Once upon a time in Hollywood, romantic comedies were crafted with such wit and charm that they won Academy Awards. In The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn elevate a solid screenplay about second chances and the discovery of love to wonderfully charming heights.
It’s no coincidence that during the span of their careers, the three leads racked up 19 Oscar nods and five wins between them—they are three of the greatest actors of all time.
The movie is anchored by Hepburn’s deliciously haughty turn as Tracey Lord, a rich socialite who will soon marry her second husband, the blandly forgettable George Kittredge (John Howard). Hepburn, who earned one of her 12 Academy Award nominations for this film, is a fiercely intelligent and strong actress. It’s a pleasure to see her bring that quality into her portrayal of the misunderstood Tracey.
Tracey is described by many of the people in her life as “a queen”, “a statue”, or as “cool and fine”. Really, she’s just an individual who shields her softer, romantic side beneath a fiercely aggressive exterior. She’s been burned before—and who can’t relate to that? (Granted, most of us haven’t been burned by the likes of Cary Grant.) Grant, playing his usual cool and collected leading man, brings in subtle shades of wry wit and an even fainter hint of a wounded heart to humanize his character, millionaire and former alcoholic C.K. Dexter Howard. It’s obvious that he still loves Tracey when he shows up to her family’s house for her wedding.
Grant doesn’t show up to Hepburn’s wedding alone, though. He brings the self-effacing Stewart in tow, as the sardonic reporter Macaulay Connor. Stewart won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role, and it’s classic Stewart: puppy-dog adorable, warm, and clever.
The film asks us how two people can reconnect after a difficult break up, and it answers the question in a simple but honest way. There’s real pain and bitterness in this story, but the delightful part is there is also real wit and charm. The film falters towards the end, growing slightly cliché and lagging, but the actors fire at all cylinders and propel the film to a satisfying, though expected, conclusion.