The Philadelphia Story is considered one of the key screwball comedies, which were a kind of fast-paced, witty romantic comedy made during the ’30s and ’40s. They have very little to do with what we call the dreaded “romcom” now—they were darker, more cynical, and had far more well-rounded male and female characters than your modern romantic comedies. The tropes of the modern romcom were created then, but today all the cynicism and interesting characters are missing.
This film has three of the most iconic bonafide film stars in history in the same film: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. It’s also the film which pretty much saved Hepburn’s career, which was lagging behind after a string of flops. Cary Grant was at the height of his powers as a leading man, and it was years before he became an early proponent of a little clear substance known as LSD. Stewart had already done a couple of Frank Capra films, but hadn’t made that transition into being a megastar yet—and very soon after this release his career was slightly derailed again because of his military service during WW2. However, after The Philadelphia Story, any kind of career problems for these actors were yesterday’s news.
Hepburn plays the rich Tracey Lord, who is planning to marry again. However, her ex-husband Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up with a journalist (played by Stewart) and a photographer the night before. Her fiancee is a rich businessman and aspiring politician, but of course everything goes topsy-turvy. It’s one of the great meetings of movie stars in the history of cinema, and a rare example of it in comedy, normally it’s found in action films like Heat, with the famous standoff of Pacino vs. De Niro.
The film was directed by George Cukor, who was primarily known for comedies and melodramas. The year before The Philadelphia Story he was fired from Gone With The Wind and replaced by Victor Fleming, who also directed most of The Wizard of Oz the same year—how he did that is beyond me. In 1939 Cukor also directed The Women, which saved Joan Crawford’s reputation, which was trending towards box-office poison at the time. As always, Cukor brought his witty and classy style of filmmaking to everything he did, and The Philadelphia Story was no exception.
I personally don’t like the film as much as the Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges take on the screwball comedy, and Hawks use of Grant in His Girl Friday. However, it’s still an endlessly charming and witty “comedy of remarriage,” which was a sub-genre within the screwball comedy form for a while. Stewart is wonderful, but I do have a preference for his darker roles in post-war films, which of course started with everybody’s favourite film about a man on the brink of suicide, It’s a Wonderful Life. He always had a dark side to in his performances even when he was doing comedies, and that was probably unconsciously intensified by his war experiences.
Criterion has compiled a nice section of features as always, including one about Hepburn’s own connection to Tracey Lord and the original playwright Philip Barry. It’s followed by another newly made featurette about Hepburn’s involvement with the film, with some testimonies by people who worked with her later in his career. The film scholar Jeanine Basinger supplies a commentary, while there are two episodes of the Dick Cavett show with Hepburn and then another with Cukor. Finally there is a radio version of the film, the trailer, a restoration demonstration, and a booklet with an essay by Farran Smith Nehme.