Whenever conversation turns to film comedies, someone will invariably make the comment that the fast-paced comedies of the 1930s and 1940s represent a high water mark in the history of the genre. While this “they-don’t-make-‘em-like-that-anymore” attitude can become a little tiresome, especially in the face of any number of counter-examples taken from the past decade alone, this delightful adaptation of Philip Barry’s stage play oozes quality, class and professionalism to such a high degree that its place near the top of the pile seems eternally assured. The American Film Institute ranked it fifteenth in its recent Top 100 American Film Comedies of All Time. As with the best of comedies, though, beneath the rapid-fire banter lurks an altogether darker movie.
The film’s backdrop is Philadelphia high society, an apparent wonderland of carefree abandon and endless martinis, which the audience sees through the jaundiced eyes of a couple of snooping reporters from Spy magazine, assigned to infiltrate the wedding of the season with the help of the bride’s embittered ex-husband.
Positioned as cats amongst the pigeons, the reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) certainly have the makings of very promising story. The bride-to-be, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn at her most Katherine Hepburn-ish) has chosen to put as much distance as possible between herself and her previous marriage, to the loutish-but-charming (i.e. alcoholic) C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), by selecting as her husband that most hallowed of screwball comedy figures: the Inoffensive But Handsome Dullard Who Offers Security But No Real Passion Or Excitement (the doting, puppyish John Howard).
According to formula, the film’s sympathies would lie with the hopeful ex, and the script would be structured around his reappearance and the woman’s slow realization that she has made a ‘dreadful mistake’, and that all the security in the world is for nothing without the sensuality and playfulness she rediscovers in the company of her former beau.
The Philadelphia Story, however, is a little more complicated and doesn’t adhere to formula. Haven is an unnervingly cruel and unsympathetic character. The very first scene of the film shows him wordlessly leaving her: packing his things into the car, then striding back over to the house to push her to the floor (he raises his fists before he does so, no doubt making it clear what he would rather be doing if only he wasn’t being played by Cary Grant). His alcoholism is front-and-center throughout, and his exchanges with Hepburn are unusually heavy on the point-scoring recriminations and bitter mind-games, and light on the sexual chemistry and fond trips down memory lane.
It is in the company of Stewart’s Macaulay Connor, rather, that Hepburn comes to life. He is the only male character in the film to treat her like a human being. One of the major themes of The Philadelphia Story is that of men’s idolization of women, and the problems it causes both parties. Tracy is referred to countless times, by her fiance, her ex-husband and by her father, as a “virgin goddess”, a “statue”, a “citadel”, a “distant queen”, and is roundly painted as a heartless, unfeeling creature made of bronze. Grant calls her “your Majesty” and accuses her of setting unrealistic standards for herself, when her only crime appears to have been kicking her drunken, abusive husband to the curb.
Yet in her stolen moments chatting to Stewart, Tracy lets down her guard and he drops his hard-bitten reporter persona. As the two of them amiably discuss his book of short stories or stagger drunkenly around a dance floor, the viewer is struck by the changes that come over them both. He is goofy and boyish, and her lackadaisical chatterbox is a far cry from the bloodless figurehead she is made out to be elsewhere. Every moment she pops into view is as welcome for the audience as it no doubt is for her.
Unusually, then, this is a film in which the heroine has to choose between not two, but three men, and despite her attempts to define herself on her own terms, she is ultimately powerless to stop herself from being shaped by their perceptions of her. This is all pretty bleak stuff. It is a tribute to The Philadelphia Story that it succeeds in constructing a sparkling comedy of manners around this beleaguered foursome.
There is not an ounce of fat on this film, and it moves along at a satisfying clip. Director George Cukor is one of the undisputed masters of the screwball comedy genre, and he wrings some excellent performances out of his first-rate cast. The scene in which a drunken Stewart pays a late night visit to Grant will always rank among the funniest in film history, the yardstick against which all other drunk scenes must forever be judged. Another surprising element is the presence of a child actor whose presence on screen is not simply tolerated, but welcome, if not downright looked forward to. Virginia Weidler steals scene after scene from this cast of comic heavyweights, and the sheer joy she takes in her precocious eye-rolling and knowing smirk remind the viewer of no-one short of Harpo Marx.
Overall though, the film is curiously downbeat. It is hard to accept the ending as a happy one, just as it is hard to watch a friend get back together for the millionth time with the partner you know is wrong for them, especially when the right person is so obviously standing right next to them. Still, the screwball comedy is a genre that thrives on conflict, so in Cukor’s universe, the final reconciliation must seem a match made in heaven.
– Ben Stephens