The Philadelphia Story Movie Review
Director: George Cukor
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart), Best Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Hussey), Best Director, Best Picture
About halfway through The Philadelphia Story, an adorably drunk and hopelessly lustful Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” And therein lies the simple, yet beautiful plot of this enduring and fabulous film.
The absolute charm of The Philadelphia Story lies in its casting. Starring the three deities of the Hollywood Golden Age: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles in this comical romantic farce about love, marriage, and re-marriage.
After divorcing her first husband and childhood sweetheart, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is planning to get remarried. Her new fiancée, George (John Howard) is everything Dexter isn’t…he’s soft, humble, adoring, and perhaps most importantly, safe.
When scandal rag Spy Magazine gets wind of a new socialite wedding, reporter Mike Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are assigned to the case. Fearful they won’t be accepted into the Lord’s home willingly, Mike and Liz are introduced to Tracy as friends of her brother by one Dexter Haven, who also works for Spy. Though the rest of the Lord’s are easily duped, Tracy sees right through the ruse, but is persuaded to go along with it when Dexter tells her it’s a trade-off to keep a scandalous story about her father out of the tabloids.
As the ceremony looms, a love triangle, nay – square? – begins to form. Tracy becomes taken with Mike, Dexter is still nursing feelings for Tracy, Tracy is still set on marrying George and Liz is repressing her love for Mike. A LOT OF HORMONES ARE FLYING AROUND PHILLY, MY FRIENDS.
With fast-paced dialogue and smart humor, The Philadelphia Story is easily one of Hepburn’s best films…and Grant’s…and Stewart’s. Designed to resurrect Hepburn after she had been labeled “box office poison”, this film shot her back into the spotlight.
Fans of Jimmy Stewart no doubt already know about this movie and adore him in it. His performance as Mike Connor was so enduring that he ended up taking home the Oscar for Best Actor in 1940 (even though Stewart himself thought it should have gone to Henry Fonda for Grapes of Wrath). Effortlessly charming and sweet, this movie proves what a peerless entertainer Stewart was.
But the real credit here goes to Cary Grant. With fewer lines of dialogue, fewer dramatic scenes and fewer moments of comic intervention than anyone else, Dexter Haven must still remain the center of this romantic plot. He has to be wrong for Tracy at the beginning of the film, but still right for her as she changes throughout the storyline. He’s the solid pillar, the steadfast lover. When Tracy proclaims in a moment of weakness that she wants to be loved, not worshipped, it needs to be understood that the man for her is not George, who puts her on a pedestal, but Dexter, who loves her for her brilliant mind and strong spirit.
The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Hussey), and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won). It was also given the musical treatment in 1956 in a film called High Society (one of my absolute favorites!), which stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Grace Kelly in her final film.
It’s movies like this that make it hard to love today’s rom-coms. With wit, sarcasm and sophistication, The Philadelphia Story teaches us that love isn’t a sacrifice, but a partnership. It’s not about some great romantic gesture or reinventing yourself to fit some stereotype…it’s about finding someone who inspires you, challenges you, accepts you. For Tracy, and a good portion of the rest of us, that love was found, then lost, then found again. It may take patience, it may take time – but when you find it, it’s almost always worth the wait.