The Philadelphia Story has been on my too-watch list for months now. I am trying to get round to seeing more classic movies and I adore the re-make High Society, so I was interested to see the black and white original. It’s funny that you think of remakes as being a recent phenomena but the Philadelphia Story was made in 1940 and High Society in 1956 and both versions are based off the original play, so I guess recycling material is nothing new!
The Philadelphia Story’s cast is full of Hollywood royalty: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, names I have heard often but haven’t actually seen in action much, which is why I am trying to watch the classics for myself.
The story is about heiress Tracy Lord who is much disgruntled when the day before her wedding to her second husband, her first husband appears on the doorstep. If that wasn’t bad enough he has two reporters in tow who are reporting on the wedding for a gossip magazine.
As with High Society this film is all about the dialogue. Snappy one-liners, backhanded compliments and subtext rule supreme meaning you have to pay attention to keep up with what is happening below the surface.
The posters would make you believe that this film is a simple love triangle…or square but that isn’t what the film is really about. It’s about preconceptions and prejudice and seeing people for who they really are rather than the cliche you suppose them to be. When put that like you would think there is a danger of being preachy, but the humour here is so tight and the bickering so magnificent that it can slip in a few points here and there without taking itself too seriously.
Kathryn Hepburn makes a more mature Tracy Lord compared to Grace Kelly, who brings out a more childlike element to the demanding heiress. Which isn’t a criticism of either actress, it is just interesting how they plat the same character differently. With Hepburn Tracy’s hardness comes across more prominently and she has a wonderful regal air about her. You believe this is a woman used to dictating her way.
One thing that I really do appreciate about these old movies is that there are longer shots that cover group dialogue. In modern films the footage often cuts to just the person speaking and then gets separate reaction shots. With the Philadelphia Story you see all the players conversing and reacting in the same shot. It is up to you to spot and note people’s reactions rather than having the implications spelled out for you. It also allows for a wonderful flow as people move around one another without any disjointment from numerous cuts.
I think High Society remains my favourite version but I am so glad to have seen the original. I really do hope to getting more of these old gems under my belt. There is something very relaxing about sitting down with an old film, a glass of wine and maybe even a bowl of popcorn! If anyone has recommendations of classic Hollywood films for my watch list, please do let me know in the comments!