A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Cary Grant was a great listener, which is what made him a great movie actor. Just watch how alert he is when someone else is talking (which is almost all the time in The Philadelphia Story), registering his responses with a slight smile, a tilt of the head, a lifted eyebrow. This was the mark of his career for more than 30 years, working with some of the greatest directors in Hollywood history, from Josef von Sternberg in Blonde Venus (1932) to Stanley Donen in Charade (1963), taking in multiple turns with Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock along the way. Is there an actor with a better filmography? And yet, he was nominated for the best actor Oscar only twice, for the weepies Penny Serenade (George Stevens, 1941) and None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets, 1944), movies that only a Cary Grant fanatic need bother checking out. He wasn't nominated for The Philadelphia Story, either, even though his C.K. Dexter Haven is one of his deftest performances. The Oscar went to his co-star James Stewart, for playing Macaulay Connor in the same movie, an award that even Stewart thought was a consolation prize for not winning the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra). The great virtue of The Philadelphia Story is the way director George Cukor keeps a large and skillful cast buoyantly aloft, giving Katharine Hepburn her comeback role as Tracy Lord after being labeled "box-office poison" for a series of flops in the 1930s. Hepburn was nominated, too, but lost, rather absurdly, to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood). The other acting nominee was Ruth Hussey for her delightfully sly Liz Imbrie, a role that should have boosted her career but for some reason didn't. The other Oscar for the film went to Donald Ogden Stewart for his adaptation of the Philip Barry play. Stewart got uncredited help from writer Waldo Salt, which leads to a bitter irony: Both men were blacklisted for their leftist views in the 1950s, even though The Philadelphia Story seems to demonstrate that the very rich sometimes have better values than the working-class Macaulay Connor and Tracy's fiancé, the former coal-miner George Kittredge (John Howard). There isn't a weak link in the cast, which includes the peerless Roland Young as droll and lecherous Uncle Willy, and Virginia Weidler, one of the few child actors one doesn't want to stifle, as Tracy's kid sister, Dinah.

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