The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story. Loew's Productions 1940.
The Philadelphia Story. Loew’s Productions 1940.

Before watching the movie:

This is one I thought I’d get to for years and never did, until now. I had access to it for a long time, and then I moved away from it. But now I can see it again, so I am.

I have the impression this is a screwball comedy, but I may be reading too much into it from its superficial similarity to His Girl Friday via the married couple and ex-husband dynamic and the fact that it shares one third of the same stars. Certainly it has more to do with that movie than with Philadelphia. After watching the movie:

Rich but private Tracy Lord is just a few days away from marrying George Kittridge, her second marriage after divorcing her childhood friend Dexter Haven. A tabloid editor wants to get coverage on the wedding, but the family’s strong wish for privacy stymies most attempts to pry, so he forces Dex to sneak in a reporter and photographer as fake family friends by threatening to reveal scandalous information about Tracy’s father. Macauley the reporter finds the story distasteful and would rather be writing fiction, but his longtime photographer partner and vaguely romantic partner Elizabeth convinces him it’s better than unemployment. Dex lets Tracy know who Macauley and Elizabeth really are, so the Lord family is on their guard with them, but not only does Dex still have feelings for Tracy, Tracy and Macauley are starting to fall for each other.

Like most stories of the era, (or indeed, many stories from any time), this felt a bit slow to get started, and I wasn’t engaged until nearly 45 minutes in when it became clear that it wasn’t a “lead the reporters on a merry chase” farce with a simple romantic interest putting the new wedding in jeopardy, but a complicated love pentagon. It goes on longer than it may need to, but nothing from that point is something I’d want to lose, and most before that is exposition setting up how intricate the plot is. In fact, it’s so complicated it’s difficult to predict where everyone will end up.

Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant all give very enjoyable performances of course, but I had more fun with Roland Young’s Uncle Willie (he’s a “pincher”, but that’s acknowledged as bad behavior) and Virginia Weidler’s portrayal of little sister (half-sister?) Dinah, who steals every scene she’s in. Dinah is so much younger than Tracy that she might be more plausible as Tracy’s daughter than sister, but their mother is described as also having divorced and remarried. I think Tracy is also meant to be younger than she seems, since she married Dex at a very young age and it’s only been two years.

The writing is very dense, but also incredibly deep and perfectly tuned. There’s a high amount of wit, but also a lot of rumination on class and romance and interactions with others in general. It seems rare that plot, dialogue , and theme are all so on-point. Many movies explore themes or have Something To Say, but this has a few full theses to deliver underneath the barbed dialogue.

So few stories are written like this today. If this had been adapted from the stage today, it would have had its heart and brain cut out. And it would have been 45 minutes shorter. Perhaps there’s much more writing that’s approachable yet deep and meticulously arranged out there that I don’t know how to find, and perhaps I don’t seek it out as much as I should, but popcorn flicks don’t sustain like this.

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