1940, George Cukor
Based on the play by Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story is a classic Hollywood comedy whose story is all set-up in order to get its wickedly good actors on the screen together and let them do what they do best. As Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) prepares for her wedding, her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) arrives with a young journalist (James Stewart) and his photographer (Ruth Hussey), eager to get the scoop on the big day. The upcoming nuptials serve as the perfect excuse to get these characters within the same household for a few days and once they are, things begin to get mighty complicated.
I have to admit that this one took a while to get going for me, but once it did I quickly began to enjoy it immensely. The script by Donald Ogden Stewart doesn’t feel as quick or as funny as it should, but the actors more than make up for it as all of them deliver in spades. Hepburn controls the screen the way that only she can, eating it all up gloriously with her commanding presence every step of the way. She starts off fierce and with a lot of bite, but as the relationships evolve and more of her character is pulled onto the surface, she starts to turn in a surprisingly emotional portrait of a woman at odds with what she wants and what she needs.
Cary Grant surprisingly takes the more secondary character here, as Haven is much more inclined to sit back and obverse the rest of the proceedings than to get himself involved directly. It’s an interesting take for Grant to go with since he’s usually up front and center, but he makes the most of it with delightful reactions the whole way through. For me though, the picture was ultimately stolen by Jimmy Stewart, who gives what might just be my favorite performance of his that I’ve seen. I generally enjoy his comedic work, but I never knew just how absolutely hilarious he could be until I saw this.
His character, Macaulay Connor, is way out of his element with these people (Liz Imbrie, his photographer, seems like she fits right in) and seeing him insert his endearing, tilted charm into their world was a joy. Few things have made me laugh harder in recent memory than him getting obliterated with alcohol and showing up to Haven’s doorstep, ranting and raving about his boss. With the perfect addition of the hiccups to the mix (something Stewart came up with on the spot himself), this whole sequence was a total riot that still has me laughing now when I think about it.
It all builds to a typically charming ending, and it’s a lot of fun in the process. Maybe not quite the delight that I was hoping for, (and I do have some personal reservations with some of what it has to say about infidelity) The Philadelphia Story was still a real treat highlighted by an excellent cast who were at the top of their game together. All of the actors had tremendous chemistry with one another, proving that when it comes to comedy there’s really nothing better than a pitch-perfect ensemble to bounce off of.
Film #258 of The 365 Film Challenge.