Culture Trips

The Philadelphia Story: How an 80-year-old comedy resonates

Cukor also allowed Hepburn’s character to have sexual tension with both those played by Grant and Stewart. “It’s a double love story,” says McGilligan. “There is the one between Hepburn and Grant, which is over with but simmering beneath the surface, and the one between Hepburn and Stewart, which makes headway in the story.” This meant that audiences didn’t know who Hepburn’s character would end up with. “The viewer is probably torn between who should get Hepburn, just as she is torn. As Cary Grant is probably Hollywood’s all-time romantic icon – Stewart less so – he is the odds-on favourite. But his devious means of winning her back keeps the audience guessing until the surprise end.”

This element of intrigue and surprise would be replicated over many other romantic comedies for decades to come. From Casablanca to Sabrina, as well as Broadcast News, Clueless, 500 Days Of Summer, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and especially Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give.

But Cukor and The Philadelphia Story’s influence doesn’t stop there. He set the standards of “taste and intelligence,” says McGilligan, who believes Cukor subverted the genre and its tropes, especially when it came to how male and female characters were depicted. “Cukor himself was gay. So what makes his films unique is that he is depicting his own ideas about romance and love through the prism of this genre, using strong women (like Hepburn) as his alter ego, and making the men (like Cary Grant) less absurdly masculine, in various ways.” So while The Philadelphia Story’s genre might be up for debate, what’s for certain is that it was decades ahead of its time.

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