The Philadelphia Story
With this furiously witty comedy of manners, Katharine Hepburn revitalized her career and cemented her status as the era’s most iconic leading lady—thanks in great part to her own shrewd orchestrations. While starring in the Philip Barry stage play The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn snapped up the screen rights, handpicking her friend George Cukor to direct. The intoxicating screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart pits the formidable Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn, at her most luminous) against various romantic foils, chief among them her charismatic ex-husband (Cary Grant), who disrupts her imminent marriage by paying her family estate a visit, accompanied by a tabloid reporter on assignment to cover the wedding of the year (James Stewart, in his only Academy Award–winning performance). A fast-talking screwball comedy as well as a tale of regrets and reconciliation, this convergence of golden-age talent is one of the greatest American films of all time.
George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story receives an all-new 4K restoration conducted by the Criterion Collection and is presented here on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz encode.
Found on this edition is a restoration demonstration that goes over the difficulties that Criterion went through to find a suitable source to provide the basis for their new restoration. The original negative was destroyed in a fire and Warner Bros. only had later generation materials available, all of which had a “dupey quality,” lacked detail, had bad contrast, and/or were badly damaged. They ended up finding a fine-grain at the George Eastman House that had been copied from the original negative and proved to have the most amount of detail and be in decent condition. Criterion then used this for the 4K restoration.
The end result is an impressive feat. Some soft focus has been applied to a number of scenes, including a couple of night time ones that can give an aura or glow to people and objects, but outside of those shots this is a surprisingly sharp image that delivers the details and textures with great ease. Grain looks superb and its rendering is perfect, lending a wonderful filmic look to the whole affair.
The previous 2-disc Warner DVD looked pretty good but Criterion’s edition offers a very notable upgrade to it not just in resolution and detail but also in regards to restoration and clean-up. The Warner DVD still had a number of nicks and marks present while this edition is far cleaner. The restoration demonstration offers examples covering the damage that has been cleaned up, ranging from large stains to huge splices, most of that now gone, with only a few minor marks and small scratches remaining, ones that you really have to look for to notice. The restoration demonstration also explains that the source materials were badly warped, causing the image to jump up and done. Software was used to stabilize the image and though there is still a minor shake in a small number of places the end results are still quite miraculous. All together this looks really tremendous.
The PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is clear with intelligible dialogue, decent range and fidelity in the music, and no severe instances of damage. There is an audible background hiss at times but that’s about the worst of it.
Criterion has been pretty good at porting over material from previous editions released by other studios but they surprisingly drop most of the material from the previous Warner special edition, like the Hepburn and Cukor documentaries (though in fairness Woman of the Year has a Hepburn doc itself). But Criterion still digs up some great material here, making up for any of that.
From the Warner release they do at least include the Jeanine Basinger audio commentary, though this one is a bit of a mixed bag. Basinger is obviously in love with the film and she seems fully committed in conveying that, but it’s a bit stale as this passion is held back by the obvious fact she’s reading from notes. She talks at length about the original play, how the film came about, talks about the film’s sets, costumes, photography, and so forth, while also covering the performers (who were allowed to improvise) and Cukor’s direction. Though it does touch the topics one would expect and does so in a well laid out manner it’s also fairly by-the-numbers and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t catch myself zoning out on occasion.
Criterion then produces a couple of new supplements for this release, starting with the odd yet rather fascinating In Search of Tracy Lord. Through interviews with a hodge-podge of participants, including scholar Donald Anderson, playwright’s Philip Barry’s granddaughter Miranda Barry and Janne Scott, granddaughter of Main Line socialite Hope Scott, this 22-minute segment aims to trace the influences that played into Barry’s (and Hepburn’s) creation of the Tracy Lord character. There’s plenty of background around Barry’s education, his plays, and then The Philadelphia Story itself, but I was more intrigued by the comments and background around the various Philadelphia socialites and the people that crossed paths with Hepburn and Barry through the years that helped in creating the character.
There’s a 19-minute “documentary” called A Katharine Hepburn Production by David Heeley and Joan Kramer that is less a documentary and more a talking-heads piece featuring the two. The feature goes over Hepburn’s early career and her use of the play of The Philadelphia Story (and the eventual film) to revive her career. It’s all well and good but far more rewarding and thorough in going over Hepburn’s career is the woman herself courtesy of two included 69-minute episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, where Cavett was able to convince Hepburn (who had previously refused to ever do any interviews) to come onto his show.
The interview is a little unorthodox at first and an intro by Cavett explains why: Hepburn agreed to do the interview but only on the condition she could come beforehand and see if she would be comfortable with the surroundings, with the understanding she could leave if it wasn’t to her liking. What ended up happening, though, is while she was checking out the stage the two just started talking and Cavett conducted the interview right there without an audience (other than some crew and those who just happened to be around).
Both participants are, amusingly, nervous at first but as time goes on Hepburn opens up more and the two manage to form a real chemistry, eventually joking more freely with one another (although Hepburn is a bit more biting). The first episode has Hepburn talk extensively about her early stage career, having even performed on that very stage, and then her film career, but also gets surprisingly personal: she shares how her dad actually controlled her money until his death because, as I understood her, she was bad at spending, and she even talks about smoking and quitting. The second episode then features her talking more about Spencer Tracy and other actors she worked with or knew (her and Cavett even get into a rather decent conversation about Greta Garbo’s fame and career).
It really is a rather incredible interview and keeps one’s attention, especially when the two do eventually (though thankfully quickly) become more comfortable with one another. It’s also very funny.
If 138-minutes of Dick Cavett just wasn’t filling your daily quota we get another 15-minute excerpt from the show, this time with director George Cukor. In a nice little bonus the clips starts out with the two talking about Cavett’s interview with Hepburn, Cukor asking him questions about how the interview played out. After that the two then talk about his career before moving onto other topics, like actors he worked with, including Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, and the state of movies at the time of the interview (he admits he swears but he can be taken aback by the “vulgarity” in modern films). Obviously not as in-depth as the Hepburn interview but it’s another engaging interview.
We then get a 59-minute Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, which aired in June of 1943 and starred Loretta Young, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young. I believe this is based more on the film than the play (the opening tries to replicate the film’s, though since it’s on the radio it’s done through words instead of visuals) and pretty much follows the plot but really only sticks with the film’s key scenes. Since it’s a talky film/play it works well on the radio otherwise.
Criterion then includes a restoration demonstration featuring Lee Kline talking about the search for the ideal source since the negative was destroyed in a fire. There’s also a demonstration provided by restoration artist Alyson D’Lando on how they removed the frame jumps that littered the original source. It has a few before-and-after comparisons as one would expect but it goes the extra mile by providing more detail about what processes are used when restoring a film.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer. Criterion also includes an actual booklet, featuring an essay by Farran Smith Nehme covering the importance of the play and film in regards to rebooting Hepburn’s career and then the film’s many charms.
I’m still a bit surprised everything didn’t make it over from the Warner edition but Criterion has still put together an engaging set of features.
Criterion’s new edition not only offers some terrific supplementary content covering Hepburn and the importance of this film (and the original play) in regards to her career, but this edition also provides a wonderful new presentation that offers a far more filmic image in comparison’s to Warner’s previous special edition.