The Philadelphia Story (1940)

5 May

The Philadelphia Story will air on Friday, May 10 at 3:15 p.m. on TCM

I don’t know how to go into this imagining that you haven’t seen it. Not because I’m some kind of old movie snob, but because as Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail are to many (myself included), The Philadelphia Story is to me.

Katherine Hepburn

“…the withering glance of the goddess…”

Let’s clarify: the breed of humor is nowhere near those two examples, but it’s difficult for me to watch this and not just recite along. In my personal alternate universe there’s a subculture of Those Kids who go to midnight showings of this and act it out/respond like they do with Rocky Horror and The Room in our no-less-remarkable reality. (In a weird way, that’s what High Society is to me.)

Why? Why so much re-watching in those heady days of having time to re-watch/re-read anything? Admittedly I was far too young to understand the sophistication at work here when I first saw this (12? 13?), but had bought into the fact that I was fan of things black and white and these names and the collective awards and accolades accrued made it Good.

In the years since, I’ve inadvertently learned who Macauley the historian was, why Philadelphia, what smallpox is, and figured out how the whole Implications of the Wristwatch business worked and why everyone was so upset about that. Suave though Cary Grant was, I never thought pushing a woman (or man) to the floor by the face seemed like a good thing to do, while I also never took it as a plausible (i.e., non-comic) version of domestic abuse as far as that scene was concerned.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Bad form, C. K. Dexter Haven.

I did already know “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” when I first saw this, but that was thanks to Kermit the Frog and not yet Groucho.

But more importantly, I’ve been able to see how good this actually is despite, not because of, my sentimental attachments to it. Love of such a thing doesn’t mean it’s any damned good – I love The Gang’s All Here but it’s inane, formless and weirdly edited. Million Dollar Legs bring me joy, but is not a masterpiece, folks. But this, to the good fortune of me and the world, does both.

I suppose what I need is a Virgin to Sacrifice to this one. I had a chance around 1998 to see it in a massive old renovated movie palace (called, of course, The Palace, on Louisville’s Fourth Street) on a ridiculously large screen. Usually those opportunities are given to films that really seem to need the expanse – the Lawrence of Arabias and 2001s – and not drawing room comedies about the sort of people who really have drawing rooms (“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience…”). But seeing The Philadelphia Story in those circumstances, from the balcony, was an awakening for me. The difference it made in the performances was distinct, while the movie stayed what it had been.

Also, I witnessed a supernatural occurrence: when the by then long-deceased Cary Grant glided onto the screen for his first real scene (excluding the face-push mentioned above), the predominantly female audience inhaled collectively to a degree that I’m fairly certain buckled the walls of The Palace for a moment. I swear I felt them contract and then return, as if the theatre itself had to fan herself a little. A theatre mentor of mine is fond of stating the importance of being able to “change the metaphysical temperature of the room.” Well, that happened.

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