Monday, March 1, 2010

The Philadelphia Story: Masters at Play

It would be impossible, absolutely impossible for me to talk about my favorite movies without mentioning "The Philadelphia Story."  I do have so many favorites that my top films fluctuate sometimes, but "The Philadelphia Story" is always in my Top 5, possibly even Top 3.  This is one of those films that, if it's on tv, I watch it.  I have read the play it's adapted from.  I've even had the opportunity to see it on the big screen as well.  And I must say, there's something about the energy of a fully-packed theater all reacting together that makes even a movie you know by heart more enjoyable than the first time you saw it.

"The Philadelphia Story," released in December of 1940, stars Katharine Hepburn as Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord.  The day before her wedding, her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) unexpectedly shows up with reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), trying to pass them off as "friends."  Tracy isn't fooled, but when she learns from Dex that he was blackmailed into bringing them by the magazine's editor Sidney Kidd, she lets them stay.  However, with her ex and a new admirable man around, her world begins to unravel as she learns new truths about herself.  And when the day of the wedding arrives, everything is thrown up in the air.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, this is the best of the romantic screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age.  Adapted from Philip Barry's play of the same name, it is an amazing example of excellent story writing, both back then and today.  David Ogden Stewart won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this film.  He said, though, in his autobiography, that the original play was so perfect that adapting it to film was the easiest job he ever had. 

The play itself was an enormous success.  Barry wrote the role of Tracy for Katharine Hepburn herself, to lure her back to the stage after the movie industry had labeled her "box office poison" from a series of previous flops.  Hepburn ended up not only starring in the play, but backing it as well.  Also, she acquired the film rights to the play for her "comeback" vehicle.  (Millionaire Howard Hughes actually bought her the rights as a gift.)  So when she sold the film rights to MGM, in was on the condition that she have power over choosing cast, director, producer, and screenwriter. 

Her choice of director, George Cukor, was an easy one for her, because she had worked with him before.  However, her cast was not her first choice.  Originally, she asked for Clark Gable for C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy for Macaulay Connor (whom she had not met yet, but thank goodness they eventually did).  Both actors were unable to star, so the parts went to Grant and Stewart instead.  Cary Grant actually had the choice of either male part, but wisely chose the less-flashy one.  He did however insist on top billing and $137,000 salary, huge for that time, but donated it all to the British War Relief Fund.

"The Philadelphia Story" is a lesson in perfection all around.  It only took 8 weeks to shoot the movie due to every scene only needing one take.  You can see the actors' dedication and skill (and chemistry) in one of the drunk scenes with Grant and Stewart.  Unbeknownst to Grant, Stewart decided to add some hiccups to his drunkenness and almost caught Grant off-guard.  But in the grace and class that was Grant, he adlibbed "Excuse me" in response to Stewart's hiccup, and only had to turn away slightly to stifle his laugh. 

James Stewart wasn't planning on going to the Academy Awards the year he won Best Actor for "The Philadelphia Story."  He himself had voted for Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath."  However, right before the event, he got a call from someone "advising" him to throw on some nice clothes and go anyway.  (This was before accounting firms were brought in to protect the outcomes.)  Feeling he never really deserved that Oscar, he claimed it must have been "deferred payment for my work on 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'."

So, get back to the classics this week with "The Philadelphia Story," an essential for anyone truly wanting to watch the best movies ever made.  Sure, the story might be a bit misogynistic in today's politically-correct standards, but thanks to the skill, grace, class and amazing talent of all involved, you shouldn't mind one bit. Enjoy!

(Post-tidbit:  The word "Philadelphia" is misspelled on Stewart's Oscar, which used to sit in the window of his father's hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania...on Philadelphia St.)

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