Wednesday 14 April 2010

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Director: George Cukor
Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

In 1939 Philip Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story as a play specifically for Katharine Hepburn and she performed it on Broadway over 400 times, with Joseph Cotten, Van Heflin and Shirley Booth. She also backed the play financially, putting up a quarter of the production costs and foregoing her usual salary in return for a hefty 45% of the take. A year later she bought the film rights herself, through her friend and lover Howard Hughes, and brought the play to MGM who paid her $250,000 for them and agreed to give her a veto over producer, director, screenwriter and her two male co-stars. That vision, as well as her own excellent performance, led to one of the most astute coups in Hollywood history. Effectively Hepburn used The Philadelphia Story to overturn the status Photoplay magazine had bestowed on her at the time of 'box office poison' and reconnect herself with the moviegoing audience.

Bizarrely this meant that she was also one of the few great movie stars who didn't appear in film during Hollywood's greatest year of 1939. To play Tracy Lord (no, not Traci Lords), she also turned down the lead role in Kitty Foyle, which won Ginger Rogers the Academy Award. Kitty Foyle wouldn't have done for her what The Philadelphia Story did though. Tracy Lord is a wilful young Philadelphia socialite who is about to marry for the second time, though publicity cleverly played her up as a 'snooty society beauty', thus fitting the public's perception of Hepburn herself to a tee. It was the act of apparently humbling herself with self deprecating humour that won that public back over. She'd already won one Oscar as being the best thing about Morning Glory, otherwise an overplayed melodrama, and she would go on to end up with four of them, still more than any other actor in the business.

Lord's first husband, C K Dexter Haven, is an exuberant and dashing playboy who lives life to the fullest, as flamboyantly played by Cary Grant. He's part of her social set but he didn't meet her exacting criteria for a husband, not least because he drank too much when she married him and she merely drove him to do more of it. As the story opens, they're divorced and she's set to marry almost his polar opposite, a pompous and frosty businessman called George Kittredge. In social circles, he's merely nouveau riche. Actor John Howard is certainly the least recognisable name here, as before Kittredge he was probably best known at that point for his recurring role as Bulldog Drummond, the English detective who was a prototype for James Bond. While he wasn't the first to play that role, having inherited it from actors like Ronald Colman and Ralph Richardson, he made it his own, playing it seven times between 1937 and 1939.

Into this love triangle comes Mike Connor from Spy magazine, who has been assigned the society marriage story against his wishes. Barry famously based the character of Tracy Lord on Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a Philadelphia socialite who had married a schoolfriend of his, but he also designed the thrust of the story around the general rise of tabloid journalism. Tabloids found the idle rich fascinating, as did he, but he'd also discovered that some were tied into schemes as low as blackmailing prominent families over pulling their skeletons out of the closet and plastering them all over the front page, thus prompting the lower comedic aspects of this story. In the able form of James Stewart, Connor sees himself as a serious journalist rather than a society snoop and he has little respect for high society. Unfortunately he's working for a tabloid paper, so he and his photographer Liz Imrie are under orders from Sidney Kidd.

Actor Henry Daniell was always great when playing dastardly characters and as Kidd he gets plenty of opportunity to be slimy, however small the part is. He blackmails Dexter Haven into introducing his employees as friends of the family, suggesting that Seth Lord, Tracy's father, is having an affair with a dancer. Given that the rest of the Lords are rather fond of Dexter Haven, the ruse is transparent but successful and we're set for a screwball comedy of manners, classes and the power of the press. Much of the success has to be due to the people Hepburn chose to make the film, most of whom she knew well. Her previous screwball comedy, Holiday, released in 1938, is the most obvious source of talent, given that it was also based on a play by Philip Barry, directed by George Cukor, written by Donald Ogden Stewart and co-starred Cary Grant. If anything it's even better than this one, though it was still both an adaptation of a stage play and a remake of an earlier 1930 film.
This was Kate's fifth film for George Cukor, who had directed both 1932's A Bill of Divorcement, her debut on screen, and 1933's Little Women, the best film she made before the real classics began in 1938. There are three of those clumped together in her filmography: Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, all of which saw her opposite Cary Grant, her first great screen partner, who she'd also played opposite in Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. Perhaps their screen partnership would have continued, Hollywood never knowing when to stop a good thing, but her next film saw her paired with Spencer Tracy, which was even more of a match made in heaven and that was it for Hepburn and Grant. She had never appeared in a film with James Stewart, but he was riding very high indeed after Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again in 1939 and The Shop Around the Corner in 1940, so casting him was hardly a difficult call to make.

All of them are top notch here, both the Stewarts taking home Oscars, though in very different ways. Donald Ogden Stewart pronounced in no uncertain terms, 'I have no one to thank but myself,' though he later explained in his autobiography that the source play was so good that adapting it was the easiest job he ever had to do in Hollywood. However Jimmy Stewart was so convinced he wouldn't win that he wasn't even planning to attend the ceremony, but was called and advised to do so. He has said publicly that he voted for Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath that year, and he won only as 'deferred payment for my work on Mr Smith Goes to Washington.' That's educated guesswork but I've never met anyone who believes otherwise. Regardless of who won the gold, this is Katharine Hepburn's show though and that's unmistakable from moment one, not least through the opening scene which sold her to the public again.

It's a justly famous scene that is told entirely without dialogue, as if we were still back in the silent era. Cary Grant storms out of the mansion he shares with Katharine Hepburn and slams the door, carrying his bags down to the car. She follows him and throws his golf clubs at his feet, breaking one of them over her knee with a smug look on her face before heading back to the house. Even more incensed, this time he follows her, balls up his fist as if to hit her but instead pushes her down to the ground, hard. I use the names of the actors instead of the characters here deliberately, because that's the point. The temperament and attitude of the characters match precisely those of the actors in the collective mind of the public. At this point, unless they'd seen the play, most of the audience had no idea who C K Dexter Haven or Tracy Lord were, so they watched their hero Cary Grant manhandle the 'snooty society beauty' Katharine Hepburn and they loved it. Only after she literally ends up on her ass could they love her too.

George Cukor was known as a woman's director and he highlights Kate here with a deft but very light hand. She really is radiant here. Her charm never leaves her even when she's raging or flirting, talking gibberish in French or getting drunk and losing all control. Her 'withering look of a goddess' is superb. She's thoroughly believable following every direction that the quirks of womanhood send her in, looking haughty without ever losing our sympathy as a decent character. Her 'withering look of a goddess' is superb. No wonder they cast Grace Kelly for the musical remake, High Society; they merely picked the wrong time because it was her last film and her imminent future was obviously more than a little distracting. The Philadelphia Story is superior in every way to High Society, which is, to be frank, just another big budget remake with major names. That isn't just a modern trend, as Hollywood was already more than used to the concept in 1956.
Grant had the choice of the two male leads and he's excellent as Dexter Haven, a flamboyant and scenestealing character whenever he's on screen, playing a very similar role to that of Walter Burns in his other great film of 1940, His Girl Friday. However he gives Jimmy Stewart plenty of opportunity to attempt to steal the show as the conflicted Mike Connor. He's a down to earth writer forced to balance his disdain for the privileged classes with his growing affection for Tracy Lord, who is of course very much one of them. He's a fish out of water most of the way through but has a great time, shedding his usual 'aw shucks' persona in the process. His lady photographer, played by Ruth Hussey, who has more than a soft spot in her heart for him, is very cool indeed and gets most of the best early lines. There's never much opportunity in a screwball comedy for sadder moments but she gets a few and subtly makes them count.

What makes the magic that runs through The Philadelphia Story from beginning to end isn't just how well each of these actors perform individually but how well they work together. Grant and Hepburn bounce off each other wonderfully, perhaps not quite as well as in Holiday and not quite as manic as in Bringing Up Baby, but wonderfully nonetheless. Stewart and Hussey work together well too, as do Stewart and Hepburn. Almost every combination creates its own magic yet remains distinct from the rest, and that could be the very definition of skilful acting. It's most interesting to see (and hear) Grant and Stewart, the two most thoroughly distinctive male voices in classic Hollywood, talking to each other. Their long scene at Dexter Haven's house is simply wonderful and Stewart plays the best drunk I've seen outside of Edward Woodward and Donald Pleasance in the underrated horror film Death Line.

The supporting cast don't really have much chance against three (or four) such bravado performances, but one in particular succeeds. Tracy Lord has a much younger sister called Dinah, played by Virginia Weidler, and she is a gem. Children in this sort of situation tend to either be uncomfortably in the way or take over entirely. Weidler effortlessly does the latter and it was great fun watching this particular child almost steal the show from under such talent. This is the oldest I've seen her, as she retired from the film industry at sixteen for the stage, but she already had 34 films behind her and was renowned for her ability as comic relief. John Howard, as Lord's new intended, tries too hard sometimes to be a highly restrained Clark Gable, but then he never drives the plot, merely goes along with it. Roland Young is hilarious in a smaller part as Lord's Uncle Willie.

The Philadelphia Story is an American standard, as highlighted by its prominence in the various annual AFI lists. It sits halfway down their list of the best American movies, moving up the list when the original was reworked ten years later. In 2008 they voted it the fifth greatest American romantic comedy of all time. It's hard to argue with its stature, but it earned it through such a combination of talent that it becomes a discovery every time you rewatch it. I've always found that some films stay in the mind as classics because they're memorable feats of filmmaking, like Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet there are others where nothing particularly stands out above anything else, not because of any lack of quality but because the quality is so consistently solid. Such all rounders fade a little over time until the next viewing, which then proves as fresh and powerful as ever. I look forward to discovering this one many more times yet.

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