THE PHILADELPHIA STORY: Blu-ray (MGM, 1940) Criterion
Katharine Hepburn possessed two great qualities destined to make her a star; the first, undeniably, her unique and staunch New England mannerisms that simply teem with haughty wherewithal and a flair for dramatic excellence. When Kate speaks it’s usually with an impossible directness. One can sense almost immediately the presence of accomplishment, forewarned perhaps, even to tread cautiously into a conversation, lest Kate either get bored with you or merely pick apart that quality you have misjudged as cleverness or cunning, but she can spot at a moment’s glance and correctly mark as superficial and charm-free brown-nosing. The other great quality in Hepburn’s arsenal was guts. I adore Kate. But I do not think there would be any place for her in today’s Hollywood if another like her emerged to tempt the spotlight. Even in her youth, Hepburn somehow lacked the all-important ‘sex appeal’ to be bottled and sold like a fizzy soft drink to the American public. Indeed, there isn’t anything ‘soft’ about Kate – the great – Hepburn and that, ironically, continues to make her so gosh darn appealing to audiences today. “They’re sweet about me now,” Hepburn once told 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer in a 1970’s interview, “You know like you get affection for a building or something…because I’ve been around so long.” Asked by Safer to quantify what sort of building she saw herself as, Hepburn amusedly quipped, “The flatiron building!” And, reflecting upon this rather snap assessment, one can definitely see the parallels between that triangular 22-story steel-framed landmark in New York and Hepburn’s sterling persona; the veneer between the public and private Kate crisp, up front, no nonsense, and without the architectural frills to deflect from her rather stark, if infectious ambience.
Hepburn is so very much a departure from today’s leading lady, and even more refreshingly set apart from her own crop of competitors it really is no wonder her reputation as one of the all-time greats has endured. Yet it is perhaps even more shocking to consider how easily she almost came to an end by the mid-1930’s. After skyrocketing to fame in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and winning a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933) Kate Hepburn foundered inside the artistic gristmill that was RKO, starring in a string of flops, incapable of maintaining her box office clout and popularity. By 1939 she was unceremoniously branded ‘box office poison’ - a moniker to derail many a star’s chances from ever hitting the big time again. But not Kate. Undaunted by Hollywood's snub she commissioned longtime friend and playwright, Philip Barry to pen The Philadelphia Story (1940); then, purchased the film rights before the play was even produced. We must remember that in the 1930’s live theater’s reputation superseded that of the movies – despite the latter’s overwhelming popularity with the public. A bona fide thespian of the ‘legitimate’ theater would never be caught debasing his/her talents on the silver screen; trading the adoration of an opening night’s applause for those flickering shadows on a wall. More to the point, movie actresses were marked the ‘lesser’ grade. So, Hepburn’s determination to take on the Great White Way and conquer it is all the more impressive. Hence, when The Philadelphia Story’s smashing success could no longer be ignored, and MGM’s L.B. Mayer decided he wanted to make a film of it, he was contractually obligated, not only to cast Hepburn in the lead, but also, settle on her terms of employment.
Her place in the movie version assured, Kate asked for Spencer Tracy and Ronald Colman as her costars. Mayer balked, but came up with a winning second choice – Cary Grant; also, James Stewart – then, a relative newcomer. Hepburn also demanded script and director approval. Done! Kate’s good friend, George Cukor was brought in to shape the material. Known for his ability to coax great performances from temperamental beauties, Cukor’s ‘easy way’ with Kate practically assured smooth sailing ahead. And yet, like all relationships Hepburn was to foster throughout her career, even this one had begun on very shaky terms. At her audition for A Bill of Divorcement, Cukor initially labeled Kate’s performance idiotic, “…but you put the glass down with tenderness…and you listened.” Decades later, Cukor would determine, “Kate was never a ‘I’m lovable’ kind of actress. She always challenged the audience and that wasn’t the fashion in those days. On the hoof, when people first saw her, they felt something arrogant in her playing. But later, by sheer feeling and skill she could bend them to her will. Of course, her quality of not asking for pity, not caring whether people liked her or not, was ideal for The Philadelphia Story. But real talent is a mystery and people who’ve got it know it.” Still, the idea of relinquishing so much control to an actress, not so very long ago considered a ‘has been’ must have irked Hollywood’s raja. Nevertheless, L.B. Mayer was used to acquiring the very best of Broadway, and there was little to dispute The Philadelphia Story as quite simply the best. So Mayer, a mogul willing to 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 is the catalyst for Hepburn’s big screen resurrection. Without it she might have remained a relic of the stage or simply faded under the pall of klieg lights and into pop culture obscurity.
Hepburn also exerted influence over the Donald Ogden Stewart/Waldo Salt screenplay. As such, the movie adheres to the construction and dialogue of Barry’s original stagecraft with remarkable fidelity. Hepburn did, however, allow MGM’s costumier, Gilbert Adrian his fondness for designing playful ensembles of clothing. In one sequence she wears a coquettish hat with a tassel, and in another she permits a rather flouncy ascot to adorn her long neck. But on the whole, the actress deferred to no one in the many other creative choices to be made. Professional, but determined, Hepburn and Cukor toiled in unison on the evolution of the film; her ability to secure both James Stewart and Cary Grant – two of the biggest names in Hollywood – illustrating just how much clout she wielded behind the scenes. “It was a very happy picture to make,” Cukor would later confide, “Philip Barry’s comedies always had damn good situations and like all good comedies the story was something that could have played seriously as well. I find it wonderful to take a serious subject and treat it with a kind of impertinence and gaiety. Phil Barry always skated on thin ice.” Indeed, the ice is exceptionally thin in The Philadelphia Story’s opening scene as Kate’s Newport princess, Tracy Lord pursues her disgruntled and soon to be ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) out the front door; cracking over her knee and in two his golf clubs with deliciously venomous spite. Approaching her from behind, Dexter’s first inclination to strike Tracy down is blunted by either his good sense or waning, though nevertheless lingering affections; Grant, instead, taking Hepburn’s face full in the palm of his hand and violently knocking her to the ground. This scene received a resounding cheer in 1940. At least in part, it reset audiences’ impressions of Hepburn as the impervious and arrogant film goddess decidedly brought down a peg or two from her perch of self-importance.
When The Philadelphia Story premiered, Bosley Crowthers gave it a glowing review, adding, it had everything a blue-chip romantic comedy ought – sassy wit, sophistication, and air of wounded longing, with a gutsy heroine, ideally matched by her as passionate ex-hubby/suitor. The Philadelphia Story is so much Hepburn’s show her male counterparts are somewhat diminished in her presence. It is important to remember that while both Cary Grant and James Stewart had already established themselves in the movies neither as yet had attained the status of a legend in his own time. Grant’s is the flashier part and he delivers as only Cary Grant can: with an element of the suave seamlessly stitched to an undercurrent of unapologetic and clear-eyed frankness. He never allows Tracy to entirely possess the upper hand. It is actually easy to see why these two divorced in the first place; neither willing to budge and inch on the finer points in their flawed marriage. Grant’s Dexter is a smart cookie – as direct, determined and forthright as his ex-wife. Into this mix is inserted the cinema’s ‘every man’ – James Stewart, as tabloid columnist, Mike Connor.
Tracy’s unlikely dalliance with Mike, amounting to one moonlit swim and a little badinage brought about by the elixir of too many champagne bubbles, is smoothed out by Stewart’s infinite charm. As a young man, James Stewart oft played the rather blunt-focused romantic fop, curt with his admonishment of the female sex for having their way with him, though ultimately giving in to their charms. In The Philadelphia Story he never bows to Tracy, yet seems as readily to bend to her gravitational pull on his heart strings; declaring an experience of ‘home fires and holocausts’ emanating from Tracy’s unfulfilled passion. Alas, Tracy is too much woman for Mike. The only time Stewart can marginally establish himself as Hepburn’s potential equal is during the post-swim confessional, her tiara and inhibitions having slipped from too much to drink and allowing his genial sheepishness to acquire the faux patina of a more adult charm. Cary Grant, on the other hand, is every bit Hepburn’s equal. His Dexter is precisely the man her Tracy must wind up with in order to be eternally happy. Resisting the inevitable is ultimately what fuels their passionate sparks – embers momentarily stifled by Tracy’s guarded insecurities about running true to form for the women in her family (mama is a divorcee too). Despite Tracy’s best efforts, and, a new engagement to the, as yet unmentioned, George Kittredge (John Howard in a thoroughly thankless part) she is destined to come full circle with all the incinerating qualities of a white-hot love affair never meant to have cooled in the first place.
The plot concerns Tracy Lord’s pending marriage to George Kittredge - a milquetoast. After her fiery relationship with Dexter, George is just what Tracy needs…or so she believes. At any rate, George is refreshingly dull rather than volcanic. Tracy’s marriage to Dex’ ended badly. She broke his golf clubs. He knocked her down. But now, times have changed. Dexter has changed. More recently, he has come to realize he still carries the proverbial torch for his ex. Fast forward to the weekend before Tracy’s wedding to George. A family scandal involving Tracy's estranged father, Seth (John Halliday), and the wily machinations of her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) force her to accept two tabloid journalists, Mike ‘Macaulay’ Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover her nuptials for ‘Spy’ Magazine. It is a bitter pill for Tracy to swallow. Moreover, she harbors a deep and abiding resentment for Seth ever since he cheated on her mother. Alas, arrangements for the weekend are about to curdle in an unexpected way after Tracy allows her glacial façade of propriety to slip just enough to indulge a romantic whim with Mike. This unexpected fall from grace leads to a riotous drunken binge and midsummer night’s swim in a moonlit pool. Tracy quickly reasons her ‘indiscretion’ is not enough of a foundation to build a real relationship. But has it been quite enough to wreck the rocky foundation of the one she is in already? Recognizing how ‘easy’ it is to have a moment’s lapse of moral judgement humanizes Tracy’s outlook on the other men in her life. Repentantly, she mends the broken father/daughter bond and rediscovers all the reasons she once loved Dex. While George worships Tracy, always having stood in awe of her beauty as a ‘high priest’ looking upon the virgin goddess, conversely Dexter knows Tracy much too well for any such blindsided naiveté. So how does it all end...brilliantly – with Tracy’s remarriage to Dex, and the sadder but wiser Mike recognizing Liz is the only gal for him. Poor George…always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
The Philadelphia Story put Kate Hepburn back on top; arguably, Teflon-coating her box office appeal as well as catapulting it into the stratosphere for decades yet to follow. From 1940 onward Hepburn attained an enviable level of super stardom few of her contemporaries enjoyed. Her teaming with Spencer Tracy in 1942, for the first of nine memorable movies, was magical. Their extracurricular affair in real life ran an enchanted parallel course, despite Tracy’s Catholic faith. He never divorced his wife to marry Hepburn, nor did she petition for the honor to be called the second Mrs. Tracy. When Spence’ died shortly after the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Kate did not attend his funeral, electing instead to allow his family to grieve. For many years, The Philadelphia Story has remained a sparkling jewel in MGM’s canon of glossy, frothy romantic comedies; so successful, the studio resuscitated it as High Society (1956) that champagne cocktail of a musical, co-starring Bing Crosby (as Dexter), Grace Kelly (Tracy) and Frank Sinatra (Mike). With music by Cole Porter, just like its predecessor, High Society became Metro’s bell-ringer of the year – a rarity: a movie remake as good as the original.
Warner Home Video has licensed The Philadelphia Story to Criterion for its hi-def debut. Personally, I do not care where they choose to parcel off their extensive libraries so long as the hits keep coming with such regularity and looking this good! This new to Blu release is gorgeous but problematic. Those already baptized into the glossy world of MGM, and cinema virgins alike should be exceptionally pleased with the results - mostly. Advertised as a new 4K digital restoration with PCM audio, The Philadelphia Story on Blu-ray offers a very solid upgrade to Warner’s own 2-disc SE DVD from 2005. Everything tightens up as it should. The B&W image is exceptionally clean. Minute traces of dirty and scratches that were evident on the old DVD have been completely eradicated here. Contrast is bang on superb. A minor hint of edge enhancement in the titles persists (I am not exactly certain ‘how’ or ‘why’ – by now, such digital anomalies should be antique). The 'edge effects' persist throughout, but are kept to a minimum. The image is slightly brighter than its DVD counterpart and Criterion’s framing shows more information on all four sides of the screen. Extras are a mixed bag. While Criterion has ported over the 2005 audio commentary by Jeannine Basinger, originally featured on the DVD, it has jettisoned the two feature-length documentaries that were included with Warner’s 2-disc outing: the first, on George Cukor, the second involving Katharine Hepburn in her own words.
These are unforgivable absences in my opinion, forcing one to hang onto the old DVD simply for these extras, unlikely to resurface anywhere else anytime soon. In lieu of these shortages, Criterion has commissioned a ‘new’ intro to Kate’s legacy by documentarians, David Heeley and Joan Kramer (not as good as the aforementioned doc) and, infinitely more engaging, ‘In Search of Tracy Lord’ – a new feature-length documentary on the origins of the character and her social milieu. We should also tip our hats here to Criterion for offering up two full episodes of The Dick Cavett Show; both from 1973, featuring rare interviews with Hepburn, as well as a 1978 excerpt with George Cukor. Criterion’s affinity for Lux Radio shows is intact – this one from 1943. Finally, there is a restoration demonstration, a trailer and written essay by film critic, Farran Smith Nehme. Bottom line: The Philadelphia Story is required viewing – period. Criterion’s inability to clear the rights to the aforementioned docs included on Warner’s ole DVD is disappointing. The extras that replaced them are ‘okay’ but not as comprehensive. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)