The Philadelphia Story (1940)

D: George Cukor
S: Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Cary Grant

Those hoping for a retread of the anarchy of Howard Hawks' teaming of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby will be surprised by this rather more adult take on the romantic comedy genre directed by George Cukor from the play by Philip Barry. Plot concerns the machinations of upper-crust Philadelphia socialite family as divorcee Hepburn plans to marry up-and-comer John Howard, to the general disapproval of ex husband Grant. The situation is complicated by undercover reporters James Stewart and Ruth Hussey, who attempt to infiltrate the occasion for a society snoop piece. The fact that they are rumbled before the start does not prevent a series of misunderstandings and deceptions, as Hepburn and family play up to the expectations of the great unwashed, initially outraging frustrated intellectual Stewart. In the way of these things an attraction develops between them which threatens not only the blessed event, but Hepburn's idea of herself, which is continually challenged by his observations.

The literate and thoughtful script by Donald Ogden Stewart occasionally touches on poetry. It certainly makes use of repeated lines of dialogue which serve as imagistic and thematic pointers towards the development of the story's real focus; Hepburn's heart and motivations and revealing the true nature of love (the stuff of poetry if ever there was any). It is also a fascinating skewering of the American upper class, and in the manner of Oscar Wilde, provides many one liners at the expense of the mannerisms and rituals which sustain it. The performances are uniformly excellent, not only from the leads, but all of the supporting cast, especially Virgina Weidler playing Hepburn's kid sister. Grant is unusually muted, but he is quietly effective and reveals a suitably interesting past to make sense of his character. Hepburn is in complete control throughout, with Stewart proving a suitable match in his Oscar-winning role. Hussey handles herself well in a part which threatens to collapse into cliché, but manages to sustain enough depth to avoid it.

The film is so thoughtful and literate and the performances so strong that it is almost sacrilegious to observe that as a film, The Philadelphia Story is lacking. It blurs the boundaries between theatre and cinema to the extent that as visual narrative, it desperately needs more graphic energy than director Cukor can supply. While the set decorations and photography are suitably decorous, the film amounts to little more than a series of painstakingly posed tableaus with no more imagistic content than painted backdrops in a theatre. Actors stand and deliver with great skill, and the words spoken are as witty and eloquent as anything written for the stage in the preceding half century, but it becomes a task of listening to a much greater extent than it is one of viewing, which is not altogether desirable in the cinema. It also keeps the pace at a crawl, and apart from the one visual gag with which the film begins, the humour has little to do with the physical movement or actions of the characters. This most certainly distinguishes the film from its 1930s screwball predecessors, where speed and an updated form of slapstick was all the rage. It may thus have been a conscious choice on Cukor's part, an effort to up the stakes in American cinema and force the paying public to shift from spectacle to script. The gambit fails, because the level of aural concentration required is too great and the visual relief nonexistent in the absence of the theatre's intervals and scene changes.

Cukor and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz are nonetheless to be commended for their attempt to raise the benchmark in adult entertainment. The Philadelphia Story is an intelligent and sophisticated comic drama which does not condescend to its audience. It is well written and performed and occupies a place in Hollywood film history which perhaps makes it difficult to appreciate as entertainment. It is however less cinematic than many of its own predecessors and has aged badly by comparison with the likes of Citizen Kane and even Casablanca which followed and made superior use of the medium's capacity to use the camera to convey essential information and provide poetic sustenance. It is worth seeing though, but be advised that it will not be to all tastes.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.