Was talking to a co-worker today about how one of the big difference between stars of Hollywood’s golden era and stars of today is that stars used to have a distinct look. With one glance, you knew why they belonged on the big screen, while today there are so many actress who are just generic blonde chicks or textbook definition good-looking guy, but stand them all next to each other, the average person would be hard pressed to identify who’s who. Also, with sound still being a fairly new development , stars had voices you could identify by them simply saying “Hello”. Everyone can do a Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn impression, but could anyone tell me what a Channing Tatum impersonation would entail? As far as golden Hollywood stars get, you don’t get much bigger that the triple punch of Grant, Stewart, and Hepburn starring in The Philadelphia Story, the big screen adaptation Philip Barry play that saved Hepburn’s career and won Stewart a best actor Oscar.
Socialite Tracy Lords (Katharine Hepburn) is preparing to marry for the second time. Her groom is a self-made man who seems very interested in Tracy’s celebrity status. However, just in time for the wedding, she receives an unexpected visit by her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who has invited himself and tabloid reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) who are posing as friends of Tracy’s brother in order to get the scoop on the wedding of the year. While at first Tracy suspects Dexter is purposely trying to ruin her wedding, he explains that going along with the ruse is in her best interest, as Spy Magazine has photos of her father with his mistress that they will print if they are not allowed at the wedding. As the wedding draws closers, Tracy learns that Dexter is a changed man and that she may be more responsible for the end of their marriage than she thought. She also shows Mike that the rich are not as vapid as he previously believed.
This film saved Hepburn’s career. After a string of box office disappointment she was virtually uncastable and sought refuge in the theater. When the stage version of The Philadelphia Story was a hit, boyfriend Howard Hughes bought her the film rights. Its success secured her status as a bankable star. Hepburn has a lot of fun as Tracy, getting to sling insults at Grant and get drunk with Stewart, and her Bryn Mawr accent projecting an air of superiority.
Cary Grant was given the opportunity to choose which role he played and picked the less showy part of C.K. Dexter Haven. This surprised many, and may have cost him an Oscar, but Grant does a lot with the role, giving Dexter a sadness to him. Grant used his celebrity to secure a $100,000 payday for the film, a large sum of money at the time but ended up donating all of it to the British War Relief Fund.
Stewart didn’t really think himself the best fit for Mike and was very uncomfortable going into many of the scenes. He was surprised to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance and almost skipped the show but was persuaded by a last minute phone call from an insider to attend. He always felt his longtime pal Henry Fonda was more deserving for his role in The Grapes of Wrath and wrote the award off as a “deferred payment” for his performance in Mr. Smith goes to Washington. He certainly wouldn’t be the last actor to feel this way. The Academy has a history of passing over brilliant performances only to honor the actor for lesser works later on.
Hussey holds her own beautifully while surrounded by legends. Liz is a really cool chick and its saddens me that she is fully appreciated by Mike. However, she makes up for it by getting most of the best lines.
I’m not sure how this one plays with modern audiences; it’s very much of its time. But, if you’re a fan of old Hollywood, and haven’t seen this one, make sure to find it immediately and enjoy three film giants sharing the screen together.