A prime specimen of the classic Hollywood Golden Age studio system firing on all cylinders. A beloved romantic comedy presented in a definitive edition for the enjoyment of longtime fans that also sets it up for discovery by a new generation. The crucial hit that restored Katharine Hepburn’s faltering career and launched her into legendary status as one of the greatest movie stars of all time. A fascinating story that weaves themes of social class, gender roles, media sensationalism and relationship tensions with timeless wit and flawless delivery. There are many angles by which a viewer can approach The Philadelphia Story and come away with heartfelt appreciation of this new release by the Criterion Collection.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, as the title implies, The Philadelphia Story is set in a wealthy suburban enclave on the outskirts of that city. Tracy Lord, the oldest daughter of a high-society clan (played by Hepburn) is rebounding from her divorce after a brief, tumultuous marriage ruined by her ex’s (Cary Grant) thirst for booze and the sheer volatility of their mutually fiery temperaments. After a two-year cooling off period to restore a semblance of respectability to her tarnished reputation, she has plans to marry a congenial dud. The hint of scandal and the general public’s insatiable appetite for voyeuristic peeks into the affairs of the rich and beautiful provides sufficient stimulation for Mike, a gossip magazine’s beat reporter (James Stewart), and his female photographer sidekick Liz (Ruth Hussey) to draw the assignment to get into the Lord family’s compound and craft a tell-all about the story behind the upcoming nuptials. The ex-husband, Dexter, remains open to the possibility of reconciliation, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to tag along with Mike and Liz, to serve as the agent of their entrance into the exclusive estate and also to take his former lover’s emotional temperature to see if there are any signs of a thaw.
A host of conveniently amusing narrative twists and turns ensue, resulting in a lively, charming mix of sight gags (Mike’s run-ins with the butler as he meanders around the “south parlor” and environs), barbed exchanges within the family and among the uninvited guests, and some genuinely enchanting moments of character development as each of the four main players express personal vulnerabilities and self-deceptions they’ve struggled with that make them easy to empathize with and relate to. It all culminates in the brief eruption of a surprisingly sophisticated love triangle that both remained within the strictures of the Hays Code and retained an effective degree of suspense as to how the whole thing would turn out at the end. The actual machinations of the story line, while not being entirely farcical, are still rather preposterous, but that’s quite to be expected in this kind of a movie. Indeed, The Philadelphia Story, while not being a particularly early innovation in the rom-com genre, achieves such a degree of perfection in fusing romantic and comedic elements that it has served as a virtual template ever since it premiered in 1940, en route to six Academy Award nominations and two Oscar wins.
As a highly familiar property, seen by millions to the point of near memorization, widely available on DVD and VHS for many years and frequently in the rotation of any number of classic movie outlets, the main question to be resolved as to the necessity of a fancy (and relatively expensive) new edition is, what do we get for the extra investment?
Anyone who’s been following Criterion’s run of canonical Hollywood silver-screen classics over the past couple years already knows the answer. Their version of The Philadelphia Story follows in the “definitive presentation” footsteps established in titles like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Mildred Pierce and Woman of the Year. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the big studios who own rights to these films recognize the mutual benefits of letting Criterion do the restoration and packaging work with their customary meticulous attention to detail. In this particular case, a brief demonstration video featuring Technical Director Lee Kline and restoration artist Alyson D’Lando reveals the unique challenges they faced in creating a stable transfer of the best surviving source of the film (after a nitrate fire destroyed the original negative in 1970). This short segment is one of my favorite extras on a Criterion disc this year, as it takes us into the rigorous processes that go into maintaining the high quality standards we too often take for granted in their home video products. Their work definitely paid off, as the 4K image produces many beautiful images of dazzling luminosity. Katharine Hepburn’s beauty and unique charisma comes through here like I’ve never seen before.
Other supplements on the disc include two hours of her in conversation with Dick Cavett. His interviews from the late 60s and early 70s, which have been popping up pretty frequently on Criterion discs lately, are consistently smart and informative, but in this case, Hepburn’s 1973 appearance on his show was extra special, as it marked her first time on live TV. She was considerably older, of course, but was in remarkably fresh and candid form, and the two of them generate appealing rapport over the course of their extended conversation. An elderly George Cukor also appears on another Cavett segment recorded in 1978 to offer his recollections on working with Hepburn. There’s also a recycled commentary track from 2005 and insightful short documentaries on the development of The Philadelphia Story as a stage play custom made for Hepburn (she gave over 400 live performances as Tracy Lord on Broadway and around the country before committing it to film), and Hepburn’s business savvy as a female entrepreneur in the entertainment industry. Finally, we’re treated to a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the story, featuring Loretta Young, Robert Taylor and Robert Young in the lead roles.
This is a first-class package, lit from within, filled with hearth-fires and holocausts! Take one home while it’s hot off the press.