THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Cukor, 1940)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 7, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long
Wealthy socialite and bride-to-be Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) finds herself pursued by two prospective suitors, neither of whom happens to be the man she plans to marry tomorrow. Ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) disrupts Tracy's plans not only by barging in unannounced, but also by dragging cranky reporter Mike Connor along in his wake to cover the wedding for his magazine and to wreak further chaos. Tracy's fiance George (John Howard) barely merits a footnote even as his own day of bliss approaches.
Director George Cukor and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart adapted “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) from Philip Barry's 1939 smash-hit play, also starring Hepburn. The project was designed from the outset as an effort to re-establish Hepburn as a star after a series of box-office failure in the late 1930's, which included the now-beloved “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). Hepburn exerted considerable control over the production from the earliest stages, from choosing Cukor to direct to selecting her co-stars (though she initially wanted Spencer Tracy as one of the leads), and the result was a career re-defining triumph, scoring big at the box office and also at the Academy Awards.
Like most romantic comedies of the era, the film relies almost exclusively on the blunt force power of star charisma on which the world-conquering Hollywood system was built. Every seemingly implausible or rushed development in the script has a simple justification. When the cynical Mike abruptly stops grumbling about the corruption of the upper-class and confesses his undying admiration for Tracy, there is only one explanation for his change of heart: she is Katharine Hepburn, and everyone loves Katharine Hepburn. Why does the poised, urbane Tracy still fall for the boorish, narcissistic, alcoholic who once hit her? Because he's Cary Grant, and everyone loves Cary Grant. All of which goes triple for Jimmy Stewart.
I confess that I am largely insensitive to the charms of studio mega-stars, a natural defect which generally leaves me less receptive to the romantic comedies of the golden age than most other viewers are. But I can still acknowledge the impeccable sense of timing Cukor and his cast enjoyed, as well the myriad of little flourishes provided by a deft script engineered to augment the strengths of the performers. Stewart repeatedly spits out the full name “C.K. Dexter Haven” as an accusation targeted at an entire privileged class. Hepburn endures a baseless series of accusations blaming her for the shortcomings of every man in her life without losing either her patience of her dignity. And Ruth Hussey outshines the top-line stars in an underappreciated role as a photographer and Mike's ill-treated love interest.
The ending is utterly ludicrous, but it's Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart. No need to ask further questions.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film's original camera negative was destroyed in a 1978 fire, so you would expect any restoration would have to make compromises based on the limitations of their source prints, but it's hard to see any compromise here. Criterion's 1080p transfer offers sharp image detail, strong black-and-white contrast, and a fine grain structure that really makes the film pop. The look is so consistent throughout, I honestly can't spot a noticeable dropoff or flaw of any kind. It's difficult to envision a superior version of this film.
The linear PCM mono audio track is sharp and relatively flat, as the original audio mix was. The sound design qualifies as strictly functional with dialogue and a Franz Waxman score the only relevant elements. It's all clearly mixed and consistent throughout. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.
Criterion has stacked this new high-definition release with an impressive selection of extras, though only a few are new for this Blu-ray.
The film is accompanied by a 2004 commentary track by film scholar Jeanine Basinger.
“In Search of Tracy Lord” (2017, 22 min.) details some of the real-life inspirations for Hepburn's signature character, inspirations which include Hepburn herself along with a few people in playwright Philip Barry's life. This feature combines interviews with Miranda Barry (Philip Barry's daughter), Janny Scott (granddaughter of Edgar and Hope Scott, the latter considered to be an inspiration for Tracy Lord), and Donald Anderson, author of a book on Philip Barry's plays.
“A Katharine Hepburn Production” (19 min.) is a new piece about Hepburn's role in shaping the film from the very start, and mixes interviews with filmmakers David Hedley and Joan Kramer.
The disc includes two full episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” (69 min. each) which aired in October 1973. Hepburn was known for her reluctance to do interviews, so these lengthy discussions, conducted on a closed backstage, were quite a coup for Cavett and a treat for Hepburn fans. We also get an excerpt (15 min.) from George Cukor's appearance on a May 18, 1978 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.”
Criterion has also unearthed a “Lux Radio Theatre” performance of “The Philadelphia Story” which was broadcast on June 14, 1943, and stars Loretta Young, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young in the three leads. Cecil B. DeMille serves as your host for the evening.
My favorite feature on the disc is a “Restoration Demo” (6 min.) with Criterion's expert technicians explaining the challenges in restoring the film, most of which stem from the fact that the original camera negative was lost in a 1978 fire at the George Eastman House.
The collection rounds out with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)
The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.
A fantastic transfer and a stacked offering of extras. Fans of the film could hardly ask for more.