WB Top 100: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

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Returning to movies neither of us have seen, we have 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story”, a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. Despite the star power, this one was a total flop. I loved the idea and found the first half to be funny, but the movie’s second half derailed the humor with a contrived romantic subplot. It also had one of the worst endings of any of the movies we have watched thus far and also managed to be one of the most sexist.

“The Philadelphia Story” focuses on Tracy Lord, a rich socialite from Philadelphia, soon to marry for her second time to a man from new money named George. Her previous marriage to C. K. Dexter Haven (played by Cary Grant) ended prematurely because of his alcoholism and possible physical abuse. On the eve of her wedding, she is visited by a tabloid journalist (James Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance). They pose as friends of the family through the assistance of C. K. Dexter Haven who is helping them work on behalf of the magazine Spy to cover the wedding even though the family would never consent to having reporters on the property.

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It’s never 100% clear that C. K. Dexter Haven ever beat Tracy Lord. The one bit of physical abuse is played for laughs.

This plot quickly leads to humor. James Stewart’s writer-turned-journalist is an intellectual snob who is turned off by the world of the richest Americans. He thumbs his nose at their excess. Tracy is made aware of the reporters’ identities almost immediately. C. K. Dexter Haven reveals he was only in on the plot because the magazine’s editor has a story that will damage the family’s reputation (the family’s patriarch recently had an affair with a dancer in New York).

Things take a turn when everyone finds out everyone else’s secret with the exception of George who, despite being the story’s nicest person, no one likes, especially the Lord family who much prefer Tracy’s ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven. The movie keeps up some humor, but focuses more on Tracy’s remaining love (and contempt) for her ex, her lack of connection with her soon-to-be-husband, and a potential new romance with James Stewart’s character.

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Yet another movie where a female side character is far more attractive than the female lead (though not necessarily a better actress).

I read that at the time this kind of plot was a way to allow for extramarital affairs which were taboo. The basic idea is two lovers who need time apart to seek out other romances before realizing their love for one another. For me, there was nothing but confusion as Cary Grant’s character charmed his way through the rest of the film with little obvious motivation and James Stewart chewed on his dialogue.

It’s a shame “The Philadelphia Story” ended up being so flat. It clearly had the star power and neither of us had any issue with any of the performances. If the plot had been able to keep my interest, this might’ve been an okay movie. Instead, it is one of the worst of the bunch so far despite being our first introduction in this series to James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, all of whom I had looked forward to seeing.

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This scene where the Lords play up their upbringing at the expense of the two characters who come from more humble backgrounds was crazy but enjoyable. I wish more of the movie was like this.

Worse, the final 15 minutes or so of this movie was not just bad but demeaning to the audience. The movie directly mentioned that C. K. Dexter Harvey had abused Tracy during their marriage, but they decided to remarry after George walked out on the wedding after accusing Tracy of doing more than just kissing the night before with the drunken James Stewart. Stewart’s character who was in a relationship with Ruth Hussey’s photographer asks Tracy to marry him in George’s stead, directly in front of his supposed girlfriend, only to be refused. Everyone seems to do a complete 180° and nothing feels earned.

Most offensive of all, Tracy’s father gives her a speech of how he is proud of her for going back to C. K. Dexter Harvey. This comes after a speech earlier in the film where he blames his oldest daughter for his infidelity. He told her that when a man gets older they look for ways to feel young and if they have a horrible daughter who doesn’t dote upon them, then they are likely to look for that love elsewhere. It is a horrifying, repugnant speech made all the worse by giving the character no fallout or comeuppance for its utterance.

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Seriously, this is the most sexist character we’ve seen yet. He blames his daughter for why he cheats? Fuck him. He deserved a real kick in the ass.

Despite the star power and performances, we cannot recommend this movie to anyone. Its views have not aged well. Try as it might to portray a strong female, Katharine Hepburn is saddled with a script written by men and for men. For all its potential, “The Philadelphia Story” was a real bummer.

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I don’t care what Cary Grant is doing here, the man is dreamy!

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.


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3 responses to “WB Top 100: The Philadelphia Story (1940)”

  1. Not really a favourite of mine. I watched this recently and enjoyed technical aspects of the film plus some of the contrived but dry banter. However, the characters aren’t that likeable and that pretty much undermines the movie for me. It was remade in 1956 as the musical High Society with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. That too has issues but at least has some notable songs and the wonderful Louis Armstrong to save it.


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