by Allan Fish
This one is for the folks at the Katharine Hepburn Theatre and dcd…
(USA 1940 112m) DVD1/2
She was yar all right
p Joseph L.Mankiewicz d George Cukor w Donald Ogden Stewart (and Waldo Salt) play Philip Barry ph Joseph Ruttenberg ed Frank Sullivan m Franz Waxman art Cedric Gibbons, Wade B.Rubottom
Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Samantha Lord), Cary Grant (C.K.Dexter Haven), James Stewart (Macaulay Connor), Ruth Hussey (Liz Imbrie), Mary Nash (Margaret Lord), John Halliday (Seth Lord), Virginia Weidler (Dinah Lord), Roland Young (Uncle Willie), Henry Daniell (Sidney Kidd), John Howard (George Kittredge), Rex Evans, Lionel Pape, Russ Clark, Hilda Plowright, Lila Chevret, Hillary Brooke,
Of all the films to suffer the ignominy of a musical remake, surely there can be no better film made into a worse musical remake than this. Let us first get one thing perfectly clear; High Society has no redeeming virtues (with the exception of its end credits). It is a truly awful film whose rating as a classic by many reviewers can only be described as collective madness. Bing and Frank in the same film does not a classic make, Cole Porter’s songs are ordinary by his standards and the whole affair should be forgotten. The original, however, is something else entirely. If Trouble in Paradise was the pinnacle of pre-code sophistication, The Philadelphia Story personified post-code sophistication.
The plot needs little explanation (basically, rich girl prepares to marry second husband only comes to realise she did an injustice to hubbie number one) and is very straightforward. Yet the best comedies always are and Philip Barry’s play is wonderfully adapted for the screen by master adaptor Don Stewart (who also worked on The Prisoner of Zenda) in a manner that can only bring out the best in actors and director alike. Indeed, the same team had worked together on another Barry adaptation, Holiday, two years previously. That was a classic itself and has already been discussed, so ashamedly ignored by the viewing public that Hepburn was pretty much regarded as box-office poison by 1940 and, possessing the screen rights to Barry’s play, she wanted to make sure this one was a hit. Van Heflin and Joseph Cotten originally played the roles of Connor and Haven on stage, but even Hepburn could not have hoped for better replacements than Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. For those who think of Hepburn purely with Tracy, this is a film to make you sit up and take notice, not just of her, but of the whole cast.
Hepburn is simply magnificent and never looked more attractive or, conversely, more vulnerable. Stewart may have won the Oscar partly in sympathy over his missing out the previous year for Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but he, too, is simply peerless (who else could say the line “the happiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges“?). Grant meanwhile gives a performance of such subtlety as to even be out of the ordinary for him, and that is definitely saying something. Yet these are only the principals; John Halliday and Mary Nash are perfect as the Lords, Virginia Weidler a holy terror singing ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’, Roland Young an incorrigibly dirty old man as Uncle Willie whose line “this is one of those days which the pages of history teach us are best spent lying in bed” has to be one of the greatest lines of all time. Then there’s a never better Ruth Hussey, sweet below the outer acid, and Henry Daniell’s “no mean Machiavelli” Sidney Kidd. It reads like a list of the immortals.
George Cukor had made a host of civilised entertainments prior to this, with the aforementioned Holiday and The Women serving as trial runs for Philadelphia. All deal with analysing the upper classes and all dissect them with the precision of a Rocket of London scalpel, but none more so than Philadelphia. What makes it so particularly sharp is that its central point is basically “class be damned!” There are just good and bad people and class has nothing to do with it. It might poke fun at the rich, but also takes swipes at those who criticise them and sneer to hide their jealousy. It’s as Macaulay Connor said in his poem; “with the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” These characters may be rich, but you’ll require very little patience to grow to love them.