Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant is "The Philadelphia Story"

Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant is "The Philadelphia Story"

/The Criterion Collection

A fiercely independent woman divorces Cary Grant and plans to replace him with a milquetoast substitute. But Cary, being Cary, just won't go away. He knows he has fouled up a good thing. So he schemes and he plots to get his wife back.

This is the plot outline of not one but two films, both originally released in 1940, both now part of the Criterion Collection. In His Girl Friday Grant is a newspaper editor, Rosalind Russell his ex (and ace reporter), and Ralph Bellamy the milquetoast. Everyone talks very fast, befitting a Howard Hawks film. In The Philadelphia Story Grant is a boat designer with a drinking problem, Katharine Hepburn his ex and John Howard the milquetoast. Everything moves along with elegant insanity, befitting a George Cukor film. It should come as no surprise that the milquetoast fares poorly in both movies. These are screwball comedies after all, and Cary Grant is, well, Cary Grant.

Which film do I prefer? As a newspaperman I'm a sucker for the rat-a-tat dialogue and inky confines of His Girl Friday. But The Philadelphia Story has an ace in the hole, named Jimmy Stewart. He plays a nosy journalist with a working-class chip on his shoulder. Stewart has never been more graceful and charming.

So let's call it a draw, and admit that the real winner in all of this is Cary Grant. And, of course, the viewer.

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