Star-powered screwball comedy: The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

tps

A few things about The Philadelphia Story (to which I can’t even begin to do justice):

1. Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant are wonderful. The other actors are a little unlucky to be onscreen with such star power (especially John Howard, who has to be compared to Grant and Stewart), but I think Virginia Weidler is great – she has to do some strange things, but still has a better grasp on what she’s doing than any other child actor I’ve seen in a long while.

2. TPS has got me thinking about the relationship between cinema and theatre. It seems like many a great older film is adaptated from a play, but this hardly ever happens anymore. Perhaps you could say that film, like television, tried to draw on theatre as a source of respectability in its early years, and no longer needs to do this. Or you could say that audiences nowadays demand spectacle and speed. Maybe neither statement is true. I’ll just say that I do love watching an adaptation from a play that’s cast with fine actors, full of complex characters, and packed with dialogue that does your head in. If the story that TPS was filmed without any retakes is true, then it speaks volumes about the quality of its actors.

3. I’m not going to suggest that TPS is more sexist than, say, Knocked Up or I Don’t Know How She Does It, but a hefty portion of the film is built around some unsettling assumptions about Hepburn’s Tracy Lord. Sure, she has some valid character flaws, but these could have been written in a way that didn’t make it seem like she’s being punished for being independent-minded. Her apology to her adulterous jackass of a father is hard to watch. It’s even more uncomfortable to think that contemporary audiences saw Hepburn herself as arrogant and enjoyed watching her learn humility.

4. Despite this, TPS is fun whilst being awe-inspiring. I love the lapse in time between Tracy downing several glasses of champagne in quick succession and her carousing with Mike on the night before her wedding. Stewart’s surprised “Wheeee!” as Hepburn pushes him around in a wheeled chair is a standout, as is the way Hepburn delivers the greetings to each of Tracy’s love interests the next morning.

5. I saw quite a few James Stewart movies in 2012 (Anatomy of a Murder, Harvey, No Highway in the Sky, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Winchester ‘73, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but I like his performance in this one best. He seems more grown-up, perhaps, and just makes everything look easy.

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2 thoughts on “Star-powered screwball comedy: The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

  1. VWRS-ginnyfan (@VWRSginnyfan) 02/05/2014 / 7:26 am

    Thank you for the kind words on Virginia Weidler. I’d love to know how similar the stage Dinah was to this one since it is hard to imagine someone other than Ginny in the role.

    Unfortunately for her, MGM then spent the next three years trying to write new Dinahs for her to play instead of allowing that versatile girl to ACT. As soon as she was too old to play the faux-Dinahs, MGM stopped putting her in films.

    And that is our loss.

    • cmaskel 02/05/2014 / 10:50 am

      Thanks for the info – though it is sad, of course. It’s obvious from this film that she had a lot of talent.

      I’m going to check out a couple of her pre-The Philadephia Story films, particularly The Women and All This, and Heaven Too. Do you recommend any others?

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