A Fine Romance Friday: The Philadelphia Story

Shakespeare is in the air this week. Everything I’ve read lately seems to allude to the Bard. Plus, it’s the height the Shakespeare summer stock season, that moment when for some reason everyone is willing to watch Renaissance drama and comedy. (If this disturbs you, don’t worry, it ends by Labor Day.)

I considered going with a straight Shakespeare adaptation, but my favorite “this is Shakespeare, isn’t it?” romance is The Philadelphia Story, which is this week’s selection. Yes, you read that right: George Cukor’s 1940 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart is really Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be precise.

Hear me out.

The basic premise of the film is that tabloid reporter Stewart crashes Hepburn’s fancy Philadelphia society wedding with the help of Grant. Grant is Hepburn’s ex and he’s trying to help her (sort of); mainly, he’s trying to win her back.

Hepburn and Grant are Titania and Oberon — the estranged fairy king and queen — but also one of the sets of lovers; Stewart and Ruth Hussey (who plays the Girl Friday photographer) are the other set of lovers; Hepburn’s kooky family are the fools; and alcohol is the magic. If you don’t believe me, check out the fourth chapter of Stanley Cavell’s classic Pursuits of Happiness for a fuller examination of the connections between the play and the film.

Even without the link to Shakespeare, there’s so much here that’s good. The Philadelphia Story has an astonishingly literate, intelligent screenplay, the central trio of actors are magic together, and the costumes are divine. It’s a film for grown ups and they just don’t make those all that often anymore.

I particularly love the difference between how Grant and the up-and-coming capitalist Hepburn is supposed to marry respond to her sexuality. The two performances of the line, “A wife should behave herself naturally” communicate volumes about the relationship between men and women. It’s an anti-slut shaming film and a surprisingly progressive one given when it was written and filmed. Smart and delightful, if you haven’t seen it before you should watch The Philadelphia Story immediately.

I’ve got it cued up in the DVD player and some champagne on ice. Naturally.

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