Top 100 Movie Review: No. 042 – The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Ranked 042 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during May 2020.

Cast: Cary Grant (C. K. Dexter Haven), Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), James Stewart (Mike Connor), John Howard (George Kittredge), Ruth Hussey (Liz Imbrie)
Director:  George Cukor
My rating: 5.5 / 10

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is the elder daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia socialite family. She was married to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a yacht designer and member of her social set, but divorced him two years prior after fighting non-stop.  The movie opens with Tracy breaking Dexter’s golf clubs and with him pushing her onto the ground. The movie then picks up years later with Tracy about to marry “man of the people” George Kittredge (John Howard).

In New York a magazine publisher Sidney Kidd is eager to cover the wedding, and assigns reporter Mike Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). He can get them into the affair with the assistance of Dexter Haven, who has been working for the magazine in South America. Dexter tells Kidd that he will introduce them as friends of Tracy’s brother Junius (a U.S. diplomat in Argentina).

After being introduced Tracy is not fooled by this story, 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. But, 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 younger 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 and takes an innocent midnight swim with Mike. 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. George has loved her as a perfect, ideal women not as a human being and so she breaks off the engagement. 

Tracy then realises that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike volunteers to marry her to Liz’s distress, but she graciously declines. She also realizes her own imperfections and criticalness towards others especially her ex-husband Dexter. Then, Dexter, who clearly planned to get her back all along, offers to marry her again, and she gladly accepts.   

What’s to Like
The actors do a lot with very average material.

What’s not to Like
The physical assault used by a husband against his wife that leads to divorce (understandable) but they end up back together as the happy couple (shameful), the overuse of the soft filter on Katharine Hepburn to make her look more glamourous .

This movie is very self indulgent glamorising the lifestyle’s of the rich upper class.  It is hard to context with any of the main characters even reporter Mike Connor is intellectual snob who doesn’t realise how much his photographer Liz likes him.  Tracy Lord is a very self entitled individual condescending to most around her and while she does grow during the movie to understand nobody is perfect it is a journey that brings her back to her first husband who physically assaulted her at the start of the movie, while this could be seen as just a shove in an era of strict censorship in movies it was about as big an assault a male can do to a women character at the time.

I know this is a popular and critically acclaimed romantic comedy but I just couldn’t care that much about the how the wealthy people of the era operated, it’s possible the jokes overcome this but as they were created so far before I was born I didn’t really find them funny.  The cast is made up of the leading actors of the time and you can see that they are very versed in their craft but there just isn’t much of a story here.

Not worth watching.   

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Stewart) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay (Donald Ogden Stewart) – winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role (Katharine Hepburn) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Ruth Hussey) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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