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The Philadelphia Story: Special Edition

If, quoth Fitzgerald, the rich are different from you and me, then in The Philadelphia Story that's because they're wittier, better-looking, and screwed up in more entertaining ways. This 1940 comedy of high society and its discontents remains funny and romantic and charming, secure in its status as one of the rewatchable Hollywood classics. Of course, you could hardly go wrong with Golden Age MGM blue-chip polish and George Cukor masterly directing Donald Ogden Stewart's irresistibly quotable screenplay that adapted the Broadway hit by Philip Barry. Even so, it's the cast that really makes The Philadelphia Story one of the essentials. Every time Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart connect in a scene, we hear the happy ding! of quality champagne crystal.

There's something of The Taming of the Shrew in this sharp-tongued farce set among the fashionable elites and sophisticates. The film's playful spin on class and sexual politics reveals attitudes growing dustier with each generation, and Shakespeare would have added dirtier jokes, but we can imagine him nodding approvingly at the film's Hamlet-like epiphany, "We all go haywire at times, and if we don't maybe we ought to."

Hepburn is haughty ivory-tower divorcée Tracy Lord, a "rich, rapacious, American female." She's due to marry nouveau riche stick-in-the-mud George Kittredge (John Howard), who sums up her frigid persona by praising how "cool and fine" she is, "like a statue." (Later on, the statuesque Ms. Hepburn's subsequent film image is synopsized when Tracy hears that she has "everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart, and without that you might just as well be made of bronze." Naturally, it'll take a man — or two in this case — to thaw the ice, preluding her upcoming comedies with Spencer Tracy.) Trouble arrives with her first husband, millionaire boozehound C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). He slips two tabloid reporters, sardonic Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Connor's patient girlfriend Liz (Ruth Hussey), into the Lord estate to scandal-rag the wedding and get revenge on the ex-wife who kicked him out. But Stewart's tanked-up writer is soon love-struck and rapturously woos Tracy, which trods the toes of Grant's reforming cynic who refuses to pass the torch he's still carrying. Alcohol being the great leveler, what finally melts Tracy's aristo shell is a passionate premarital bender with soulful working-class Connor (providing one of the great Hollywood romantic drunk scenes), followed by her eye-opening morning-after.

A parenthetical subplot involving a blackmail scheme, Tracy's philandering father, and Connor's boss is all but superfluous. Noblesse oblige being what it is, by the time the "kiss me, Kate!" ending arrives we've raised our highball glass when Stewart declares, "The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges."

In 1938, after being stamped "box office poison" by a star chamber of movie-theater owners, Hepburn took a hiatus from filmdom. During that break came her Broadway triumph in the stage play, The Philadelphia Story. Barry created Tracy Lord with Hepburn in mind, tailoring Tracy to Hepburn's real-life strengths and brassiness. (Said Life magazine of the movie, "when Katharine Hepburn sets out to play Katharine Hepburn, she is a sight to behold.") With that stage hit in her pocket — along with, thanks to her former lover Howard Hughes, the play's movie rights — she took charge of a comeback as precision engineered as the Chrysler Building. Hepburn chose the film version's director (Cukor had directed her several times before and always brought out the best in her) and her two co-stars. It says something about her in-control savvy that the film ended up better than the typical vanity project.

The popping dialogue shifts easily between Wildean pith and only-in-Hollywood romantic hooey (e.g., Stewart's swooning ode to Tracy's "fires banked below, hearthfires and holocausts"), with a dermis of worldly cynicism you don't find in its more "screwball" cousins such as Bringing Up Baby. The film is a temple to comic timing, effortlessly handled by Cukor and a dream cast giving career-peak performances. The three stars work together like gin, vermouth, and double entendres. Because Hepburn is so good and so beautiful in her thoroughbred power-androgyny way, we overlook how she's reshaping her screen image so calculatedly we can see the algorithms at work. Grant, as ever, is so handsome and charismatic that it's Archie Leach who's the fiction. This is the only time that Grant and Stewart shared the screen, and in their moments together (especially when Stewart is stewed to the gills) they play against each other's types wonderfully. The second-tier cast is also on-target, namely Virginia Weidler, Roland Young, and Mary Nash.

The Philadelphia Story was a smash hit. Hepburn earned her third Academy Award nomination. Stewart won his only Oscar for Best Actor. More importantly, Hepburn gained an MGM contract and was a bankable film star for two generations thereafter.

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True to form, Warner Home Video's two-disc Special Edition lovingly restores The Philadelphia Story with a great print and a newly remastered transfer. The black-and-white tones look sharp and solid (though there's some minor flicker now and then). The audio likewise prompts no complaints in hearty DD 2.0 monaural.

Bonus goodies begin with a tepid but informative commentary track from film historian Jeannine Basinger. She's reading from lecture notes, but the material is good if you're a fan of the movie.

Two worthwhile documentaries start with a 1993 TV retrospective produced for TNT, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (70 mins.), with Hepburn herself as the narrator and on-camera host. It's a "self-portrait," part autobiography, part filmography. Mighty spry at age 86, she's a warmly congenial hostess whose reminiscences on bygone Hollywood days, affection for the co-stars and other men in her life, and ample film clips and private footage make for a pleasant if not deep survey. More film-schoolish is the documentary on director George Cukor, which comes from Richard Schickel's 1973 series, The Men Who Made the Movies (57 mins.). Sydney Pollack narrates and Cukor looks back at his work, his reputation as an actor's director, and the actors and writers he collaborated with.

We also get a 1940 short subject, "That Inferior Feeling" (9 mins.), starring Algonquin Round Table raconteur Robert Benchley, and the 1940 Rudolf Ising cartoon, "The Homeless Flea." An audio-only bonus preserves two radio theater adaptations of The Philadelphia Story. The Victory Theater version from July 1942 (57 mins.) stars Hepburn, Grant, "Lt. James Stewart," and Hussy. This wartime broadcast is introduced by Cecil B. DeMille "speaking for the United States government."

The three leads return again in the Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse condensed version from March '47 (29 mins.). Finally, there's a gallery of George Cukor movie trailers. Keep-case in paperboard sleeve.

—Mark Bourne

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