Based on the 1939 play by Philip Barry, adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and an uncredited Waldo Salt, The Philadelphia Story is a high point for three Hollywood legends–Cary Grant (Operation Petticoat), Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and James Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life)–and a showcase for the era’s sophisticated elegance. George Cukor was the was the perfect choice to direct, having shown he had an eye for style and wit with earlier films including Dinner at Eight and The Women. Like those films, The Philadelphia Story exists in world that for most people is a fantasy. Everyone looks stylish, is quick with a joke and graced with a flair for the dramatic. Much of the excellence of The Philadelphia Story lies in the verbal sparring between characters, always quick, often witty, sometimes angry, occasionally tinged with sadness.
The film begins with a silent prologue, that attests to the bitter end of the marriage between wealthy socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) and her equally affluent husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant). While Dexter shoves Tracy to the ground during the melee, the incident I’d infused with enough forties style slapstick to avoid becoming uncomfortable. Fast forward two years and Tracy is set to wed again. The groom-to-be George Kittredge (John Howard), is not a blue blood, but a man who earned his wealth and has high social and political aspirations. George is a nice fellow to be sure but being new to the lifestyle George can’t keep up with those in his new social circle (George can’t properly mount a horse). How can he be expected to contend with the likes of Dexter, or more to the point Cary Grant?
Dexter surprises everyone by showing up at the Lord estate uninvited. He’s brought along writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) from Spy Magazine to cover the event, under the guise of being friends of Tracy’s brother. Tracy isn’t fooled, but the publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) threatens to run a story about her father’s adultery if she doesn’t allow the magazine to cover the nuptials.
Though the ending is never in doubt, there is real joy in getting there. Part of George Cukor’s brilliance is in his ability to get the most out of every comedic moment, choreographing each character’s entry and exit for maximum impact. Aided by a smart and witty script (screenwriter David Ogden Stewart took home an Oscar for his work), the illustrious cast can shine. Philip Barry had written the part of Tracy Lord specifically for Katharine Hepburn, a part she played on stage first. Amid all the conflict, Hepburn infuses Tracy with a quirkiness that gains our sympathy even as she makes a mess of things. Though Hepburn had originally wanted Clark Gable, Cary Grant is a wonderful sparring partner for her. He clearly embraces the role of charming cad. Newly sober, he knows what he wants, and his intentions are clear. Like Grant, James Stewart got the role of Mike Connor only after the first choice (Spencer Tracy) had declined. Unlike the rest of the cast though, he took home an Oscar for his efforts as an average Joe among the idle rich. Mike’s obvious disdain for those around him offers Stewart a rare chance to show a more acerbic side of his personality, rarely seen up to this point in his career.
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is a strong one. I wondered if standards would have to be comprised considering the original camera negative was destroyed in a 1978 fire. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like concern was warranted. Image detail is sharp throughout and contrast is impressive. A nice level of fine grain really makes the whole presentation pop. There are no noticeable flaws.
The linear PCM Mono track effectively reproduces the audio as it was originally intended. It’s sharp and clean, but rather flat by today’s standards. Mixed well, it delivers clean and concise dialogue. Franz Waxman’s score sounds straightforward, if not particularly exciting.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- 2004 Audio Commentary with Film Scholar Jeanine Basinger
- In Search of Tracy Lord (HD, 22:09) Filmed exclusively for Criterion in 2017, this new documentary examines the development of Hepburn’s famous character, Tracy Lord and some of the qualities that make her unique. Included in it are new interviews with Miranda Barry, playwright Philip Barry’s granddaughter, writer Donald Anderson (Shadowed Cocktails: The Plays of Philip Barry From Paris Bound to The Philadelphia Story), and others.
- A Katharine Hepburn Production (HD, 18:53) Produced exclusively for Criterion in 2017, in this new documentary, filmmakers David Heeley and Joan Kramer discuss the life and career of Katharine Hepburn and explain how The Philadelphia Story, the play and the film, rescued Hepburn’s film career after a string of box office failures.
- Katharine Hepburn on The Dick Cavett Show:
- Episode One (HD, 108:53)
- Episode Two (HD, 109:00)
Recorded in October 1973 this two-part interview has Hepburn discussing various aspects of her career onstage and in film. She also discusses her personal and professional relationship with Spencer Tracy, the Hollywood studio system and more. Hepburn rarely gave television interviews, and this has to be the most extensive.
- George Cukor on The Dick Cavett Show (HD, 15:02) In this excerpt from a 1978 episode, Cukor discusses working with Hepburn, the disappearance of ‘old’ Hollywood, some of his successes, failures and more.
- Lux Radio Theater (HD, 59:27) The Philadelphia Story from 1943, featuring an introduction by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Loretta Young (Tracy Lord), Robert Taylor (C.K. Dexter Haven), Robert Young (Mike Connor), Roland Drew (George), Mary Lou Harrington (Dinah), Regina Wallace (Margaret), and Vicki Lang (Elizabeth).
- Booklet: 18-page illustrated booklet featuring critic Farran Smith Nehme’s essay “A Fine, Pretty World” and technical credits.
Movie title: The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Director(s): George Cukor
Actor(s): Cary Grant , Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart , Ruth Hussey , John Howard , Roland Young
Genre: Romance, Comedy