I like a good romantic comedy, but I love a great one and that's exactly what The Philadelphia Story is. The backstory for this gem is that Katharine Hepburn had been in a string of flops (one of which was the now beloved Bringing Up Baby) and was looking for a star vehicle that would break that losing streak. It came about in the form of a play by Phillip Barry, rewritten as a screenplay by David Ogden Stewart, and what a screenplay it is. Katharine Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a wealthy, willful, free-spirited, but abrasive and judgmental socialite of Philadelphia who has divorced her husband and fellow socialite C.K. Dexter Haven, played by the always delightful Cary Grant. Her reasons for divorce being that he didn't measure up to her very specific standards, namely being that he was a drinker, a habit which she had apparently contributed to. Now Ms. Lord is about to marry to George Kittredge (played as amusingly fussy by John Howard), a man who acquired his wealth on his own. However, the tabloids are anxious to cover the wedding and, with a little masterminding by Dexter and a scandalous story surrounding her father Seth Lord, Reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) do just that.
This film was one of many to feature a plot involving remarriage, which was a plot device in the 30's and 40's to avoid difficulties with censorship. I believe this to be one of the best examples of those, another excellent one being The Awful Truth, which also starred Cary Grant. The chemistry and comic range of the three leads is the highlight of the film. Hepburn's performance as Tracy Lords is a perfect opportunity to tap into her own persona of a tough woman, but with enough sensitivity and wit to make it fun. And indeed, Tracy is a fun character who somehow winds up being torn between three very different men and having eat a slice of humble pie before all ends well. The scenes between Hepburn and Grant, both of whom share sparkling chemistry and a charming Mid-Atlantic accent*, are a sight to behold, the first scene in the movies shows Dexter leaving his mansion in a huff as Tracy snaps one of his golf clubs in two. Dexter is poised to strike, hesitates, then pushes her to the floor. It doesn't sound like much reading about it, but it's all about delivery. They share some very sensitive and heartwarming scenes too, Dexter's accusations of snobbery and self righteousness are as satisfying as their reconciliation, and hey, come on, we all know they'll get back together.
Equally fun are James Stewart in his Oscar-winning role as Mike and Ruth Hussey as Liz who seems to have some unrequited feelings for her colleague. If Dexter has a bone to pick with Tracy being on her high horse, Mike seems to like her there, praising her and falling for her: "You're lit from within, Tracy. You've got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts." One of the most hysterical scenes in the film is when a very drunk Mike visits Dexter in the middle of the night with helpful information he has gathered from Tracy. Grant and Stewart crank up up their comic abilities to whole new level as as a very drunk Mike rambles on to Dexter, Cary Grant playing it off amusingly and James Stewart doing one of the most convincing drunk performances I've ever seen. The other characters are all enjoyable as well, John Halliday as Tracy's warm father Seth, Mary Nash as her kindly mother Margaret, Virginia Weilder is winsome as her sly younger sister Dinah and of course Roland Young as the hilarious Uncle Willie, who takes quite a liking to Liz. It's all tied together with George Cukor's solid direction and David Ogden Stewart's crackling screenplay. Like most romantic comedies, all's well that ends well, but it's a heck of a journey along the way with a lot of laughs and plenty of heart.
*Mid-Atlantic English (sometimes called a Transatlantic accent) is a cultivated or acquired version of the English Language once found in certain aristocratic elements of American society and taught for use in the American theatre. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Atlantic_accent