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Warner Home Video presents
The Philadelphia Story: SE (1940)

"You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. And without that, you might just as well be made of bronze."
- Seth Lord (John Halliday)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: January 20, 2006

Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
Other Stars: Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler
Director: George Cukor

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:52m:07s
Release Date: March 01, 2005
UPC: 012569699021
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In 1939, Katharine Hepburn's career, for all intents and purposes, was in the toilet. Labeled "Box Office Poison" by the Independent Theatre Owners of America and reeling from a string of popular failures (including, amazingly enough, Bringing Up Baby), the depressed actress fled Hollywood to nurse her bruised ego at her beloved Connecticut home. Like the proverbial phoenix, however, she soon rose again, this time on Broadway, reinventing herself as the arrogant, self-absorbed, loquacious, judgmental, yet oh-so-vulnerable heiress, Tracy Lord, in The Philadelphia Story. The play, written expressly for her by Philip Barry, became an instant hit, and the savvy Hepburn (with help from boyfriend Howard Hughes) quickly snapped up the movie rights and shrewdly auctioned them off—with herself as part of the package—to the highest Hollywood bidder. MGM won, and when the film adaptation premiered in 1940, Hepburn was poison no more.

With its delicious sophistication and sharp intellect, The Philadelphia Story heralded a new age in screen comedy, one that challenged audiences to look beyond one-liners and slapstick situations, and embrace more introspective, socially relevant humor. Though the story still retains several basic screwball elements from the 1930s—high society setting, daffy family dynamics, personality masquerades, and romantic mix-ups galore—it gains a contemporary edge by putting its heroine under a microscope, and seamlessly weaving biting social criticism into the fabric of its nutty plot. Snobbery, infidelity, class conflicts, and tabloid journalism are only a few of the timeless, substantive topics the film insightfully addresses. The jabs, however, are dressed up in some of the screen's wittiest dialogue, adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart (who received a well-deserved Oscar) and delivered to perfection by a stellar cast.

At its core, The Philadelphia Story is a journey of self-discovery for the headstrong Tracy, whom we first meet in a funny, instantly recognizable prologue that depicts the bitter final moments of her first marriage to millionaire playboy C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). (She gleefully takes one of his golf clubs and snaps it in two over her knee, and he retaliates by putting his hand over her face and shoving her to the floor.) Flash forward two years, and the Lord household is all aflutter over last-minute preparations for Tracy's next marriage to stuffy industrialist George Kittredge (John Howard), a self-made man who's the polar opposite of the dashing, pedigreed Dext—who "coincidentally" returns to his neighboring mansion on the eve of the nuptials. Unbeknownst to Tracy, Dext has made a deal with the publisher of a gossipy tabloid, offering exclusive rights to the Lord wedding in return for quashing an exposé on Tracy's philandering father, Seth (John Halliday). Spy Magazine sends two jaded reporters, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey)—both of whom possess a dim view of the idle rich—out to the Lord estate, and they wind up active participants in a weekend of wild partying, personal reflection, emotional upheaval, and monumental misunderstandings, as the family seeks to sort out their mixed up lives.

With so many traits of Hepburn's own personality woven into the character, the role of Tracy Lord suits the great Kate to a T, and she embraces it like few others in her long and storied career. At once fascinating and infuriating, passionate and heartless, Tracy is viewed differently by each man in the film. Kittredge feels there's a "beautiful purity" about her, "like a statue," while her father believes she lacks empathy and is "made of bronze." Mike sees "hearth-fires and holocausts" in her soul, and Dext recognizes her insecurity and the defense mechanisms she uses to hide it. Few actresses could exhibit all these conflicting qualities, but Hepburn meets the challenge with ease, and files perhaps her most memorable and identifiable portrayal.

Dext is the type of part Grant could sleepwalk through—charming, glib, devil-may-care—but he's not that lazy an actor, and the subtleties he brings to the character lend the reformed alcoholic playboy essential dimension. Stewart won an Oscar as the cynical scribe who becomes intoxicated by Tracy and her lifestyle, and though the award was merely a consolation prize for being passed over the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his textured performance greatly enhances the film. In other roles, Ruth Hussey cracks wise as the acerbic Liz (and received an Oscar nomination), Roland Young excels as the jovial Uncle Willie, and Virginia Weidler—one of the era's most underrated child stars—almost steals the show as plucky Dinah, Tracy's precocious younger sister.

Director George Cukor, who was also Oscar-nominated (along with the movie itself), orchestrates the action with his usual sensitivity and fluidity. Like he does so often and so well, Cukor zeroes in on the foibles and fragility of humanity, which add vital—and all too rare—emotional weight to the comedy. Though he's often lost amid the luster of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart, Cukor is the real star of The Philadelphia Story, and his firm yet gentle hand guides the film into a very rarefied realm.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Warner takes care of its classics, no question, and they've done a marvelous job sprucing up The Philadelphia Story. But don't get too excited; the changes are rather subtle. Still, they're marked enough to render the previous DVD version obsolete. The big news is a sharper, richer image, with deeper black levels, whiter whites, and a much more varied gray scale that adds vital depth and contrast. Slightly less grain afflicts the picture, but enough remains to lend it a warm and cozy feel. Unfortunately, a fair amount of nicks and scratches continue to dot the print, but that's to be expected considering the film's advanced age. Maybe someday, The Philadelphia Story will receive a complete restoration, but until then, this new transfer will certainly suffice.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: It's difficult to discern much difference in the mono track, but the all-important dialogue remains clear and comprehendible throughout, and no distortion—even during scenes of verbal cacophony—could be detected. Some surface hiss is still evident (if you really listen for it), but Franz Waxman's music score sounds lush and lovely.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Dinner at Eight, Little Women, The Women, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, A Star Is Born, Les Girls, and My Fair Lady
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger
Packaging: 2 disc slip case
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Two radio adaptations
  2. Vintage short, That Inferior Feeling
  3. Vintage cartoon, The Homeless Flea
Extras Review: This two-disc special edition will keep fans of the film occupied for hours with a wealth of worthwhile supplements, beginning with a cogent, crisply delivered commentary track by film historian Jeanine Basinger. It's instantly apparent Basinger reveres everything about The Philadelphia Story, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She adroitly alternates between scene-specific comments and both backstage anecdotes and biographical information, and astutely analyzes the myriad nuances and subtleties that pervade the film. Basinger makes a convincing argument that Stewart's Oscar was not a consolation prize (although I still don't buy it), praises Cukor's direction, and thoroughly examines almost every aspect of the production—costumes, lighting, cinematography, screenplay, and art direction. Though she once calls Hepburn's character Tracy "Lords" (an innocent slip of the tongue that confuses the film's patrician heroine with a notorious real-life porn star), Basinger's commentary is otherwise letter-perfect (despite some repetition), and an essential companion to this classic comedy.

Disc 1 also includes a Cukor Trailer Gallery, featuring the original Philadelphia Story trailer, as well as nine additional previews for such Cukor classics as Dinner at Eight, Little Women, The Women, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, A Star Is Born, Les Girls, and My Fair Lady. All are in excellent condition, and display the breadth of Cukor's talent.

Disc 2 kicks off with the self-indulgent but always fascinating and surprisingly moving 1992 documentary, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me—A Self-Portrait. Hepburn herself narrates this in-depth look at her life and career, filled with lengthy film clips, rare behind-the-scenes footage, and priceless home movies. The 85-year-old grande dame of cinema pontificates on a variety of diverse subjects, ranging from the art of acting to birth control and old age, but her comments are enhanced by introspection and candor (especially concerning her 25-year relationship with Spencer Tracy), and a refreshing self-deprecation that cuts this legendary figure "down to our size." Several gratuitous shots of the elderly Hepburn gardening, shopping, rowing a canoe, playing tennis, gathering wood, and riding a bike are undoubtedly designed to emphasize her active lifestyle and inspire fellow seniors, but it's the quieter Kate that's more enthralling. In an off-the-cuff, conversational style, she recounts her childhood (including the mysterious death of her beloved brother), exalts her two "extraordinary" parents, warmly recalls her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith (which failed because of her "total selfishness"), hints at a love affair with Howard Hughes, discusses her proclivity toward wearing pants, and quips she's never been reluctant to express an opinion about anything. The 70-minute feature includes wonderful anecdotes, and ends with Hepburn quoting her personal motto, "Listen to the song of life."

Another stellar documentary, The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor, allows the esteemed director to freely discuss both his films and the legendary actors he guided. Sydney Pollack provides minimal narration in this 2001 update of the original 1973 documentary produced by film critic Richard Schickel. Cukor, who was 73 at the time of the interview, notes how he gave Cary Grant his screen "identity" in Sylvia Scarlett, examines the deceptive immediacy of Spencer Tracy's acting, cites Hepburn's innate humanity, and marvels at the artistry of Judy Holliday. Clips from a number of his movies—both classics and lesser known gems—augment this insightful 55-minute profile.

Up next, a nine-minute Robert Benchley short, That Inferior Feeling, illustrates how a lack of confidence can turn a normal, mild-mannered man into an odd, suspicious figure of ridicule. Benchley's dry humor perks up this second-rate one-reeler, which sadly never supplies the belly laughs we expect. The MGM cartoon The Homeless Flea isn't very funny either, as it chronicles a resourceful flea's desperate attempt to stake his claim to a reluctant dog's hide.

Finally, two radio adaptations of The Philadelphia Story prove how marvelously the original actors recreate their roles, and how well the script transfers to the audio medium. The first, broadcast in July of 1942 as the initial installment of a new series called Victory Theater, features Grant, Hepburn, Stewart (then a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps), Hussey, and Virginia Weidler in an hour-long adaptation that somehow manages to truncate the story without sacrificing its style, wit, or substance. The line readings sound almost identical to those in the film, and the actors' energy level and enthusiasm remains very strong throughout. Unfortunately, a good bit of surface noise and distortion hamper the antique program, but they rarely diminish enjoyment. The second broadcast, performed for the Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse almost five years later (and without Hussey or Weidler), trims the story down to a mere 30 minutes, excising any mention of Tracy's father or his infidelities, and severely condensing Tracy's transformation. Hepburn and Stewart both sound more mature and a bit subdued (as does Grant), but their acting remains top-notch, and the script still works well, even in its hyper-abbreviated form. Thankfully, the audio quality is absolutely pristine, which lends this reading a welcome intimacy the previous version lacks.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

As bubbly as a champagne cocktail, The Philadelphia Story still intoxicates today, and finally receives the lavish, double-disc treatment it has long deserved. George Cukor's peerless high-society comedy has never looked better, and Warner's top-flight presentation ensures the performances of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart will never grow old. Highly recommended.


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