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The Philadelphia Story (George Cuckor) 1940

 

       More of an oddball comedy than a screwball comedy, The Philadelphia Story's gender politics haven't aged exceptionally well even if its laughs have done okay. Certainly, the film's main attraction is the ensemble of Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, and the three stars give decent performances. The dialogue is very solid and very funny (except when it gets a bit speech-like), there are typically solid MGM production values, and the film certainly moves the plot along quickly enough.

    The problem with the film is its message. Hepburn plays an icy socialite who is about to get married to a man that built himself up from nothing. Two years previously, she cast out her born-rich alcoholic husband (Grant). Grant returns to see his ex-wife off at the extended wedding party and brings along a tabloid reporter (Stewart). Throughout the film, we're told time and again how cold and loveless for the rest of humanity Hepburn's character is. Her strong moral backbone is beat over her head. When she chastises the morality her father, who is openly cheating on his wife, the other characters (including her mother!) think she's too hard on him. It's an odd role for any actor to have to play, and when she naturally drops her pesky moral pretensions and begins drinking and flirting on the night before her wedding, I don't know if we're supposed to cheer or be horrified. 

    Mostly though, the film's take on morality seems sexist. For a man, morality is something that is optional (unless you're Jimmy Stewart). For a woman, it's a hindrance to happiness and putting on airs. Stewart won an Oscar for his role here, but Grant's character seems to be the only one in on the joke here, and he wanders through the film with a smug detachment. This makes it that much more odd when he somehow ends up with the girl (again) at the end of the film. I don't even want to get into the film's bizarre perceptions of class... Despite all this, I cannot deny that the film is exceptionally funny on a moment-to-moment basis, and I almost wish I was able to shut half of my brain off while watching this. Since I know a lot of folks will have no problem doing so, I find myself recommending it...

***

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman