Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Four

4 story

#4 — The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

The Philadelphia Story is all about Katharine Hepburn. More specifically, the enigma code that unlocks why The Philadelphia Story is so great begins with Hepburn as the key. In the late nineteen-thirties, Hepburn’s struggles to generate consistent mass appeal among the moviegoing public led to the coining of the persistent dismissive “box office poison” (though the term has historically hung around Hepburn’s neck, other future unquestionaed icons of the silver screen such as Fred Astaire and Mae West were name-checked in the same infamous article). As headstrong in her professional navigation as she was on screen, Hepburn took matters into her own hands, helping to develop a stage play intended to showcase her particular talents, specifically the mixture of daffy charm and forceful self-assurance that would effectively stand as her defining screen persona.

The plot is locked into the era. Hepburn plays Tracy, a privileged high society doyenne who is about to married to an upstanding man named George (John Howard). Complications arise through the continued attention of her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cart Grant) and the newfound kindling of emotion from the cynical reporter assigned to cover her wedding, a fellow named Mike Connor (James Stewart). The film lovingly follows the play’s farcical rhythms while wisely developing a more cinematic ease designed to find the sweet spot that would allow audiences to find the chaotic romantic combat endearing rather than aggressive or needlessly fussy. Director George Cukor had the advantage of playing to his specialty: making complicated storytelling feel frisky and buoyant. The Philadelphia Story alternates between earthy honesty and blissed out playfulness, always without sacrificing a connection to the casual realities of the piece.

And then there’s Hepburn. Of course the prime showcases for the actress involved her pairings with Spencer Tracy, the onscreen acting dance that practically defines chemistry. But there’s an argument to be made that Cary Grant was actually her ideal foil, bringing out an unpredictable looseness in the actress. The Philadelphia Story represented their fourth big screen pairing, and the combative comfort they exhibit perfectly suits a perpetually smitten couple still nursing old wounds. The exhibition of otherwise untapped strengths is on display throughout the film, as Grant finds a onscreen partner with a similarly revelatory dance in Stewart. Grant needs to focus a little more sharply than usual with the skilled, slightly off-kilter Stewart, and the piercing earnestness of Stewart is given a tousle by Grant’s disaffected charm. The film then provides exactly what should result from any vehicle that provides a convergence of major stars: a chance to see them in a new light, one that shines quite differently from that cast upon any of their other familiar roles. If The Philadelphia Story was notable in its time for rescuing Hepburn’s career, it endures because it shows how a smartly written, perfectly executed film can fully open up the possibilities for every actor that strides through its inventive glories.

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