Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940)


(director/writer: George Cukor; screenwriters: from the play by Philip Barry/Donald Ogden Stewart/Waldo Salt- uncredited; cinematographer: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: Frank Sullivan; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Cary Grant (C. K. Dexter Haven), Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Samantha Lord), James Stewart (Macaulay (Mike) Connor), Ruth Hussey (Elizabeth (Liz) Imbrie), John Howard (George Kittredge), Roland Young (Uncle Willie), John Halliday (Seth Lord), Virginia Weidler (Dinah Lord), Mary Nash (Margaret Lord), Henry Daniell (Sidney Kidd); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; MGM; 1940)

“A very funny film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

George Cukor directs and co-writes this noted classic romantic farce. It is based on Philip Barry’s hit 1939 play that focuses on a socialite Philadelphia wedding threatened by scandal (Katharine Hepburn played the starring role in the theater as well as in the film. After several commercial failures and labeled “box office poison” in 1938 by Photoplay magazine, Hepburn answered her critics by bringing the property to MGM after buying the film rights to the play and deciding to be in charge of her own film. She was able to choose her own co-stars Cary Grant and James Stewart and along with producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz got screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart to be co-writer).

The icy goddess-like Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is two years removed from her stormy marriage with her lifelong acquaintance and society equal C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), and has decided to marry the broad-shouldered, straight-laced, nice but dull, George Kittredge (Howard) because he’s a responsible adult. He rose up from a coal miner to become the general manager in her family’s coal plant, but is still awkward in the social graces. But Tracy believes she likes these honest qualities in a husband, as he’s totally the opposite of her irresponsible ex-husband. Dexter was a sportsman and boat builder and idler, who was a heavy drinker who hit her on occasions. As preparations are on the way at the Lord’s spacious estate, Tracy’s precocious school-aged sister Dinah (Weidler) sides with Dexter and hopes to talk Tracy into getting out of the marriage. Haughty Margaret (Nash), her mom, is still reeling that her separated husband Seth (Halliday) has not been invited to the wedding by Tracy, as she is upset with her dad for breaking up the marriage due to his infidelities. Mom longs for reconciliation, and wonders if she was too hasty in dumping him. Dexter also has not been invited, and has been living in South America and working as a writer for cheesy Spy magazine since the divorce.

Dexter surprises everyone by showing up at the estate uninvited. He has cooked up a plan to sneak in two Spy magazine reporters, the writer Mike Connor (James Stewart) and his longtime suffering girlfriend and photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey), to snoop on the socialite wedding party of the year and do a magazine spread on the event. Dexter shows up on Tracy’s doorsteps with the two reporters and introduces them as friends of the family but when Tracy, affectionately called Red by her ex, sniffs out the truth, Dexter uses blackmail to convince her that it’s best for the family to go along with this ruse. The magazine’s sleazy publisher Sidney Kidd is planning to run a story about her father with a New York dancer, but has agreed to kill the story if his reporters can cover the wedding.

The other surprise is when Seth shows up uninvited, after girl-groping Uncle Willie (Young) has been presented to the reporters as Seth. Though there’s no surprise about the conclusion, as Cary and Kate reunite and the upstart is given the boot for being so lacking in how the upper class do things.

The situation is setup magnificently for all the farcical comedy to follow, as Cukor does an excellent job by drawing it out through perfectly timed scenes, witty dialogue and getting the most from his talented cast in understated performances–James Stewart won a Best Actor Oscar. It surprisingly outdid even its stage production, even its somewhat ambivalent position on the rich added to the tension. Though I had some trouble with a later scene where the moral preaching Hepburn character gets her comeuppance by becoming drunk and cheating on her fiance with the reporter, which is the same kind of behavior she castigated her cheating father and her alcoholic ex-hubby for. Her declarations had a phony ring to it, as it seems dated as far as its sexist attitudes on moral issues. It rubbed me the wrong way when it implied that the woman should know her place and that if her man should stray it’s up to her to know how to handle it delicately. The times have changed so much, that these scenes do not look the same to a modern audience. Though it was a sophisticated and very funny film and I have no reason to think otherwise, I still have some reservations about its smug attitude in bending over backwards to worship at the feet of the rich despite a few mild jabs at their eccentricities and foibles. That I perceived the Cary Grant character as being too smug and not worthy of all the adoration he received for being the winner of the prize catch, made me think twice about the film and its questionable moral values.