The problem with a romantic movie that stars Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, The Flower mused, is that you don’t know who’s going to get the girl! And you know that one of them isn’t going to get the girl! Practically strains credulity! That said, The Philadelphia Story was and is one of the greatest romantic-comedies of all time.
The story is that Tracy, an upper crust divorcee (Katharine Hepburn) is going to re-marry a working class success story (John Howard), but her ex (Cary Grant) is blackmailed into crashing the wedding with a couple of Spy Magazine hacks (Stewart and Ruth Hussey). Stewart’s a sensitive author who writes magazine stuff for the money, and Hussey is the girl who longs for him to realize she’s the girl for him, and while both are against intruding on private occasions where they are unwanted (can you imagine?), the slimy editor-in-chief (Henry Daniell) has them over a barrel.
Of course, Cary Grant doesn’t think that John Howard’s good enough for Hepburn, or that he’s good enough for Hepburn, or that anyone is good enough for Hepburn, and the real bump-in-the-road, the real hitch-in-the-git-a-long, the real monkey-in-the-wrench, is that Hepburn (her character at her worst) also doesn’t believe anyone is good enough for her. In fact, for a movie about a strong, independent woman whose abusive ex (Grant pushes her down in the first scene, added by either director Cukor or producer Mankiewicz) semi-reluctantly crashes her wedding, the character flaws fall almost entirely on Hepburn’s shoulders.
I say again: Can you imagine?
This reaches its peak when her father blames her for his infidelities! Her coldness, her demanding perfectionism, etc. And she takes it to heart!
It’s a tremendous story, and in thinking about it, I realize why: It has a point-of-view, but it doesn’t tell you what to think. The characters are flawed to the last one (except perhaps Virginia Weidler, who plays the sharp-eyed younger sister) in a variety of ways, but they’re also relatable and likable. One of the subplots has Jimmy Stewart falling for Hepburn, and at one point, it seems positively cruel to Hussey. But you just kind of get the idea that they’ll all live happily ever after (or at least reasonably so), even the unimaginative George, having been spared the misery of being married to an unhappy Tracy.
If you are of a certain age (say 40-60), you’re likely most familiar with Hepburn from her later roles, when she was—not bad, certainly, but not the spectacular creature she was in the ’30s and ’40s. But here she is fairly irresistible, and the audience gets the idea that, as a prized mate, she’s high up on the food chain. But there’s only misery down that path of thinking. And there are no shortage of men around who are willing to make her miserable, because they also think of her that way.
As with many of the great films of the day, modern audiences may have trouble relating to it. But the acting is top notch, especially Weidler and Hussey, who have the best lines. The music by Franz Waxman is spot on. There isn’t a wasted moment in Charles Ogden Stewart’s screenplay, and a lot of the clichés you’d sort of expect from an old romantic-comedy are neatly short-circuited by clever antics or twists.
Obviously. Obviously! You should see this.