Katharine Hepburn possessed two great qualities which made her a star; the first was undoubtedly her unique and staunch New England mannerisms that simply teem with haughty excellence. But the other is guts. After skyrocketing to fame in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and winning a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933) Kate fell into the doldrums at RKO, starring in a string of flops incapable of maintaining her popularity. By the end of the 1930s she was unceremoniously branded ‘box office poison’ - a moniker that destroyed many a starlet's chances from hitting the big time ever again. But not Kate. Undaunted by Hollywood's snub of her talents she commissioned longtime friend and playwright Philip Barry to pen the Broadway smash The Philadelphia Story (1940) for her to star in, and then, purchased the film rights before the play was even produced. Hence, when the play’s smashing success could no longer be ignored, and MGM decided it wanted to make a film of it, they were contractually forced to consider Ms. Hepburn's terms.
First: cast Ms. Hepburn in the lead. Second, give Ms. Hepburn casting approval. Third, provide Ms. Hepburn with a director of her choosing. The idea of relinquishing so much control to a then has-been actress must have irked Hollywood’s raja, L.B. Mayer. But MGM was used to acquiring the best from Broadway, and The Philadelphia Story was the absolute very best. And Mayer, a mogul willing to take a gamble now and then, had absolutely nothing but high praise for Hepburn when the film version of The Philadelphia Story became MGM's biggest and brightest money maker of 1940. In retrospect, The Philadelphia Story was the primary catalyst for resurrecting Hepburn’s reputation in the movies. Without it she might have remained on the stage or simply faded into pop culture obscurity.
Hepburn also exerted influence over the Donald Ogden Stewart/Waldo Salt screenplay. It adheres to the construction and dialogue of Barry’s original with remarkable fidelity. Hepburn did, however, allow MGM’s costumier, Gilbert Adrian his fondness for designing playful ensembles of clothing for his star. In one sequence Hepburn wears a curious hat with a tassel, and in another she permits a rather flouncy ascot to decorate her neck. But on the whole the actress deferred to no one in the choices made on the set. Professional, but determined, she and Cukor toiled in unison on the evolution of the film; her preference for James Stewart and Cary Grant – two of the biggest names in Hollywood – illustrating just how much clout Hepburn wielded to ensure The Philadelphia Story on film rivaled the smashing success of its Broadway run.
The plot concerns Tracy Lord’s (Hepburn) pending marriage to George Kittredge (John Howard) a weak-willed man who cannot match Tracy's fiery temperament. Perhaps, that’s the reason Tracy has taken to him so completely: because he lacks the equally volcanic disposition of her former husband, C.K Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Tracy’s marriage to Dexter ended badly. She broke his golf clubs. He knocked her down. This memorable opener elicited roars of laughter and cheers when the film had its debut. In retrospect, it plays as something of a comeuppance – not for the character, but for Hepburn’s previous stint of failures at RKO; the independent female put back in her place.
But times have changed. Dexter has changed. More recently, he’s realized he still carries a torch for his ex. Fast forward to the weekend before Tracy’s second wedding. A family scandal involving Tracy's estranged father, Seth (John Halliday), and the wily machinations of her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) force Tracy into a very reluctant acceptance of a couple of tabloid journalists, Mike Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover her pending nuptials. It’s a bitter pill for Tracy to swallow. She harbors a deep resentment toward Seth ever since he cheated on her mother. But the plot is about to thicken in an unexpected way when Tracy discovers she desires Mike; an unexpected fall from grace that leads to the pair indulging their passion on a drunken binge and midnight swim. But that sort of flair up isn’t enough to build a relationship on. In fact, Tracy’s indiscretion humanizes her outlook on the men in her life. Repentantly she mends the relationship with her father and rediscovers all of the reasons she once loved Dexter. While George worships her as a goddess Dexter vibrantly embraces the woman beneath that rather cool and pristine exterior. So how does it all end...brilliantly – with a remarriage to Dexter, with Mike realizes he and Liz are an item that bears more investigating outside of the office.
For many years The Philadelphia Story remained a sparkling jewel in MGM’s canon of glossy, frothy romantic comedies. It was so enormously successful that the studio resurrected it as the champagne cocktail musical High Society (1956) a decade later - and to exceptionally good effect - with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Like its’ predecessor, High Society became the biggest and brightest money maker of its year. And High Society remains that rarity: a remake just as good as the original.
Warner's 2-disc SE is a welcomed treat. The B&W image has been impeccably mastered from very clean film elements. Contrast and tonality are superb. There is a minor hint of edge enhancement and some shimmering, but nothing that will distract. The transfer is crisp and refined with a solid amount of fine detail evident throughout. Film grain is adequately realized. The audio is mono but cleaned up and well represented with no hiss and pop. Extras include an audio commentary by Jeannine Basinger. On disc 2 we get two feature length documentaries; on George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn – the latter in the actress’ own words. There are also a couple of vintage short subjects and a gallery of trailers from other Cukor films and an audio only radio broadcast. Very nice and highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)