Review: ‘The Philadelphia Story’

'The Philadelphia Story'

Determined to be faithful until it hurts, Metro virtually transplanted the stage of the Shubert theatre (N.Y.) to the Coast, turned a camera on "The Philadelphia Story" and let go. Result--up to a certain point--is a slick picture. At the point itself, which covers roughly reels four to six inclusive, there's a bog of abstractions. Gait, however, is soon recaptured and the film romps home a winner.

Determined to be faithful until it hurts, Metro virtually transplanted the stage of the Shubert theatre (N.Y.) to the Coast, turned a camera on “The Philadelphia Story” and let go. Result–up to a certain point–is a slick picture. At the point itself, which covers roughly reels four to six inclusive, there’s a bog of abstractions. Gait, however, is soon recaptured and the film romps home a winner.

It’s definitely not a celluloid adventure for wee lads and lassies and no doubt some of the faithful watchers-out for other people’s souls are going to have a word about that. Even the famed swimming pool episode, which caused some tsk-tsking and brow-hiking on Broadway, has been boldly re-produced in Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay of Phillip Barry’s legit hit. So has Uncle Willie’s wolfy habit of pinching pretty young ladies’ derrieres.

All of which, in addition to a generous taste of socialite quaffing to excess and talk of virtue, easy and uneasy, makes “The Philadelphia Story” a picture every suburban mamma and poppa must see–after Junior and little Elsie Dinsmore are tucked away. Producer Joe Mankiewicz has tossed in the works to turn out as sophisticated a picture as Mr. and Mrs. Know-what-it’s-all-about are likely to see.

The smarties are going to relish “Philadelphia Story” a lot more than the two-bit trade; they’re going to get a boot out of catching on to such subtleties as photog Ruth Hussey’s crack to reporter Jimmy Stewart after he’s been neatly put in his place by Cary Grant: “Here’s a handkerchief. There’s spit in your eye and it shows.” A number of such are, no doubt, going to pass ’em by.

It’s Katharine Hepburn’s picture just as it was her show, but with as fetching a lineup of thesp talent as is to be found, she’s got to fight every clever line of dialog all of the way to hold her lead. Pushing hard is little Virginia Weidler, the kid sister, who has as twinkly an eye with a fast quip as a blinker light. Ruth Hussey is another from whom director George Cukor has milked maximum results to get a neat blend of sympathy-winning softness under a python-tongued smart-aleckness. As for Cary Grant, James Stewart and Roland Young, there’s little to be said that their reputation hasn’t established. John Howard, John Halliday and Mary Nash, in lesser roles, more than adequately fill in what Philip Barry must have dreamt of when he wrote the play.

For Miss Hepburn this is something of a screen comeback. Whether it means she has reestablished herself in pictures is something that can’t be said from this viewing for she doesn’t play in “The Philadelphia Story”; she is “The Philadelphia Story.” The perfect conception of all flighty but characterful Main Line socialite gals rolled into one, the story without her is almost inconceivable. Just the right amount of beauty, just the right amount of disarray in wearing clothes, just the right amount of culture in her voice – it’s no one but Hepburn.

Story is localed in the very social and comparatively new (for Philly, 1860) Main Line sector in the suburbs of Quakertown. Hepburn, divorced from Grant, a bit of rather useless uppercrust like herself, is about to marry a stuffed-bosom man of the people (Howard). Grant, to keep Henry Daniell, publisher of the mags Dime and Spy (Time and Life, get it?) from running a scandalous piece about Miss Hepburn’s father (Halliday), agrees to get a reporter and photog into the Hepburn household preceding and during the wedding. Stewart and Miss Hussey are assigned and Grant, whose position as ex-husband is rather unique in the mansion, manages to get them in under a pretext.

Everyone, nevertheless, knows why Stewart and Hussey are there and the repartee is swift. Night before the wedding, everyone gets well steeped in champagne and a number of things happen. Among them Miss Hepburn and Stewart raise an infatuation and somewhere around 5 a.m. go swimming in the family pool. They come back to meet fiance, Howard, who will scarcely believe it was just a dunk they were after and the marriage is washed up, leading to a hilarious finale.

When the acid tongues are turned on at beginning and end of the film it’s a laugh-provoker from way down. When the discussion gets deep and serious, however, on the extent of Hepburn’s stone-like character, the verbiage is necessarily highly abstract and the film slows to a toddle. Discussion of Miss Hepburn’s virginity despite her marriage to Grant should season the talk somewhat, but it doesn’t.

Picture is dressed like only Metro can do it. Sets will get no squawks from Philadelphians, catching not only the appearance but the spirit of the Main Line in sufficient quantity to make a native homesick. Franz Waxman has provided a sparse score nicely filling the gaps to sharpen the dialog.

Film will play a few dates in December, but will be held for general release until Jan. 10, as the agreement with the Theatre Guild, which produced the legiter, forbids distribution before then. That’s to prevent conflict with the show, which is on the road again after a summer layoff during which Miss Hepburn worked in the picture. Play uncorked in New York March 28, 1939, and ran until March 30, 1940.


1940: Best Actor (James Stewart), Screenplay.

Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Supp. Actress (Ruth Hussey)

The Philadelphia Story


M-G-M. Director George Cukor; Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Screenplay Donald Ogden Stewart; Camera Joseph Ruttenberg; Editor Frank Sullivan; Music Franz Waxman; Art Director Cedric Gibbons, Wade B. Rubottom. Previewed in Projection Room, N.Y., Nov. 25, '40.


(B&W) Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1940. Running time: 112 MIN.


C. K. Dexter Haven - Cary Grant Tracy Lord - Katharine Hepburn Macaulay Connor - James Stewart Elizabeth Imbrie - Ruth Hussey George Kittredge - John Howard Unlce Willie - Roland Young Seth Lord - John Halliday Margaret Lord - Mary Nash Dinah Lord - Virginia Weldler Sidney Kidd - Henry Daniell Edward - Lionel Pape Thomas - Rex Evans

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