The Philadelphia Story (1940)

philadelphia story poster 1940 movie
9.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 10/10
Visuals: 9/10

Clever script, good cast

Sometimes trapped in the time when the play was written and other times very modern

Movie Info

Movie Name:  The Philadelphia Story

Studio: MGM

Genre(s): Comedy/Drama

Release Date(s): December 5, 1940

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

philadelphia story cary grant james stewart

What’s your game?

Philadelphia socialite Tracy Samantha Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is getting married after a messy divorce from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).  Everyone wants to get pictures of the event and the marriage to up-and-comer George Kitterage (John Howard) is an event that Spy magazine is willing to go to any means to get.  With Haven as their in, writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) set to infiltrate the wedding against their own wishes.  With the farce on, the players are about to discover that The Philadelphia Story might revolve around them.

Directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story is a romantic comedy.  The film is based on the Philip Barry 1939 play and was well received upon its release.  The movie won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Stewart) and Best Screenplay with nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Hussey), and Best Director.  It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #901).

philadelphia story virginia weidler katharine hepburn

Give me some more action, sister!

I had to watch The Philadelphia Story in college as part of a comparison to “modern” rom-com type stories.  The film honestly is quite similar in structure and has surprisingly candid discussions about taboo subjects for the time (premarital sex, affairs, and divorce)…it also has some kind of weird takes on stuff as well that don’t sit as well in the PC world.

The movie isn’t as formulaic as you might think.  The story has enough twists and turns that you don’t exactly know how it could end.  In the end, the perceived pattern is what happens (in an ending that feels very much like a play ending…which it of course was), but there are interesting choices by characters throughout that give the movie charm…but also some raised eyebrows.  The first scene of the movie has Carey considering punching Hepburn in the face and instead slamming her to the ground.  Hepburn is seen as a “queen” who acts very liberated at points but also falls right in line.  The upwardly mobile George Kitterage is kind of seen as a hayseed that doesn’t belong there.  He does make assumptions, but he is lambasted for doing so because that means he doesn’t know his fiancée (who didn’t know what she was doing herself with a man she made a judgment call based on reading some short stories).  In addition to this, Elizabeth Imbrie is a character waiting in the wings for her “man” to come to her.  Some things in the film are progressive, but others feel like they belong in 1940.

philadelphia story somewhere over the rainbow katharine hepburn james stewart

It is always weird when a person in a movie is sing a “popular” song that is no so cemented like “Somwhere Over the Rainbow”

The cast is the dream team of a classic cast.  With Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart, you get classic performances that rank up with their other works for which they became famous.  While the almost shrinking violet approach mixed with a deeper knowledge of people makes Ruth Hussey stand out as Elizabeth, it is the young Virginia Weidler who seems to steal many of the scenes with her bombastic performance.

Adapting plays into movies can sometimes be difficult too.  The movie largely takes place in and around the mansion home of the Lords and the film is smartly scripted to give it enough variety in blocking and staging that it doesn’t feel confined.  The movie has a little slapstick but most of the humor comes from wordplay.

The Philadelphia Story is both a product of its time and something trying to break out of the standards of society with a lot of references to perceptions versus reality.  It feels like it is as edgy as it can be without making the characters “sinful”, but it also feels like the social status and behavior of the characters is kind of out of touch for younger audiences taking it out of context.  Overall, the film is solid, clever, and inventive…it truly is yare.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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