Wait…this was a comedy?
Shortly after Tracy (Katharine Hepburn) and Dexter (Cary Grant) are married they have a heated divorce. Two years later, she’s getting ready to marry respectable George. Dexter has plans to spoil the big day and even get it in the dreaded tabloid, Spy, after blackmailing Tracy with a juicy story about her father and a dancer. James Stewart plays Macaulay Connor, a talented writer trying to find the balls to resign from Spy, but until then, covering Tracy’s wedding. But the night before the wedding, everyone gets drunk and scandalous incidents occur that could ruin the big day.
The plot sounds like it could be hilarious, but it’s dry as a bag of bird seed. There are some decent one-liners, a joke or two, but they just don’t stick the landing. The plot tries too hard when at first, Tracy has to jump through hoops trying to trick Macaulay all day. But after she’s good and wasted she’s all over him in the backyard. The only honest laugh out of me this entire film was when Stewart says, “Wee!” while being spun drunk in a wheelbarrow.
Most of the funny parts are snuffed too quickly to get a laugh, or any emotion, out. I guess towards the end, when half an hour is spent dwelling on whether Tracy slept with Stewart is supposed to be funny. Maybe it was back then, but now it was just watching a hung-over bride have her virtue on trial by three men (and her little sister). It could have been so much funnier, without treading into rude or raunchy waters, like it surely would today.
Stewart is fun to watch though, especially when he’s drunk enough to stumble into Dexter’s home at four in the morning with a bottle of champagne and a Dixie cup. The earliest of Stewart’s movies I had seen before this was Rope (1948), so the moment he walked on screen with his hat askew like a skinny, plucky kid I immediately said, “Holy crap, he’s so young!” He’s the one thing that pulls this soggy story out of the water and gets the viewer interested.
Hepburn portrays Tracy too much as a snobby bitch/loose whore to really captivate the viewers. They desperately try to steer her away from those traits, but really that’s what we’re all thinking. She has human moments, but they’re fleeting and soon she’s either down in her gutter or back on her pedestal. Stewart’s real, and that’s why he wins for Best Actor.
So how can I recommend The Philadelphia Story? Well, Stewart, Hepburn and Grant fans can put this on their list. People who like socialites and big parties from the ‘40’s, sure, why not? Everyone else might just shrug and go, “Meh.”
“I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.”