The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“The Philadelphia Story” is your typical girl is ready to marry boy, but girl’s ex shows up, along with two undercover reporters pretending they’re friends of girl’s brother, but girl’s ex tells girl that reporters are reporters (deep breath) screwball romantic comedy.

It’s also hilarious, and beautifully made. The girl is Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), the product of a tremendously rich, old Mainline Philadelphia society family. She had an early, tempestuous marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), whose alcohol abuse caused all manner of fighting and, ultimately, the dissolution of the marriage. Haven works for Spy magazine, a trashy tabloid, and concocts a story to get a Spy writer–Macauley Connor (James Stewart)–and a photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) into the Lord house for the wedding.

There’s blackmail at work here, then a reverse blackmail, and…oh, hell. What really matters is that this is a wonderful film. Tracy’s fiancee, George Kittredge (John Howard) is a sort of self-made man, who’s worked his way to the top. He’s also boring as hell, and has a giant stick up his ass. He’s everything that Tracy’s ex, Dexter, isn’t. As the film progresses, we find this may not necessarily be a good thing, especially since C.K. Dexter haven has quit drinking.

The script is wonderful, the dialogue sharp, and the acting (mostly) top shelf. I say “mostly,” because I wasn’t impressed with John Howard. He’s a decent actor, but he didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast. Maybe that was director George Cukor’s intent. I rather doubt it, though. All of these actors were giving funny, natural performances, then here’s this guy, sounding like a radio announcer delivering a newscast.

Katherine Hepburn is wonderful in everything, and “The Philadelphia Story” is no exception. Whether she’s being combative, sarcastic, drunk, or happy, she pulls it off with her usual brilliance. The two male leads, Cary Grant and James Stewart, were also brilliant. James Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar for his role. He’s very good, but I felt like Cary Grant overshadowed him, especially in their scenes together. This was a more serious role for Grant, and a lighter role for Stewart. James Stewart himself said he didn’t deserve the Oscar for this film; he felt like he was being rewarded for the previous year’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

I think he’s right, honestly. He’s still very good, but I don’t know about “Oscar” good. It’s not him: it’s just not an Oscar role.

Ruth Hussey was also nominated, for Best Supporting Actress. She was strong and smart, and did a wonderful job.

Of all the actors, my favorite was Virginia Weidler, who played Tracy’s mischievous younger sister, Dinah Lord.

Miss Weidler steals every scene she’s in, with her precocious wit and humor. She isn’t like a talented kid. She’s a talented screwball comedy actress, who just happened to be 13 years old.

In the picture above, she’s doing her part in the subterfuge, wherein the Lord family tries to act far more eccentric and crazy than they really are, so as to lend credence to the reporters’ preconceived notions. While the reporters relax in one of the parlors, she enters the room en pointe, and introduces herself, speaking rapid-fire French. Then she announces she can play piano and “sing at the same time.” She prances into the adjoining music room, and launches into a raucous version of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

Seriously, I found her scenes to be the absolute funniest. She had some awesome lines, to be sure (“I can tell things are in the air, since I’m being taken away.”)  She is a ham, but in the best possible way.

Sadly, Virginia Weidler had a limited Hollywood career. She was hired as a sort of counterpart to Shirley Temple, and had some good roles in big films. However, she wasn’t especially pretty, and her career was done before her 18th birthday. Sad.

But Virginia Weidler was a little scene-stealer in this film, something hard to do when you have Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn acting alongside you.

The final act drags a wee bit–just in comparison to the rapid-fire rest of the film–but “The Philadelphia Story” is one of my 20 favorite films, and definitely one of the all-time great romantic screwball comedies.

Grade: A

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7 Responses to “The Philadelphia Story (1940)”

  1. This is a great great movie. And I agree about your thoughts (and his own, apparently) about Stewart’s performance. It’s sort of like when they gave Russell Crowe Best Actor for Gladiator when they figured they’d screwed up by not giving it to him for The Insider.

    I will say that I laughed the first time I saw this, because the Main Line hoi polloi bore no resemblance to the Philadelphians I knew from my vantage point in Camden, NJ.

    • I agree. Russell Crowe was nominated three straight years, for “The Insider,” “Gladiator,” and “A Beautiful Mind.” I thought he was excellent in all three, but “Gladiator” would have been my third choice of those. He probably would have won the Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” except he beat up that producer at the BAFTA’s for interrupting some poem he was reading, this before the Oscar ballots were cast. The Oscars are screwy. I think one of those was the year Julia effing Roberts won for “Erin Brockovich”, in which she was perfectly fine, over Ellen Burstyn’s amazeballs performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” which was one of the best performances of the decade, at least to me. Then again, I think Ellen Burstyn is great in about anything she does. A different caliber of actress, to be sure.

      I think this Main Line family was less realistic and more a “Post-Depression/pre-War/Hollywood cliche” version of rich people. (I think they could have had the reporters removed quite easily) This way, though, I think they were oddly more accessible.

      I still crack up at Uncle Willie, the pincher. Lecherous old coot.

  2. Certainly in my top 5 or 3 screwball comedies and probably in my top 20 of all film 🙂

    • I love the screwball comedies from that era. “The Philadelphia Story” and “His Girl Friday” are two of my favorites, both starring Cary Grant. I don’t think Hollywood can write movies like those anymore, sadly. I guess there WAS something good to come out of the studio system: writers, actors, and directors who could crank ’em out.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful review of The Philadelphia Story and your kind words about a forgotten actress, Virginia Weidler. I found this while searching for more information about her, something I now do regularly since so little seems to be known.

    I have started a Facebook page, the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society, to honor her and share knowledge with other fans.

    Please consider dropping by!

    • Thank you for your kind words. It is sad that her career was over so quickly. Based on the limited information I’ve found–and I have tried in vain to find more about her–she enjoyed being a wife and mother. She died too young, her heart weakened from rheumatic fever she had as a young girl. I’m glad she had her happy family, but I wish she’d had happier memories of her brilliant film days.

      And in “The Philadelphia Story,” what Ginny critics overlook is that Dinah, as played by Miss Weidler, is exactly how Tracy’s little sister would be. Tracy was a brash, outspoken tomboy. No way her little sister would be prim and proper.

      I have visited your FB page a few times. I just finally remembered to “Like” it today. Thanks for stopping by.

      • I know that Hepburn herself loved Ginny’s performance, and that’s probably the most important critique. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Virginia’s “braided brat” character, but I’ve only found one criticizing her on her TPS performance and I found it this week. Your review more than balanced that out.

        I hope you don’t mind that I linked to it for my readers.

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