Jerome’s 100 Favorite Movies Ever: The Philadelphia Story

(Check out the list so far)

The Movie: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

One Sentence Plot Summary: Katherine Hepburn sheds the idea of being box office poison in a star-studded screwball high society comedy.

Why It’s on the List: Like other movies on this list, The Philadelphia Story feels like a byproduct of its era, in this case the depression. Issues of class are lightly touched on in a very humorous way as Jimmy Stewart’s Macaulay Connor and Ruth Hessey’s Elizabeth Imbrie are a much lower caste than the other characters in the story. I’ll talk about Stewart later, but Hessey manages to steal the screen from Hall of Fame level movie performers with her zingers and genuineness. You cannot evaluate these performers with what you see in 2020 movies or even television shows. Hessey has a specific job to do, be the straw that stirs the drink and be hilarious. She does both exceedingly well.

I mentioned the idea of Katherine Hepburn being box office poison in the summary, and the Broadway was specifically written for her. She’s a natural for the role, not someone who is going to play the typical damsel like you see almost everyone else in this time period. Even though this movie is about high society woman ultimately getting married, she gets some time to shine and is treated as the lead.

I like Cary Grant in a number of his roles, especially when he’s doing a Hitchcock film, but he feels oddly muted here. Although the first name you see on the poster and in the credits, he doesn’t get near the screen time and dialogue as Hepburn and Stewart. I’m also not sure of his abilities as a husband or a drunk. Jimmy Stewart plays a drunk so incredibly well that he puts anyone else to shame.

The plot of this movie, like so many of its time, is just backdrop for zaniness. The repartee is the driving force of this movie. I can’t imagine caring about who ultimately gets married. Nonetheless, the back and forth is highly entertaining. There’s certainly an appeal to just watching movie stars be movie stars. It’s something that isn’t as important in an era of capes and a lot of genre based filmmaking. Putting these top three performers was an extreme rarity at this time. Now you get incredible casts all the time thanks to a more fuller awareness of actors and everyone not being loyal to one studio.

#problematic:   

*The list is quite long for this one. Just as I discussed in my Thin Man review, the movie promotes the idea of alcoholism as being funny. Jimmy Stewart is a great drunk though.

*The relationship between Dexter and Tracy is abusive. We even see Dexter shove Tracy in the first scene. I’m sure their second marriage will work out so much better than the first though.

*Katherine Hepburn does have some agency, but her destiny is ultimately to get married to one of three dudes.

*I love the idea that Connor and Imbrie are somehow destined to be married despite not showing any signs of romantic chemistry.

MVP: Katherine Hepburn is the primary person behind this movie happening, so she has to be the MVP.In a way, she gets this award for putting it altogether as an unofficial producer and a great performance that would certainly be worthy of awards.A tremendously enjoyable piece of work from all-time great.

Best Performance: The cliché comparison for Tom Hanks is Jimmy Stewart, that the former is somehow imbued with the all-American qualities that the latter was before him. I think what separates them is Stewart has dark places to go. You see it throughout this movie as he complains about his job and financial situation. He also doesn’t like either in It’s a Wonderful Life either. One thing has to be made clear though. Stewart plays a drunk magnificently. This is not easy to do, and he somehow comes across as tragic and funny at the same time. Stewart didn’t think he deserved the Academy Award for this role because it was a make good for not winning the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think he’s pretty outstanding as he goes from bitter cynical journalist to drunk to romantic lead.

Best Quote: “Champagne’s funny stuff. I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne’s heavy mist before my eyes.” – Macaulay Connor

Is there a sequel? No.

Follow Jerome on Twitter, and check out Reel BadThe Superhero Pantheon and his new podcast Pantheon Plus.

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