Hollywood maintained momentum as it transitioned to a new decade after its oft-touted “greatest year” 1939. 1940 introduced movie classics like Hitchock’s Rebecca, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, and the more lighthearted The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor.
The Philadelphia Story brings together Hollywood legends Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in a love quadrangle that only a romantic comedy could get away with. C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) returns to his Philadelphia home just in time to crash his ex-wife’s wedding weekend celebrations. Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is preparing to marry George Kittredge (John Howard), a coal executive who has worked his way up the corporate ladder and does not quite fit in with Dexter and Tracy’s social set.
Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), publisher of the tabloid Spy magazine and Dexter’s former employer, negotiates a deal with Dexter to keep a scandalous article about Tracy’s father out of the press if Dexter agrees to get two Spy reporters behind the scenes of the wedding. Dexter arrives with Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and introduces them as friends of the bride’s absentee brother. Tracy isn’t fooled, but her sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) and mother Margaret (Mary Nash) are happy to see Dexter again, and he is able to convince Tracy to let the reporters stay to protect her family’s reputation.
While we learn more about Tracy and Dexter’s short and tumultuous marriage (her perfectionist expectations and his compounding alcoholism at play), Tracy begins to see qualities in Macaulay that pardon his being a tabloid reporter, and his prejudices about her social status begin to fall apart as they each begin to understand more about themselves and one another.
The film culminates the night before the wedding in drunken debauchery among almost all involved. Family tensions are forced into the open and Tracy must face her own shortcomings and her true feelings for her fiancé, her ex-husband, and the charming reporter who she has only just met.
The relationships in this film have many layers, and feelings are more complex than today’s rom-coms. The dialog is fast-paced and the humor is smart and somewhat dry. No obvious jokes or cheap laughs mar the performances of this exceptional cast. James Stewart won Best Actor for his performance (an award he never believed he deserved, but fans of the film would disagree), but the supporting cast deserves equal credit for the success of this classic film.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted, witty romance played out by some of Hollywood’s greatest talents, check out The Philadelphia Story on Amazon Instant Video or Google Play ($2.99 to rent on both sites). For a few dollars more you can further satiate your craving for classic romantic comedies with the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies ($11.65 on Amazon.com) containing four Katherine Hepburn hits: Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year, The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.