The Philadelphia Story
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The Philadelphia Story

One of the things I love most about the Criterion Collection is how it provides the means and reasonable excuse to take a respite from the blockbusters that dominate popular culture. Their commitment to providing the discerning cinephile with examples of the most illuminating and enjoyable examples of cinema as a creative means of artistic expression. From the classic film presentation of the genic embodied by the works of William Shakespeare to the definitive gangster movies of the forties and creature flicks of the fifties, the Criterion Collection has continually stood out as a place to enjoy the creativity of the best auteurs whoever peered through a lens. Frequently. When I receive a new member of the illustrious list for review, it is a film I may not have seen for many years if ever at all. Most recently this was the case with ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ Released in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), it was a part of Hollywood’s contribution to the war effort. Film at that time played he invaluable service of helping to keep morale up, and people hopeful. Typically, this was done in one of two ways. Dramas, mysteries, and thrillers reinforced the jingoistic confidence that our morally right cause will prevail. The popular alternative was to offer a distraction from rationing, battles occupying headlines on every newspaper and radio broadcast. This movie possesses a timeless quality that is derived from superior writing, exemplary direction, and performances from a cast of iconic performers. It will be of interest to fans of that most popular of date movies, the romantic comedy. Aficionados of the rom-com are certain to be fascinated by comparing a rom-com with modern stars, for example, Katherine Heigl and an actress from the golden age of Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn. Among the most obvious differences is that Ms. Hepburn was accomplished in a broad variety of genres. She is just one member of an amazing actor, each one worthy of their A-List status.

The Lord family has held a prominent position in Philadelphia society for as far back as that illustrious lineage extended. The eldest daughter Tracy (Katharine Hepburn)), had been married to wealthy yacht designer, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Although he was on par socially, the marriage encountered irreconcilable differences and the couple divorced. Younger members of the audience are admonished to keep in mind that at that time divorce was infrequent and had serious, negative social stigma associated. The extreme action was undertaken as C.K. was unable to maintain the exacting standards of conduct demanded by the Lord family. He had a penchant for a drink which was exacerbated by the family’s constant pressure to quit. After permitting a suitable couple of years to pass Tracy was engaged to George Kittredge (John Howard). A match was technically suitable as George did come from an affluent family, but it was tainted but the social faux pas of being nouveau riche and being popular among the common throng. True wealth, derived from money inherited through generations, never lowered themselves to associate with the lower caste. The need to be explicated stated wasn’t necessary, but the audience would understand that a divorced woman would be unsuitable for the most desirable young men topping the social register. Still, George’s popularity with the people was certain to turn the nuptials into a media circus.

‘Entertainment news’ and paparazzi are now a new contrivance, they have existed for as long as one group of people were held in higher esteem and bestowed with elevated social status. If this story were told today, the next player in the tale would be held by TMZ or ‘E! News’. In the forties, the primary source of innuendo, rumors, blind headlines, and gossip were the Hollywood fan magazines. The commitment to journalistic integrity and the veracity of their sources were secondary to obtaining the scoop and increasing distribution. The dubious representative of the fourth estate in this story is a gossip magazine Spy. Its publisher, Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), is anxious beat out the competition by securing the location and other details of the pending nuptials. To this end, he assigns reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). The requisite twist that drives the confusion of the genre, the secret identity reveal, mistaking one individual for another, to a contrived plot to purposely deceive. The chosen plot contrivance utilized here is the unknown job. When a character is engaged in a job or career that potentially compromises the core relationship.

As George is from new money, he was still in need of a job, if not for the essentials of life than for something to occupy the endless hours of prosperous tedium. He had been working for Spy in South America and is to introduce Mike and Liz into the venue. Many movie genres have undergone some changes in the defining criteria, but the venerable romantic comedy has endured largely unaltered. The fundamental formula is bringing the couple together, induce the same relationship threatening stressor or deception and pull them back together. This movie initially premiered over seventy-five years ago. The romcoms enjoyed when this audience’s grand or even great grandparents were dating. Terms such as iconic are tossed about, but not many categories of the film were so well defined three-quarters of a century ago. The plot concocted by George is to introduce Mike and Liz as friends of Tracy's brother Junius, who is a U.S. diplomat in Argentina. Tracy expresses her refusal to be complicit. George threatens to release a salacious story exposing her father, Seth's (John Halliday), affair with a dancer. His cheating, while not publicly known, had been the cause of Tracy’s parents sleeping in different bedrooms.In the current proliferation of divorce much of the stigma has been ameliorated, but in the forties, u=it was admitting to an intrinsic failure often perceived as a character flaw. For the social elite, it was certain to diminish the family ranking considerably. What is fascinating, from the vantage point of a new millennium, is to examine how its possible to present so many identical tropes, circumstances, and archetypes with the context of such dissimilar societal norms and moral restrictions. Arguably a case can be made the romantic comedy is firmly based on the inherent facets of human nature that it can resist the vagaries of changes in social structure over long periods of time. Tracy relents allowing the reporter and photographer to remain.

Right on cue, the audience is pulled into cinematic geometry as the sides of the mandatory romantic triangle is formed. Tracy discovers a book of short stories written by Mike finder herself enamored by him. On the night before the ceremony Tracy gets drunk, only the second time she has been in a state of inebriation. The diminished self-control resulted in a midnight swim with Mike. A modern romcom, even one with a mild rating of PG-13, would inevitably be highly suggestive of some inappropriate state of undress. This is one aspect of movies that have suffered from the greater contextual freedom. With the strict Hayes Code of 1930 in full effect, even the hint of such impropriety was unthinkable. The filmmaker had to be cleaver in getting adult themes across to the audience while eschewing any hint of adult content. The director of the perennial classic was George Cukor, the master of movie romance in its multitude of forms. Besides the comedic format Mr. Cukor made his mark in the romantic drama, ‘A Star is Born (1954) and the musical, ‘My Fair Lady (1964). He received five Academy Award nominations over the course of his career winning Best Director for ‘My Fair Lady.’ The romantic comedy may currently be considered on a lower tier than other movies, but a film like this provide proof of their lasting contribution to the art form.

bulletNew 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
bulletAudio commentary from 2005 featuring film scholar Jeanine Basinger
bulletNew introduction to actor Katharine Hepburn s role in the development of the film by documentarians David Heeley and Joan Kramer
bulletIn Search of Tracy Lord, a new documentary about the origin of the character and her social milieu
bulletTwo full episodes of The Dick Cavett Show from 1973, featuring rare interviews with Hepburn, plus an excerpt of a 1978 interview from that show with director George Cukor
bulletLux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1943, featuring an introduction by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille
bulletRestoration demonstration
bulletTrailer
bulletAn essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme

Posted 01/24/2018

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