For a Comedy of Manners, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ Is Awfully Screwball

Often screwball comedies feature sharp contrasts between social classes, with not-so-subtle commentaries on the idle rich, and that’s in The Philadelphia Story in triplicate.

The Philadelphia Story
George Cukor
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
7 Nov 2017

The Philadelphia Story is one of those legendary Hollywood films and not just because it stars Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart—three iconic actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Partly that’s because the stories behind its making are as fascinating as the film itself.

Like Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story is a film version of the roman ‘a clef. It’s based on a Broadway play by Philip Barry, a Harvard classmate of investment banker Edgar Scott who drew inspiration from the real-life antics of Scott’s wife, Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. What’s more, the idea for a story about Philadelphia socialites and blackmail in an era of tabloid journalism was suggested by the Scotts, who had become good friends of the playwright and his wife. The mansion and some rooms were faithfully recreated for the film version—a point illustrated on one of the bonus features for this Criterion release. Even details like Mrs. Scott’s love of horses were woven into the narrative.

This was the film that made Katharine Hepburn a star … again. Though it’s hard to think of the four-time Best Actress Oscar-winner (Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, On Golden Pond) as “box office poison”, a string of flops following the release of Morning Glory (1933) led to her being included on a 1938 list of stars whose drawing power had seriously ebbed. She was denied the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and blamed for the poor box-office showing of Bringing Up Baby (1938). Screwball comedies and Grant were popular, studio execs reasoned, so it had to be her. Needing a comeback, Hepburn took control of her own destiny, buying out her contract with RKO and moving to New York. There she starred in Barry’s Broadway play, The Philadelphia Story, which was written with her in mind. She was astute enough to get then-beau Howard Hughes to buy the movie rights so she could star in the film and hand-pick her cast.

Grant signed on after Hepburn agreed to give him top billing and earmark money for British war relief, but the interesting back stories don’t end there. The Philadelphia Story was turned into a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and a friend of Ernest Hemingway’s who joined the author in Spain to fish and run with the bulls, thereby inspiring the character of Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Hepburn told him that her character couldn’t be too “la-di-da” because “a lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face”, and Stewart was happy to oblige.

The Philadelphia Story begins with a now-classic scene written and performed without a single line of dialogue. C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) angrily carries his suitcases to a car parked in front of their mansion, followed by his soon-to-be ex-wife, Tracy Lord (Hepburn), who is dressed in her nightgown (to emphasize she’s not going with him) and carrying his pipe rack and bag of golf clubs. First smashing the rack on the ground, she takes one of the clubs from the bag and, after throwing the bag at him, breaks the wooden-shaft club across her knee. Grant’s character seethes with anger, walks up to her with clenched fist, but then pulls back. Instead of hitting her, he puts an open hand on her face and pushes her down—no doubt reminding audiences of a famous improvised scene in The Public Enemy when James Cagney smooshed a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face. Hepburn got her sympathy, and The Philadelphia Story became a huge hit. Hepburn received her third Best Actress nomination and the film earned Stewart a Best Actor Oscar—the only Oscar he’d ever receive besides a Lifetime Achievement award.

Though The Philadelphia Story seldom appears on lists of screwball comedies—perhaps because it screened in 1940, the same year Grant teamed with Rosalind Russell in the widely recognized quintessential screwball comedy, His Girl Friday—it certainly employs a number of the same tropes. While a true “screwball” is missing—Hepburn isn’t anywhere near as scattered here as she was in Bringing Up Baby—her strong female character still puts men back on their heels. She makes men take notice and challenges them in some way. Fast-paced dialogue also abounds in this smartly written, sophisticated farce. Often screwball comedies feature sharp contrasts between social classes, with not-so-subtle commentaries on the idle rich, and that’s here in triplicate. So too are elements of mistaken or secret identities, as well as a wedding or courtship that’s central to the plot. The clever dialogue and plotting in screwball comedies typically elevate stock characters to a level of greater interest, and that happens here too with familiar types like the old lech, the precocious kid sister, and the button-down unsuitable suitor.

In The Philadelphia Story, Spy Magazine assigns reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to get an inside story on the upcoming wedding of Tracy Lord to the equally rich self-made man George Kittredge (John Howard). Their impossible task is made possible by C.K., who has been working for Spy Magazine in South America and proposes to accompany them to the mansion on the pretense that they are friends of Tracy’s brother, a diplomat based in Argentina. Though the rest of the family is easily duped, Tracy sees through the ruse but is persuaded to go along with it when C.K. tells her it’s a trade-off to keep a scandalous story about her father’s infidelities out of the tabloids. As the plot unfolds, Tracy is taken with the brash but principled reporter, but with C.K. nearby and still nursing obvious feelings for his ex-wife, it sets up a potential romantic triangle—square, if one considers George.

When Tracy tells her stuffy fiancé, “You look like something out of a shop window,” then pushes him to the ground and rubs dirt all over his riding clothes, the scene parallels the opening where C.K. pushed her down—in effect, linking not only the actions, but also the characters. Though we learn C.K.’s drinking was a main reason for their split, these parallel actions remind viewers that they’re essentially similar, while the comparatively effete and nouveau riche George doesn’t belong in the world of old money and old exes.

Rich people don’t fare so well in this film, but then again neither do the tabloids. The reporter, as played by Stewart, comes across as judgmental as the people he’s covering. Even within the hierarchy of journalists, he’s smugly superior. As he tells his Spy Magazine crony, “I’m not gonna do it, Liz. I’m gonna tell Sidney Kidd very plainly and simply I’m a writer. I’m not a society snoop. I’m gonna tell him just that … Let Kidd fire me!” he says, and he’ll “start writin’ short stories again”. Once there, his disdain for the rich and their extravagances is quickly confirmed when, instead of meekly waiting as asked, he and Liz walk around the mansion. He picks up the phone in one room and presses a random room number. At the other end is the lady of the house, though he doesn’t know that. “This is the bridal suite. Would you send up a couple of caviar sandwiches and a bottle of beer?” he barks. “This is the voice of doom calling. Your days are numbered to the seventh sun of the seventh sun.” Later, after he actually meets Tracy Lords, he sizes her up in his class-conscious mind, referring to her as “the young, rich, rapacious American female” to be found nowhere but in the United States. When Mike catches her reading his collection of short stories at the local library, he asks, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? You know what happens to girls like you when they read books like mine. They begin to think.”

All of the actors bring their A-game to this comedy of manners, but as film scholar Jeanine Basinger astutely summarizes in a commentary track recorded for the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release, Grant has the most difficult role. “He has the least to do, he has the least dynamic/dramatic scenes, the fewest moments of comic invention. He has to hold the center down. He has to be desirable, he has to be both wrong for Hepburn and right for Hepburn as she changes. He has to be there solidly while others play around him, and in many scenes he has fewer lines of dialogue than anyone else.” But because the screenplay calls for him to play his cards close to the vest, reaction shots convey to the viewer that “he has a plan, an ulterior motive”. In other words, Grant’s character functions as the deus ex machina, albeit one driven by a certain amount of self-interest. Combine his reformed alcoholic character with the brash reporter who’d rather be writing his novel and the spoiled heiress who may finally begin to realize what she wants in life, and you have wonderful character interactions in every scene.

Criteria is known for their bonus features, but some of the luster is taken off these because of their availability online—like, for example, two rare interviews that Hepburn did with Dick Cavett in 1973 that can be seen on YouTube. Same with director George Cukor’s 1978 interview with Cavett and a Lux Radio Theatre episode—though it’s convenient to have them here on one disc. A restoration demonstration will appeal mostly to technophiles, and that 2004 commentary track veers between pithy remarks and what amounts to narrative summary.

For me, the best bonus feature is a brand new 23-minute documentary, “In Search of Tracy Lord”, which features the usual blend of talking heads—but what fascinating talking heads: Philip Barry’s granddaughter, Edgar and Hope Scott’s granddaughter, and Donald Anderson, author of Shadowed Cocktails: The Plays of Philip Barry from Paris Bound to The Philadelphia Story. Another new 19-minute documentary, “A Katharine Hepburn Production”, is also worth watching, as it summarizes how the film version of the popular Broadway play revived Hepburn’s career. For cinephiles, though, the best bonus feature will be the film itself, which, with the new restoration, looks and sounds better than ever.

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