George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” isn’t just a masterful romance comedy, but it’s also an important piece of filmmaking that marked important turning points in the lives of its stars. In particular there was Katharine Hepburn who, believe it or not, was considered “Box Office Poison” by critics after a series of cinematic flops. Once “The Philadelphia Story” proved her brilliance as an actress, her career only went up. “The Philadelphia Story” is one of the least cloying romance comedies I’ve ever seen, as it’s one wrapped up in genuine human emotion and spite that tends to be shockingly entertaining. The fact that the film is models itself after the hit play never hinders the production, allowing “The Philadelphia Story” to feel very lively and energetic.
It watches much like a melodrama sans the drama where these characters are constantly attempting to match wits in their own mission of revenge and or spite. After a very bitter break up with socialite Tracy Lord, yacht designer C.K. Dexter Haven retreated from his terrible two year marriage that resulted in him turning to alcohol to live up to the impossible standards Tracy set for the people around her. With Tracy set to marry another wealthy man (for the sake of maintaining her social status among the elite), magazine publisher Sidney Kidd assigns reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover the impending wedding. Under the cover of Dexter’s story that they are friends and not at all at the preparations to spy, Tracy doesn’t fall for the ruse and begins devising ways to keep the pair from snooping.
As Mike insinuates himself among the Lord family with his partner Liz, he begins to form feelings for Tracy. Sadly though, Tracy is soon torn for the feelings of her new fiancé, her ex-husband and childhood love Dexter, and the charming Mike. Despite the film’s fascination with the rich and wealthy, stars Stewart, Grant and Hepburn lend the film a down to Earth nuance that makes the character piece absolutely engaging. It’s constantly told by film lovers that the cast had a grand fun time working on “The Philadelphia Story” with one another, and much of that love and raucous chemistry splashes on screen from the moment the film starts. The trio of performers has such wonderful friction with each other, and they also tend to compliment the other’s time on screen, never stealing attention, so much as helping to amplify their charm and ace comic timing.
To boot Cukor surrounds the stars with fantastic supporting actors, including Ruth Hussey, who is a remarkable foil to Stewart’s “Mike” Connor, as well as Virginia Wiedler who is absolutely marvelous as Hepburn’s spunky young sister Dinah. Hepburn works brilliantly off of everyone, including her male suitors, all of whom she sparks a different kind of dynamic with. In particular, there’s her tension with Dexter Haven, with whom she’s spent a lifetime with and garners an obvious spark for him, no matter how much they argue and scream at one another. “The Philadelphia Story” is an engaging and entertaining romance comedy classic filled to the brim with ace direction and mesmerizing performances. It should serve as the template for any and all romance comedies.
The new Criterion Edition carries over a few extras from the 2005 Warner DVD release, but they also pack in some of their own original features, too. There’s an audio commentary, recorded in 2004, which features film historian Jeanette Basinger who covers a wide range of facts, and elements of the filming, and pays great respect to Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart, et al. It’s an excellent track for fans of the film. “In Search of Tracy Lord” is a new twenty two minute documentary explaining the origins of Hepburn’s character and her social standing. This concerns the idea of Hepburn collaborating to create Tracy, and who inspired her. “A Katherine Hepburn Production” is a nineteen minute feature exploring Hepburn’s role in the development of the movie.
“Katherine Hepburn on the Dick Cavett Show” is the entirety of the episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” from 1973 where Katherine Hepburn appears. There’s also the episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” from 1978 in its entirety featuring an appearance from director George Cukor. There’s a production of “Lux Radio Theater” in its completion with an introduction from Cecil B. DeMille. “Restoration Demonstration” is a marvelous and superb look at how Criterion restored “The Philadelphia Story” for a new generation, offering before and after scene comparisons. It’s shockingly compelling. Finally, there’s the theatrical trailer, and a wonderful illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.