I did not see The Philadelphia Story coming.
This was one of the films on the AFI list that I had not seen before. I was expecting a screwball comedy, the type with fast-talking people who may or may not fall in love. The cast was impeccable, and director George Cukor had a number of such comedies under his belt along with previous entry My Fair Lady. And, to a certain extent, I expect these things to be a bit creaky in hindsight from 2018.
But man, this film did not age well in many ways.
How did it not age well? OK, let’s get that out of the way first. We can expect films from this era to be sexist, and this one certainly is in many ways. What jumped out the most was the character of “Uncle Willie” who seems to think a lot with his. See, the wealthy Lord family, upper class society types out of Philadelphia, are marrying off their older daughter Tracy (Katherine Hepburn) for the second time to a man named George Kittredge (John Howard). Uncle Willie is an older friend of the family from the looks of things, and he has a habit of pinching women’s bottoms. This is played for laughs. He’s a lecherous old man who hits on anything with boobs from the looks of things. In the #MeToo era, that’s problematic at best.
We can also ask how much high society matters anymore, but that’s a topic for another day and another column from a better writer than I.
Now, as mentioned, George (a self-made millionaire who worked his way up to wealth from being a coal miner from the sounds of things) will be Tracy’s second husband. What happened to her first? As we saw in the silent opening, she kicked him out. He was one C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), and on his way out the door, he turned around, planted a hand on her face, and shoved her onto her butt.
See, not aging well there either.
OK, here’s the thing: problematic parts aside, this film is really clever in its repartee, as expected in all the best screwball comedies. And we can always pretend this is the unofficial sequel to Bringing Up Baby.
See, the issue here is Tracy is a difficult woman in the best of times. She sees herself as perfect and cannot stand weakness in others. That eventually led to her divorce to the man she calls Dex, a man that the rest of her family still seems to think the world of. As it is, Dex needed work after the dust settled and took it as a writer for a gossip magazine called Spy. His editor wants a story from the inside for the biggest wedding in Philly for the year and has a juicy story involving Tracy’s philandering father that he will publish if Dex can’t get two reporters, disgruntled author/writer Macauley Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), into the wedding under false pretenses as friends of Tracy’s absent brother. Connor is a bitter writer whose work of short stories never really sold and who has some level of resentment towards the upper classes that seems a little out of character for the sorts of characters we typically see Jimmy Stewart play. Imbrie on the other hand is a more pragmatic woman, secretly smitten with the idealistic Connor, but who’d rather keep her job than lose it to her ideals as he would.
Now, given the nature of the film, we might expect Dex will want to win Tracy back. And, in the end, he does. But he sure does play it like he isn’t interested for the longest time. Instead, we see Kittredge come across as a moralistic snob more interested in image than a human being, and of all people Connor falls for Tracy.
In a weird sort of way, Connor and Tracy make a good match. Tracy is a societal snob who things she is better than most other people whereas Connor is an intellectual one who thinks he is better than most people. The two certainly at first glance seem to think each is better than the other, but they bond a bit first when Tracy reads Connor’s book (Dex has a personal copy in his home library), and then when the two get drunk and a little innocent swimming happens. Dex, meanwhile, professes indifference until the last minute when the two talk about their broken marriage and they both show a great deal of regret.
Besides, as great as Jimmy Stewart generally is, and he’s awfully young in this film, he’s no Cary Grant. He and Grant were both the leading men in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, so it’s nice to see the two share the screen for once. Stewart is the great everyman. He’ll give up Tracy and go for the more suitable Liz Imbrie in the end. Grant is the handsome romantic leading man. He’ll win Tracy back with a minimum of effort because they were right for each other all along. She just had to learn to be human instead of a goddess, and Connor had to learn that even those born poor can be awful while the rich aren’t necessarily so bad.
It’s a screwball romantic comedy, so of course the officious Kittredge is sent off in a huff, Connor seems not the slightest bit heartbroken when his last-second marriage proposal is turned down, and no one seems to mind that Dex jumps in as the new groom at the last minute (you’d think Kittredge’s family would object since you’d think they’d be present for the wedding). Heck, Connor and Dex seem to become good friends as they plot against their mutual enemy, their publisher. But really, Uncle Willie and a good shove to the ground make this a film that, while still loaded with clever dialogue, has some problems today that it didn’t in decades past.
NEXT UP: We’re at the halfway point for the original AFI list, so we’re headed to 1969 for a film I’ve tried to watch multiple times in the past but it never really grabbed me the right way: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.