Welcome to the latest installment of The Bucket Cine-list, in which we take a look at the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. The movie in the spotlight this week is the 1940 romantic comedy (although it’s so much more than that) The Philadelphia Story.
It’s the eve of socialite Tracy Lord’s (Katharine Hepburn) wedding when her ex-husband, Dexter (Cary Grant), shows up with two reporters from Spy Magazine in tow (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey). The reporters plan to publish all the details of the illustrious wedding between the old money of Tracy Lord and the new money of industrialist George Kittredge, and their editor doesn’t mind using blackmail to obtain all the juicy details. However, when sparks fly between Tracy and reporter Macaulay Connor and between Tracy and her former husband Dexter, the socialite who thinks she knows it all is forced to examine where she’s gone wrong in her marriages, her family, and in her own self-perception. The hours before the wedding threaten to become a disaster of broken hearts and bad judgement and the representatives of Spy Magazine may have bitten off more than they can chew with The Philadelphia Story.
Reasons for its significance:
The Philadelphia Story saved Katharine Hepburn’s career. Labelled as “box office poison” after a series of flopped films, Hepburn faced the very real possibility of never working in Hollywood again. The dauntless determination she was famous for, however, saved her when she bought the rights to the play “The Philadelphia Story,” made a hit of it on stage, and then made a movie deal with MGM that gave her the power to select both the director and her co-stars. She chose well across the board and the movie was a hit. Katharine Hepburn was a star again and went on to work as an actress well into the 1990s, making dozens of films and winning four Oscars. Her four best actress Oscar wins are a record that has remained unbroken. She also held the record for most Oscar nominations, with twelve nominations overall, until Meryl Streep surpassed it.
The Philadelphia Story is a movie that absolutely sparkles with wit, smart writing, and pure star power. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart are all legends of the silver screen, so when they all appear in the same scenes in the same movie, the charisma and talent all but pours from the screen.
Grant and Hepburn are one of my favorite movie pairings, and the three movies they made together isn’t nearly enough. They are two acting powerhouses that bat lines back and forth like tennis pros, and their chemistry in comedy, romance, and and drama is off the charts. Their electric chemistry is tinged in this movie with the bitterness of past pain and, of course, their divorce, but their connection is never less than genuine. It’s a fantastic performance from two of Hollywood’s most talented stars and an absolute joy to watch.
James Stewart is also in fine form in The Philadelphia Story. He is the ‘Everyman’ (a archetype Stewart was born to play) lost in the sea of champagne and glamour, but he never flinches from calling out the so-called upper class on its hypocrisy and privilege. Of course, all that is challenged when he starts to fall for Tracy, and the movie becomes at least partially about the relationship between those who have more on the material scale and those who have less. Stewart is charming and guileless as the cynical reporter who dreams of being an author, but whose dreams have rusted over time.
The performances are the strongest part of what is a very strong movie. The Philadelphia Story is ultimately an entertaining and glamorous look at what could be very serious subjects: identity, relationships, and class. It operates as something of a fairytale in the end, but a glossy and glamorous one, completely without rough edges. Even the sting of heartbreak is not very serious, because the feelings don’t run painfully deep in this gilded world. This sounds like a disparagement, but it’s really not – the story is a delight. It sparkles and bubbles like a glass of champagne caught in just the right light, and leaves nothing but contentment in its wake.