“The Philadelphia Story” is your typical girl is ready to marry boy, but girl’s ex shows up, along with two undercover reporters pretending they’re friends of girl’s brother, but girl’s ex tells girl that reporters are reporters (deep breath) screwball romantic comedy.
It’s also hilarious, and beautifully made. The girl is Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), the product of a tremendously rich, old Mainline Philadelphia society family. She had an early, tempestuous marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), whose alcohol abuse caused all manner of fighting and, ultimately, the dissolution of the marriage. Haven works for Spy magazine, a trashy tabloid, and concocts a story to get a Spy writer–Macauley Connor (James Stewart)–and a photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) into the Lord house for the wedding.
There’s blackmail at work here, then a reverse blackmail, and…oh, hell. What really matters is that this is a wonderful film. Tracy’s fiancee, George Kittredge (John Howard) is a sort of self-made man, who’s worked his way to the top. He’s also boring as hell, and has a giant stick up his ass. He’s everything that Tracy’s ex, Dexter, isn’t. As the film progresses, we find this may not necessarily be a good thing, especially since C.K. Dexter haven has quit drinking.
The script is wonderful, the dialogue sharp, and the acting (mostly) top shelf. I say “mostly,” because I wasn’t impressed with John Howard. He’s a decent actor, but he didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast. Maybe that was director George Cukor’s intent. I rather doubt it, though. All of these actors were giving funny, natural performances, then here’s this guy, sounding like a radio announcer delivering a newscast.
Katherine Hepburn is wonderful in everything, and “The Philadelphia Story” is no exception. Whether she’s being combative, sarcastic, drunk, or happy, she pulls it off with her usual brilliance. The two male leads, Cary Grant and James Stewart, were also brilliant. James Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar for his role. He’s very good, but I felt like Cary Grant overshadowed him, especially in their scenes together. This was a more serious role for Grant, and a lighter role for Stewart. James Stewart himself said he didn’t deserve the Oscar for this film; he felt like he was being rewarded for the previous year’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
I think he’s right, honestly. He’s still very good, but I don’t know about “Oscar” good. It’s not him: it’s just not an Oscar role.
Ruth Hussey was also nominated, for Best Supporting Actress. She was strong and smart, and did a wonderful job.
Of all the actors, my favorite was Virginia Weidler, who played Tracy’s mischievous younger sister, Dinah Lord.
Miss Weidler steals every scene she’s in, with her precocious wit and humor. She isn’t like a talented kid. She’s a talented screwball comedy actress, who just happened to be 13 years old.
In the picture above, she’s doing her part in the subterfuge, wherein the Lord family tries to act far more eccentric and crazy than they really are, so as to lend credence to the reporters’ preconceived notions. While the reporters relax in one of the parlors, she enters the room en pointe, and introduces herself, speaking rapid-fire French. Then she announces she can play piano and “sing at the same time.” She prances into the adjoining music room, and launches into a raucous version of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”
Seriously, I found her scenes to be the absolute funniest. She had some awesome lines, to be sure (“I can tell things are in the air, since I’m being taken away.”) She is a ham, but in the best possible way.
Sadly, Virginia Weidler had a limited Hollywood career. She was hired as a sort of counterpart to Shirley Temple, and had some good roles in big films. However, she wasn’t especially pretty, and her career was done before her 18th birthday. Sad.
But Virginia Weidler was a little scene-stealer in this film, something hard to do when you have Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn acting alongside you.
The final act drags a wee bit–just in comparison to the rapid-fire rest of the film–but “The Philadelphia Story” is one of my 20 favorite films, and definitely one of the all-time great romantic screwball comedies.