The Philadelphia Story review – fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles

The rerelease of this utterly beguiling comedy reminds us how extraordinary Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart really were

From Tilda Swinton to Tina Fey: who channels their inner Katharine Hepburn?

However stagily preposterous, George Cukor’s 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, now rereleased, is also utterly beguiling, funny and romantic; it is based on the same stage play, by Philip Barry, as the 1956 musical High Society. This is the most famous example of the intriguing and now defunct prewar genre of “comedy of remarriage”, the subject of an equally interesting study by film theorist Stanley Cavell called Pursuits Of Happiness. It features three stars from the studio era who are the aristocrats, or deities, of the Hollywood golden age: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. Part of the fascination in watching this movie again is savouring those three extraordinary voices, highly imitable but entirely unique. Hepburn is the statuesque heiress Tracy Lord, acrimoniously divorced from her first husband, CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and now preparing to remarry; Haven, quite clearly still in love, gets prickly journalist Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and his photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to gate-crash the ceremony posing as cousins. Amiable chaos ensues. The fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances. (People talk about the alpha-male faceoff of De Niro and Pacino in Heat. But how about the Stewart/Grant post-party confrontation here? Or the Stewart/Hepburn romantic clash that follows that?) It is an effortlessly classy piece of work.

Why The Philadelphia Story is the one film you should watch this week – video


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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