AFInity: The Philadelphia Story
By Kim Hollis
November 6, 2009

All things considered, that's a pretty sexy and smart threesome.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#44: The Philadelphia Story

I love Jimmy Stewart. I love Katharine Hepburn. I love Cary Grant. Why, then, had I never seen The Philadelphia Story until it came time to watch it as part of the AFInity project? It's not something I have an easy answer to, but I'm glad that the oversight has now been remedied. A far from typical romantic comedy, it's a movie full of spirit, verve and intelligence, and I'm frankly lost in admiration.

From 1930 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code instilled a set of guidelines that movies from major U.S. studios were expected to follow. Once such tenet said, "Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing." The sanctity of marriage was to be upheld, and such things as extramarital affairs were not to be explicit or "endorsed". Because of this section of code, a subgenre emerged, known as the "comedy of remarriage". This allowed the lead characters to divorce, flirt and play with strangers, and then ultimately get back together, all with no threat of censorship. Hepburn starred in at least four such films, and Grant was in five. Such subversion of the rules allows for some fascinating storytelling and character development, and sets up a plot that is surprising even by today's standards.

Hepburn plays Tracy Samantha Lord, a Philadelphia socialite who divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) because he just couldn't live up to her lofty expectations. As the movie begins, she is now just about to marry George Kittredge, a "new money" member of society and more of an everyman than one might typically see in her type of society.

Haven is coerced into bringing a reporter named Macauley "Mike" O'Connor (Stewart) and a photographer named Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to the Lord residence, posing as family members so that they might attend the wedding and get photos and a story for Spy Magazine. The magazine's publisher has compromising photos and information about Tracy's father, so Haven agrees to his demands.

What follows is quite a comedy of manners, with Tracy beginning to doubt her feelings for her fiancé and dabbling with emotions for Mike and Dexter. Complicating matters a bit is the fact that it's implied that Mike and Liz are already involved, as well as the strange relationship between Tracy's parents. In the midst of it all, Tracy's very dramatic teenage sister, Dinah, is thrilled that Dexter is back in the fold and she waxes poetic on her thoughts on a variety of the relationships that blossom, wither, and reblossom again over the course of the film. An alcohol-fueled evening causes a series of misunderstandings, but we still get a big, sudden happy ending.

The success of The Philadelphia Story truly hinges upon the performances. If we don't genuinely like all of the people involved in the story - including Tracy, who might not be such a sympathetic character in the real world - there's no reason to keep watching. We have to believe that Tracy has a crisis of conscience that makes her realize perhaps she has allowed herself to be placed on a pedestal of goddess-like admiration. It's crucial that we find Dexter to be charming and hilarious even if he does have his little foibles. We must smile along with Mike and Liz as they become trapped in the complicated web that is created when they enter the fray. And we admire and laugh at the precociousness of Dinah when she spouts off some of the wisest lines of any character in the film.

Hepburn is simply glorious as Tracy. She's sharp, witty, funny and amiable. It might have been easy to simply portray the character as a spoiled brat, but in Hepburn's hands, she's significantly more complex. Grant's screen time is considerably more limited, but he's a delight as the clearly still love-struck Dexter. We can see the hurt in his eyes when Tracy talks about her new paramour, but he also carries himself as a man who knows her perfectly and is confident in that familiarity. And the final piece of the big trio, Stewart, delivers a lot of the movie's best lines with self-assurance and aplomb.

As for supporting performers, Hussey is also nicely conflicted as Liz. A divorcee herself, we can totally understand how she would want her romance with Mike to be certain before they move forward to something more significant. And then there's Virginia Weidler as Dinah, Tracy's sister. A lot of times children in film can become too precious, but she often plays as the voice of reason (even if the way she's commenting seems over-the-top and melodramatic).

A sparkling screenplay helps carry things along. Originally, The Philadelphia Story was a Broadway play, and Philip Barry wrote it specifically for Hepburn. She was a natural to take the character of Tracy over to the movie version, which was adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart and an uncredited Waldo Salt. (An interesting side note is that Howard Hughes, whom Hepburn was dating at the time, purchased the movie rights to the play as a gift to her. The actress had starred in a number of financial flops prior to The Philadelphia Story and had started to be labeled as box office poison, and Hughes hoped that this would be the movie to break the streak.) Just consider lines like, "You're too good for me, George. You're a hundred times too good. And I'd make you most unhappy, most. That is, I'd do my best to." Or "I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, one time I secretly wanted to be a writer." And that barely scratches the surface.

Like so many of the movies on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies List, The Philadelphia Story is a timeless film. We can still relate to these characters today, and it's actually a bit surprising to realize that these "comedies of remarriage" were popular as far back as the 1940s. We often think of these issues as more modern, but it's fascinating to see the ways that studios were skirting around censorship rules at the time. Granted, the story is very tame by today's standards, but there's an undertone of bawdiness to it that sets it apart from other films from the same era. I can foresee it becoming a film I'll enjoy watching again and again.

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