The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Eighty years ago, the film The Philadelphia Story premiered in New York City.  It has almost every one of my favorite classic Hollywood actors looking their most beautiful, it is directed by one of my very favorite classic Hollywood directors, it was produced by one of my very favorite classic Hollywood directors, it has snappy one-liners, and it has gallons of champagne.  You really really must watch it, as often as you can.

The Philadelphia Story was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1941. The film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 62 reviews, with an average rating of 8.8/10. The consensus reads: “Offering a wonderfully witty script, spotless direction from George Cukor, and typically excellent lead performances, The Philadelphia Story is an unqualified classic.” The site also ranked it as the Best Romantic Comedy of all time.

In 1995, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Title: The Philadelphia Story
Directed by: George Cukor
Produced by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by: Donald Ogden Stewart
Story by: Waldo Salt
Based on: The Philadelphia Story 1939 playby Philip Barry
Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Edited by: Frank Sullivan
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: December 26, 1940 (New York City), January 17, 1941 (US)
Running time: 112 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $914,000
Box office: $3.3 million
Academy Award Best Actor James Stewart
Academy Award Best Writing, Screenplay Donald Ogden Stewart

Tracy Lord is the elder daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line socialite family. She was married to C.K. Dexter Haven, a yacht designer and member of her social set, but divorced him two years prior, because, according to her father, he does not measure up to the standards she sets for all her friends and family: He drank too much for her taste, and, according to him, as she became critical of him, he drank more. Their only interaction while married, the film’s opening scene, is her breaking his golf clubs and him pushing her to the ground. Now, she is about to marry nouveau riche “man of the people” George Kittredge.

In New York, Spy magazine publisher Sidney Kidd is eager to cover the wedding, and assigns reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor and photographer Liz Imbrie. Kidd intends to use the assistance of Dexter, who has been working for Spy in South America. Dexter tells Kidd that he will introduce them as friends of Tracy’s brother Junius (a U.S. diplomat in Argentina). Tracy is not fooled, but Dexter tells her that Kidd has threatened the reputation of her family with an innuendo-laden article about her father’s affair with a dancer. Tracy deeply resents her father’s infidelity, which has caused her parents to live separately. Nonetheless, to protect her family’s reputation, she agrees to let Mike and Liz stay and cover her wedding.

Dexter is welcomed back with open arms by Tracy’s mother Margaret and teenage sister Dinah, much to Tracy’s frustration. She soon discovers that Mike has admirable qualities, and even seeks out his book of short stories in the public library. As the wedding nears, she finds herself torn between her fiancé George, Dexter, and Mike.

The night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time in her life, kisses Mike, and ultimately takes an innocent midnight swim with him. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterward, he assumes the worst. The next day, he tells her that he was shocked and feels entitled to an explanation before going ahead with the wedding. Yet, she admits she really has none, and realizes that he does not really know her at all. He has loved her as a perfect, ideal goddess – a virginal statue – and not as a human being and so she breaks off the engagement. By now she has a better understanding of her own imperfections and criticalness towards others. Tracy realizes that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike volunteers to marry her (much to Liz’s distress), but she graciously declines. Then, Dexter, who clearly planned to get her back all along, offers to marry her again, and she gladly accepts.

The stars of the film appeared in an adaptation on CBS Radio’s Lux Radio Theater, airing July 20, 1942, as the premiere episode of the special War Office Victory Theater series.  Lux presented it again in 1943, with Robert Taylor, Loretta Young, and Robert Young. It was also adapted on two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, first with Greer Garson, Henry Fonda, and Fred MacMurray (April 5, 1942), then with Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart reprising their film roles (March 17, 1947).

The film was adapted in 1956 as the MGM musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong, directed by Charles Walters.

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