The Quarantine Stream: The Glamorous Stars Of 'The Philadelphia Story' Are As Fun As The Story Is Frustrating

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieThe Philadelphia Story

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Katherine Hepburn plays Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord, a fiery divorcée whose upcoming wedding to the stuffy "man of the people" George Kittredge is the event of the season. But the frivolities are soon interrupted by the return of her ex, Dexter (Cary Grant), bringing in tow with him Spy magazine reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and his photographer girlfriend Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), who are posing as friends of the family. Tracy immediately figures out their scheme and gets the real story out of Dexter: the editor of Spy magazine is blackmailing them with a story about her dad's affair with a dancer. Tracy reluctantly plays along with the farce, only for the sparks to fly and for the socialite to get caught in not a simple love triangle but a love pentagon, between George, Dex, and Mike.

Why It's Essential Viewing: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and James Stewart all in one movie. Need I say more?

Well, I will say more because there's quite a lot more to The Philadelphia Story than being the single most star-studded rom-com of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Hepburn's comeback vehicle after she was labeled "box office poison" following a string of commercial flops (including the now-screwball classic Bringing Up Baby), The Philadelphia Story revived Hepburn's career and became one of her most iconic roles. But it came at something of a price, at least for modern-day viewers who turn on The Philadelphia Story expecting a frothy screwball comedy starring three of Hollywood's biggest movie icons.

You see, The Philadelphia Story is mean. It spends almost its entire runtime cutting Hepburn down to size, with most of the characters, including her love interests, abusing her both verbally and once physically, with Dex's first appearance showing him shoving Tracy back (comedically, I guess?). The only allies that Tracy has are the women, including her airheaded mother and her kid sister Dinah (a scene-stealing Virginia Weidler). But the problem is: this is Katherine Hepburn. Everything we see her do in The Philadelphia Story is utterly charming and shows off the strongwilled persona the actress had become known for, so it's alarming to see the film take such glee in knocking her down several pegs.

In this case, the behind-the-scenes context proves more fascinating than the series of pratfalls and hijinks that the film cycles through. After rocketing to stardom in the early 1930s, Hollywood and public perception had turned against Hepburn, who was accused being haughty and unlikable. Hepburn herself would spearhead her starring role in The Philadelphia Story, taking on the role written for her on Broadway and grabbing creative control with the film adaptation, choosing longtime friend George Cukor to direct. Hepburn invites the cruel jabs and passive-aggressive insults lobbied against her character in the film, because she's already weathered them in real life.

But despite the meanness of the film's script, Cukor can't help but turn a loving lens on the star that he helped make famous. Hepburn is sparkling in this film, and Grant and Stewart can only keep up as her awestruck romantic interests. For all its alarming cultural context, The Philadelphia Story is a delightful comedy of errors in the vein of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, bringing just the right amount of screwball energy and class commentary to make it worth a watch.