The Philadelphia Story
directed by George Cukor
(MGM, 1940)

More than 60 years ago, playwright Philip Barry created a character -- and a play -- for Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn played socialite Tracy Lord to acclaim on Broadway, then parlayed the film rights (purchased for her by paramour Howard Hughes) into 1940's The Philadelphia Story for MGM.

Newly released in a special edition DVD, it's a classic George Cukor film filled with great comic timing and a storyline that's indivisible from its time and, yet, thoroughly applicable and entertaining today.

For the cast, try Hepburn, Cary Grant as her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, and James Stewart as newsman Macaulay Connor. They weren't Hepburn's first choice for co-stars: That would have been Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. But still, not bad -- and Stewart would go on to win an Academy Award for his role.

The Philadelphia Story is a glimpse at the marriage of socialite Lord, who comes from money so old it served as ballast on the Mayflower, to George Kittredge (John Howard), whose self-made fortune is squeaky-clean new.

Sent to crash the party is Connor, whose editor wants a behind-the-scenes expose of a society wedding. Connor's quite sure what he'll find: a bunch of spoiled wealthy people gathered to spend too much and drink too much to celebrate a wedding at the expense of the working class.

"The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world," he cracks to photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), "is the privileged class enjoying its privileges."

Today's celebrity practice of inviting the press to the wedding, or selling access, would be a horrific concept to the mid-century Lords of the Main Line. When they soon realize there's a reporter in their midst, they determinedly set out to mislead and confuse him.

"Oh, dear. Is there no such thing as privacy anymore?" sighs mother Lord.

"Only in bed, mother, and not always there," is the bride's reply -- a riposte that echoes forth 60 years and still earns a knowing laugh.

But Tracy Lord soon learns she's mistaken about newsman Connor; he realizes Tracy's not quite the chaste goddess she presents. And former husband C.K. Dexter Haven? Well, he's on hand, too, just to muddy the waters and drive fiance Kittredge crazy.

It's one of Cukor's greatest, and that's saying a lot. The year before, he'd done The Women and had worked on Gone With the Wind before being bumped off that film. Gaslight, Adam's Rib (Hepburn would get her chance with Tracy) and Winged Victory all would soon follow.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 9 April 2005

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