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American classic “The Philadelphia Story” gets the Criterion treatment

Updated: Jun 26, 2022


Katharine Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord the eldest of two daughters living in an estate on Philadelphia's filthy rich, horsey Main Line. The film adaptation is based on the hugely successful Broadway play from Philip Barry, in which Hepburn also starred.

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Blu-ray, DVD; 1940; Not Rated

Best extra: "A Katharine Hepburn Production" documentary

THE CRITERION Collection presents a gloriously restored Blu-ray of one of the great romantic comedy classics. "The Philadelphia Story" was directed by George Cukor and stars three of Hollywood's most famous and, in this black and white gem, most luminous faces, with performances to match.

The film earned six Oscar nominations and two were awarded for Screenplay and Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart). Somehow, an equally deserving Cary Grant wasn't even in the running. But Hepburn, the film's glittering star, was.

Based on the hugely successful Broadway play, in which Hepburn also starred, by Philip Barry, "The Philadelphia Story" is about Tracy Lord, the eldest of two daughters living in an estate on Philadelphia's filthy rich, horsey Main Line. Tracy is about to marry her second husband (John Howard) and two reluctant journalists (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) have been assigned to cover the lavish wedding for a tabloid magazine called Spy.

(1) "The Philadelphia Story" opens with this classic cinematic moment when Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy go their separate ways. (2) Tracy is about to marry her second husband George Kittredge played by John Howard. (3) Mary Nash plays Tracy's mother Margaret.

When Tracy's ex, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) appears, and later her estranged father joins the crowd, things get frantic and very funny. It's further complicated when Tracy and Mike (Stewart) get drunk the night before the wedding and share a sweet, somewhat compromising, interlude. But it's really all about Tracy and her high-handed intolerance of others' flaws (Cary Grant has flaws?!) and, eventually, how she softens up and does the right thing. This was 1940, after all, when the country was hungry for glamour and happy endings.

Criterion's 4K digital transfer was made from an original 35 mm positive print since the negative was destroyed in a 1978 fire. The result is stunning, with silky blacks and grays, particularly the almost inner-lit complexions of the three stars. Contrast is perfect and most details are clearly etched. The original mono soundtrack was remastered and is also pristine. Sound effects are well-balanced and dialogue is always very clean.

Criterion has piled on the extras, which include a new documentary about the origins of the Tracy Lord character; a terrific two-part interview with Hepburn from the 1973 "Dick Cavett Show"; a brief Cavett interview of Cukor from 1978; a 1943 "Lux Radio Theater" production of "Philadelphia Story" starring Loretta Young, Robert Taylor and Robert Young; a restoration demonstration featuring Criterion's technical director, Lee Kline; a very fine audio commentary by author and film historian Jeanine Basinger, which first appeared on the 2004 Warner Brothers' DVD of the film; and an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

(1) James Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor as journalist Macaulay Connor for the tabloid magazine called Spy. (2) Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven appears at the Lord home the day before Tracy's wedding. (3) Tracy and George the night before the wedding.

The other new documentary "A Katharine Hepburn Production," is exceptionally interesting. David Heeley and Joan Kramer, who have themselves previously produced documentaries about Hepburn, weigh in on her career and the impact of "Philadelphia Story," as well as Hepburn's expanded role in the process. They note that, as a child, Hepburn was told by her parents that she "could do anything." She seemed to have taken that to heart. She had early successes in her stage and screen career as a contract player for RKO, even winning her first Oscar, but by the 1930s, her name was on a published list of actors known as "box office poison." So she managed to buy herself out of her contract and selected a play offered to her by Philip Barry: "The Philadelphia Story." It was an unqualified hit and, since she also had a financial stake in it, earned her a nice pile of cash.

An ex-beau of Hepburn's happened to be Howard Hughes, and he bought the movie rights for her. She, in turn, sold the rights to Louis B. Mayer, asking for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable to be her co-stars. As they were unavailable, she had to settle for Grant and Stewart. So sad! The result took Stewart's career "to the rooftops," and cemented Hepburn's, virtually for the rest of her life.

— Peggy Earle

The ending of "The Philadelphia Story" is another classic moment.



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