George Cukor’s 1940 MGM film “The Philadelphia Story” is one of the all time great comedies. With a cast headed by Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart, it’s one of those films that gets better and better the more you watch it.
During the late ‘30s, Hepburn’s fortunes at the box office took a turn for the worse. In 1938, after a series of failures, Hepburn had been placed on a list of “box office poison” by a group of independent theater owners.
Though she didn’t receive any credit for it, “The Philadelphia Story” was a Katharine Hepburn production all the way. Hepburn backed the broadway production with her own money, forgoing her salary in exchange for a percentage of the profits. The play was a huge success, and Hepburn’s boyfriend at the time, Howard Hughes, bought her the film rights to the play as a gift. Hepburn, seeing another way to turn around her “box office poison” reputation, marketed the rights to the film version as a package deal that included herself in the role she played, and also giving her approval on cast, script, producer, and director.
Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, of the famed—and loaded with cash—Philadelphia Lords. Lord is about to get married for the second time, two years after divorcing charismatic yacht designer C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant). Haven has decided he wants to get a little bit of disruption going by showing up two days before the wedding, with “friends of the family” who are actually tabloid reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey). What follows is one of the most delightful comedies ever shot. A witty, charming film from start to end. There are few films I can think of that are as much a delight as “The Philadelphia Story” is.
‘The Philadelphia Story’ began life as a stage play written by Hepburn’s friend Phillip Barry, who wrote it has a vehicle for her.
Just as the stage play had done, the film version of “The Philadelphia Story” was a huge hit, ending Hepburn’s “box office poison” title. The film cleaned up not only at the box office, but critically as well as during Oscar season. With six nominations, “The Philadelphia Story” won two Academy Awards. One of the screenplay adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart, and best actor for James Stewart. Stewart always believed the Oscar should have gone to Henry Fonda for “The Grapes of Wrath” and he at the time, as do many film scholars today, believe that he was given the award as a make up prize for missing out on it for his performance in 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The Criterion Collection has released “The Philadelphia Story” for the first time on blu-ray, in one of their more anticipated releases and it does not disappoint. An impressive 4K restoration of the film has “The Philadelphia Story” looking the best I have ever seen it. It’s all the more impressive as this restoration was created from a 35mm fine-grain positive created from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative. The film’s negative was lost in an archive fire in 1978.
A restoration demonstration is one of the included bonus features, and it shows how badly warped the 35mm negative was when the fine-grain was created. It’s an incredible effort from Criterion when you see all the hard work that was done, and final result. It’s a sparkling, beautiful, black and white image. The bonus features on this Criterion edition are rich, in-depth, and wonderful. Two new documentaries are included, one on the origin of Tracy Lord’s character and another on Hepburn’s handling of developing the film with her interests at center. Also included is the audio commentary by scholar Jeanine Basinger from Warner Brother’s 2005 DVD release of the film, a “Lux Radio Theater” adaptation from 1943, and an excerpt of director Cukor on a 1978 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”
The highlight of the set’s features is Katharine Hepburn’s famous appearance on Dick Cavett’s show from 1973. The notoriously interview shy Hepburn had refused TV requests for years, agreeing to come down to Cavett’s studio to check things out before she committed to appearing on the show. Wisely, Cavett’s crew rolled tape as Hepburn walked in to check things out, commenting on everything from the color of the set, to how ugly the carpet is. Then, shocking and delighting all, Hepburn said “Let’s just do the thing now and get it over with.” What follows, spread over two episodes, is a two hour conversation with the great Kate that is an absolute must. What a joy to have it included here, it’s one of the great moment’s from Cavett’s storied talk show.
Criterion has knocked it out of the park with their edition of “The Philadelphia Story,” a justifiably beloved film and one of the unquestionably great screen comedies. If you’ve never seen the film, I envy you getting to experience it for the first time. Add this to your home collection, you won’t regret it. See you next week.