The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story – 1940

Director – George Cukor

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, and Cary Grant

A successful film often has more than one thing going for it.  A charismatic star, on their own, isn’t enough to hold up a mediocre story (as much as they might have you believe otherwise).  Likewise, a good story can’t endure under the weight of poor acting, and fantastic cinematography can easily translate to a beautiful yet forgettably boring film.  In order to succeed, the stars have to align, talented people who share a vision have to work together, and put aside their differences to create something that transcends each of, and all of them…or it’ll fall flat anyway despite all their best efforts.

The Philadelphia Story is one such film that, for me anyway, really fell flat fast.  If one were to take the film and separate it into its crucial elements, talent, crew, story, director, etc., the film looks undeniably strong on paper.  Unfortunately, again in my own humble opinion, it comes off as self-important, and more than a little trite not to mention, straight up boring. Rather than Cary Grant charming me with witty repartee and Jimmy Stewart making me feel as though justice has been done, I felt annoyed at each of their rather lack-luster and incomplete characters.  Both are caricatures of jealous sad-sacks that are found on sitcoms.

I’m afraid the jury is still out when it comes to Katharine Hepburn too.  I started out this project with a healthy, natural dislike of her, stemming mostly from the film Bringing Up Baby.  Then I was caught off guard by her lovely, feisty and moving turn in the film The African Queen.  Now I’m afraid I’m going back to square one with my impressions of her thanks to this film.  She starts off as a character that I rather enjoyed watching.  I liked her and agreed with her motivations, then she was transformed into a watered down milquetoast-ish, doormat type of woman who gets on my nerves almost immediately.

This criticisms are, of course, to say nothing of the fact that this film has been built up so highly from the outset.  So many people consider this film a classic and treat it as such.  All forms of criticism for it are too harsh, with the love story and the characters themselves being too dear to the hearts of those who enjoy it.  To be fair, I am not immune to such blind loyalty.  I would be utterly aghast at any criticism, and recklessly jump to the defense of a film such as, say, Total Recall.  But, I mean come on…it’s Total Recall.

So…the story.  As the film opens, we are dropped into the tumultuous marriage of Cary Grant’s, C.K. Dexter Haven, and his fire-brand of a wife Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.  The first thing we see is Dexter getting kicked out of his house by Tracy for reasons we will come to understand later.  Dexter leaves, but not until getting in one last bit of domestic violence.  Flash forward a bunch of (Years? Months? Days?) time and we find that Tracy is set to marry again, this time to a rather wealthy man whose new money status makes him a target for the local paper’s gossip section.

A photographer and reporter team (Stewart and Hussey as Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie respectively) are put on the job of getting the exclusive story of the impending nuptials.  Put up to it by their boss, in cahoots with Dexter, it looks as though it is a smear job engineered by Dexter to get revenge on his ex-wife.

More than anything the failure of this film rests with the lack of chemistry amongst its actors.  Jimmy Stewart, generally seen as a man who could get along with just about anyone, plays a man so filled with melancholy and disdain for the intended subjects of his writing, that he literally makes the worst newspaper reporter ever.  His girlfriend, frankly the most engaging character of the piece, Imbrie is stuck watching her albatross of a boyfriend drunkenly stagger through life and falling in love with another woman on a whim.  Grant, one of my normal favorite actors of the golden age of cinema, is surprisingly absent from this film, especially given that he is one of the headliners, but what I bristled most at was the transformation of the strong confident woman who was Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, reduced by guilt and criticism to just the sort of brainless weak-willed woman that she worked her entire career to rally against.

How dare she want a divorce from a husband who is a un-repentant alcoholic, or be angry at a father who cheats on her mother.  How dare she find a respectful, caring, man of considerable means despite the fact that he is not considered “old money”.  No wonder she is looked down upon by every other single character in this film, until she is brow-beaten into submission.  Each review I’ve read describes her as “snooty”, or “uppity”, and describes her treatment as her having “had it coming”.  How refreshing and unique a view. Yuck.

I found that I had checked out of this film pretty quickly and found little in the way of redeeming characteristics from that point forward.  At most, I can say that I saw this “classic”, and at least I can say that I’d rather have watched something else.  I’m a little surprised that George Cukor had so much to do with a film about a bunch of men putting an “uppity” woman in her place, seeing as how he has had a long history of working on films with capable women characters (A Star is Born, Wizard of Oz, and he’s worked with Katharine Hepburn before on Adam’s Rib which I assume falls into that demographic although I haven’t seen it myself).  This film was a rather large disappointment to me, and as such is not nearly recommendable, either for me or by me.

“I can not and will not endorse any work whose agenda it is to propagate the idea that anyone should stay in an abusive situation.  That is not love, nor is it amusing to dress it up as such.  A truly disgusting film.”  –  Ashley

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3 thoughts on “The Philadelphia Story (1940)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List | 1001 Movies…Before I Die!

  2. It is, without a doubt, a movie of it’s time. One that couldn’t, and dare I say, shouldn’t be made today. It seems that the old-fashioned politics of the film soured your reaction to it. I have to say that I really enjoy this film. I think it’s wonderful that some of the funniest lines are shared amongst the cast, something that you would never see today, with the star getting all the good lines. In terms of the films politics, it’s a bit sad that you overlooked the fact that CK Dexter Haven is actually a reformed alcoholic. But I guess that I’m splitting hairs.

    I think it’s interesting how a film like this came about during the “populate or perish” era. Where in practically all films, women and men were encouraged to get married and have children at any cost. Whereas you look at the films today, they are all encouraging us to find “our soulmate/the one”… is there a subtle depopulation agenda at work? Maybe, maybe not.

    On another topic, I liked Total Recall… but nothing beats Bladerunner. I wish Ridley Scott had made more of Phillip’s films.

    • I actually do remember that he is reformed, but still it seemed to me that Tracy was constantly getting grief from her entire family for being upset that he was an alcoholic. It might be a little much to make assumptions based on the actions of fictional characters, but it also seemed as though Dexter straightened out after losing her, so in truth the breakup seemed to help both characters. I just don’t understand the criticism she was subject to simply because she wanted out of that situation.

      I really like you’re theory about the subliminal depopulation agenda. If true, I’m ashamed to say that I would have never seen it coming. Now I’m gonna keep my eyes peeled.

      I like Blade Runner a fair amount, but I have to admit a certain borderline embarrassing love for all things cheesy action-movie. With it’s serious tone and adult treatment, Blade Runner flew a little out of my radar during my more formative years, though I’ve come to really appreciate it more and more as years go by.

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