The Philadelphia Story (1940) – The Katharine Hepburn Project #4

Once again it’s time for another installment of The Katharine Hepburn Project! Actually, it’s time and then some. I watched The Philadelphia Story ages ago and have been putting off writing about it. But there’s no time like the present, so without further ado, here we go. Oh, and this review has no major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this picture, you can read on safely. But do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as you have the chance. You can thank me later.

philadelphia-story-1

The first time I saw The Philadelphia Story, it wasn’t The Philadelphia Story. In 1953, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra remade it as a film called High Society. That’s how I first stumbled across this story. They showed it on AMC or TCM, and I quite enjoyed it. My father, however, was appalled that I didn’t know the original. It’s not like it was my fault, but he made it clearHigh Society was a silly and inferior imitation.

Having seen them both, I agree with him, but it was many years before I could make that determination. This was back in the days before you could call up so many films at the touch of a button. Pre-Netflix, pre-iTunes. We had the library and video stores, but I never ran across the original film until much later. And for the record, I do still enjoy High Society. It was fun. But it wasn’t a patch on the original. But to be honest, the first time I saw The Philadelphia Story, I didn’t really get why it was such a big deal.

I think perhaps it had been built up too much. I’d heard for years it was one of the must-see classics. It was the best film from any one of the three principals. It was the funniest thing since the comedy analog to sliced bread, whatever that might be. I just didn’t think it lived up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I just didn’t see what everyone else saw in it.

I think I’ll lay some of the blame on timing. At the time I first saw it, I was in a rut of watching my favorite classic films over and over. Any time I tried watching something new (to me), I mostly ended up wishing I was watching Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight for the umpteenth time. (Admittedly, that still happens sometimes.) So I probably didn’t give it a fair shake. I did really like the opulent setting. I think I may have paid more attention to the gorgeous sets and costumes than I did the actors. (More the fool, I.)

My reaction on seeing it this time was quite different. This time I saw what everyone was talking about. The dialogue. The character moments. The brilliant and often subtle physical comedy. The interactions between these three first-rate actors, all at the top of their game. This film positively sparkles. Now I get it. But my reaction to it was a bit more complex than that. In fact, that’s part of why I’ve put off writing about it for several weeks.

Okay, so the first reason I put off writing about it is because I was intimidated. This film is good. Like, really good. And it’s a beloved movie that far better writers than I have covered in great detail. That always makes me nervous. But the other reason I didn’t hop to it was because it gave me mixed feelings I couldn’t quite figure out right away. I think I’ve finally nailed part of that, and it boils down to how I’ve changed as a viewer and a person since the first time I watched it.

As I said, my favorite part the first time around was the world these characters live in. The fairy-tale opulence. I like escapist entertainment, and the idea of escaping to this world of tables covered with gifts and pool houses and stables full of horses and grand mansions…yes. That was my bread and butter. So much so that it distracted me from the characters and what they were doing.

Here in the present, I had the opposite reaction. I adored the characters (more about them in a moment), but the setting made me uncomfortable. Rather than escaping into it like I had years ago, I found myself gaping at the sheer amount of privilege these people have. Fancy balls and pool houses? Instead of enveloping me in a fantasy world, it left me thinking about how I’m going to pay for the vacation I have coming up and whether I’ll be able to find a new job when I return home. In these days of a widening income gap, I think I need my escapist films to feel a little farther removed.

The timelessness of The Philadelphia Story worked against it for me. Except for some period-specific dialogue and clothing, these people, and this story, could easily take place now. (Oh goodness, please don’t remake it again. That’s NOT what I mean!) Give me a princess in a castle or a nightclub singer trying to hit the big time. Those don’t feel remotely connected to the here and now, so I can still dip into those worlds and revel in them. In Philadelphia, the fantasy was provided simply by the amount of money and power these characters posses. And yes, there’s some degree of commentary on that, but it’s rather weak next to the comedy and the love story.

Of course, none of that is a direct criticism of the movie itself. It’s simply an examination of my reaction to it as a viewer. As stunning as it is a piece of filmmaking, it’s not going to be one of my go-tos for classic movies when I need a night in. (Another reason for that is the relationship between Katharine Hepburn’s character Tracy and her father. He suggests his marital indiscretions were caused by Tracy because she’s too strong and not soft and loving enough to her father. Um, ick.)

But let’s get back to the characters I enjoyed so much. Tracy is fascinating, and Katharine Hepburn plays her marvelously. She’s strong and steely and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. In some ways she’s rebelling against what she thinks society expects from her, while playing into it completely in others. She’s complex and thoroughly captivating. Dexter is Cary Grant being a delightfully restrained version of Cary Grant. He’s got that wry humor, but he’s not playing it up so far he becomes a caricature of himself. Jimmy Stewart as Connor is, well, a delightfully restrained version of Jimmy Stewart. Both male leads revolve around Tracy, and it’s like watching a solar system with all the gravitational effects balanced perfectly.

However, as far as I’m concerned, Virginia Weidler as Dinah steals the whole darn show. She’s one of the best examples of a little sister in movie history. She dotes on Tracy, but she also wants so badly to be her own impressive person. As much as she adores Tracy, Dinah is wise enough not to want to be her. And she knows Tracy in a way only a little sister can. I remember my own little sis pointing out what was right for me and what wasn’t. I didn’t always believe her at first either, but she was never wrong!

Ruth Hussey as Ms Imbrie has some of the best lines in the film and turns in a stellar performance. As good as her lines are, her reactions to Connor (specifically his relationship with Tracy) are some of the best moments in the movie. Really, I could go down the list and find a great moment for just about every cast member.

I could also gas on about how much I love it when one character pretends to be (or is forced to pretend to be) someone else. Or how I love the screwball love triangle/square/pentagon and all the permutations it goes through in the course of the film. Or how utterly entrancing (and heartbreaking) Kate is when she’s playing drunk–something we also saw in Holiday. Or…plenty of other things. But I think I’ve gone on quite long enough for now.

Instead, I’ll entreat to you to seek out this movie. Watch it, whether you’ve never seen it or seen it a thousand times. And let me know what you love about it in the comments.

About the Patron:

Erik Stadnik (@sjcaustenite on Twitter) is one of my favorite people in the world. I met him in person the same weekend I met my spouse, and I fell in love with both of them in different ways. In fact, Steven and I chose Erik to perform our wedding ceremony. He did it perfectly. He is also the intelligent, well-spoken co-host of three excellent podcasts, The Doctor Who Book Club, Doctor Who: The Writers’ Room, and The Classic Horror Cast. His always erudite and insightful blog can be found at erikandhispointlessblog.blogspot.com.

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One thought on “The Philadelphia Story (1940) – The Katharine Hepburn Project #4

  1. Graeme Burk says:

    In the days before netflix and even a decent video rental store I set my alarm clock for 3 AM to get up and watch it on a UHF channel (and tape it; I was obsessed with taking out commericals though). My overriding impression of it is how wasted Jimmy Stewart is (I’m a big fan) though he’s great and works really well with Hepburn and Grant.

    You bring up a fascinating point about the upper crust setting. It’s a standard part of most comedies from the ’30s. In fact I think it’s more exceptional to see a comedy set outside the upper classes. It’s amazing to me how many characters are if not rich then very, very upwardly mobile. (Woody Allen sends this very notion up in The Purple Rose of Cairo, when a character in a high society farce steps into the real world of the Depression-era 30s). I think key to this is it was the Great Depression with an even wider income disparity; the people in this film and others may as well have been living in a fantasy world. It probably accounts for its popularity.

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