Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Here comes the bride! And the ex-husband. And a gossip-rag columnist on assignment. Here come Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart in a peerless comedy romance (directed by George Cukor) about a faultfinding, bride-to-be socialite who gets her comeuppance and an unexpected Mr. Right.

After being labeled "box-office poison," Hepburn rekindled her stardom with a beguiling reprise of her 1939 Broadway role. Top-billed Grant demanded and got a then-colossal $137,000 salary -- donating it to British War Relief. And Stewart won his only Best Actor Academy Award as the wisecracking scribe. (Writer Donald Ogden Stewart won the film's second Oscar for adapting Philip Barry's play). In 1998, Story's success story continued when it made the American Film Institute's 100 Best American Films list.

Director: George Cukor
Cast: Cary Grant, katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young
Academy Awards: Won for Best Actor-James Stewart; Best Screenplay-Donald Ogden Stewart. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress-Katharine Hepburn; Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Hussey. 1941.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 30 chapters; Not Rated; 112 min.; $19.98; street date 5/16/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C+/D-

Some films succeed due to crisp writing or sharp directing, while others depend on the talents of the actors. Although The Philadelphia Story certainly features quality work by those behind the camera, it was due to the performers that the movie became a classic.

With a lead cast of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, how could it fail? In this romantic comedy, Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy blue-blood about to embark on her second marriage. The first was to C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), a fellow member of the upper class; due to the apparently-cantankerous mix of personalities, that union went kaput two years prior to the events depicted in the film.

Tracy plans to marry working-class-guy-made-good George Kittredge (John Howard), an up-and-comer who seems to aspire to political success. With two big names involved, the wedding is seen as hot news, and pseudo-tabloid magazine “Dime and Spy” uses some connections with Haven to send two reporters to the event. Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are the chosen two, and they enter the scene as alleged friends of Tracy’s brother.

Tracy quickly gets wind of the scheme, so she attempts to manipulate the press for her own ends, essentially in an attempt to make sure that they don’t get the big story that they desire. Along the way, the characters get to know each other, with some fairly predictable twists. Populist Mike loathes the “idle rich”, with whom he believes Tracy belongs. She dislikes his biased viewpoint and lack of openness to other ideas. You don’t suppose these two might eventually hit it off, do you?

No, there’s not a lot about the plot that seems particularly fresh, and I doubt that the tale behind The Philadelphia Story appeared new or inventive when it appeared on screens more than 60 years ago. However, this is one of the many instances in which execution carried the day, as the movie’s talent made it special.

I have no complaints about any of the work done behind the camera. The direction by George Cukor makes the movie move at a solid clip, and he keeps the action fresh and compelling. The script shows some signs of wear due to a few tired “class warfare” elements, but as a whole it presents good dialogue and strong characterizations.

However, all of those efforts probably wouldn’t have made much difference without the excellent cast, and the actors provide uniformly strong work in front of the camera. From top to bottom, there’s not a dog to be found. Granted, it’s hard to go wrong with legends like Hepburn, Stewart and Grant, but even the lesser-known performers are excellent. Hussey provides just the right combination of sass and sadness as long-pining Liz, while Howard makes Kittredge dull and square but not excessively so; we don’t much care for him, but we never overtly dislike him.

Even young Virginia Weidler excels as Tracy’s sister Dinah. I usually loathe movie kids, as far too many come from the cute ‘n’ cloying Hallie Kate Eisenberg school of acting. (She’s that atrocious tot from those obnoxious Pepsi commercials.) Weidler portrays herself in a fairly age-appropriate manner, but she also shows a great deal of spark and charm; the scene in which she camps it up for the exposed-reporters is one of the movie’s best.

As a whole, The Philadelphia Story is a fun and witty flick that shows few serious flaws. I wasn’t wild about the abrupt ending, which presented a twist that seemed to exist simply for the sake of being unexpected, but otherwise it’s a solid and entertaining piece of work.

The DVD:

The Philadelphia Story appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the movie seemed generally watchable, it definitely showed its age as it presented a moderately problematic viewing experience.

Sharpness usually appeared acceptably clear and well-defined, but that aspect of the image was somewhat erratic. Quite a few shots looked mildly soft and fuzzy. These tendencies weren’t overwhelming, but I felt the picture often lacked the crispness that it should have displayed. Some moiré effects appeared due to car grilles and checked jackets, but the picture presented no signs of jagged edges.

Black levels seemed nicely deep and dark, but I felt contrast appeared a little too bright; many scenes came across as slightly washed out due to this factor. Shadow detail suffered because of this aspect of the image. While low light sequences seemed adequately visible, they were probably too bright and not dense enough. To be frank, these concerns were fairly minor, but they kept the picture from looking as good as it could.

As one expects from such an old film, the biggest problem that affected the picture of TPS stemmed from print flaws. Grain offered a near-constant presence, and I also saw very frequent examples of grit and speckles. In addition, scratches, tears, hairs and blotches appeared on occasion, though not with the frequency of the more severe defects. For a movie from 1940, The Philadelphia Story looks acceptably good, but it’s clear the film could use a nice cleaning.

Also decent but unexceptional was the film’s monaural soundtrack. Dialogue seemed a little thin but was relatively crisp and well-defined with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. The movie features a fairly spare score, but when we heard music, it was acceptably broad and clear; it presented little low end but the dynamics were fine for a track of this vintage. Effects were similarly dated but they seemed adequately clean and realistic, and no aspects of the mix displayed signs of distortion.

Actually, this would have been an above-average track for the period were it not for a persistent layer of background noise audible throughout the film. Such hiss is not unusual for an older movie, but it seemed more noticeable and irritating than usual, perhaps because the rest of the track sounded pretty good. In any case, the noise lowered my grade to a fairly average “C+”.

Easily the worst aspect of the DVD is its supplements. All we find is the film’s theatrical trailer. Well, at least it’s an interesting one, especially when it touts the fact that the original play sold scads of tickets on Broadway at an (apparently steep) price of $4.40 a seat!

Despite the dated nature of the trailer, much of The Philadelphia Story still seems fresh and energetic. The movie has some period flaws, but it benefits from excellent acting by a terrific cast. The DVD provides generally acceptable picture and sound that show their age but seem largely decent, though it skimps on extras. In any case, the movie itself is a fun and fiery piece of work that should be enjoyed by fans of classic comedies and great acting.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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