Grant together in one film. It almost isn’t big enough to contain all of them. Cukor probably had his greatest triumph in this film, and it was none too soon. Difficult to work with, in 1939 alone he’d been tossed off of both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, as well as having been fired from half a dozen other earlier films in his career. Though he had a knack for getting Oscar-winning performances out of actors, twenty different actors winning the Academy Award in his films. A solid supporting cast is on hand as well, with Henry Daniell as a vicious newspaper editor, John Howard as Hepburn’s fiancé, Ruth Hussey as Stewart's fellow reporter and hopeful love interest, and the perky Virginia Weidler as Hepburn’s little sister. In addition, Franz Waxman's Gershwinesque score complements things rather nicely.

Grant has the least to do of all the stars in the film, but it’s still a vital role. Stewart’s performance is almost a template for his later turn as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Hepburn, on the other hand, is Kate, just as she always would be, strong, irascible, and confrontational. It’s an odd film, with the love triangle taking a long time to unwind. Then, with the undercurrent of class conflict flowing beneath, it threatens to topple the impact of the primary plot. Still, there’s an unmistakable charm to the whole exercise that can’t be explained. The humor is genuine, the pathos is pretty realistic, and none of it seems forced. In the end it’s a perfect marriage, so to speak, of all the elements of good comedy and romance, and while not nearly as madcap as many screwball comedies of the time, The Philadelphia Story is all the better for it.

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