Stewart: Doggone it, C.K. Dexter Haven! . . . Either I'm gonna sock you or you're gonna sock me.
Grant: Shall we toss a coin?Both men love Hepburn. One she has destroyed, to the point of collapse and alcohol sickness. The other has just met her, in full swoon. It is the midnight before her wedding to another man -- a third man -- and the new kid on the block, drunk from pre-nuptial champagne, has come to awaken the broken ex-husband. Does the ex- still love her? Can I get his nod to make an appeal before she ties the knot with the loathsome betrothed?
Cary Grant and James Stewart were both in their middle-30s during production of The Philadelphia Story (1940). Both were at the top of their different Hollywood worlds and the scene embodies their very different powers and greatness. And how much greater was Grant . . . Stewart here is what he often was in the 30s and 40s: brittle, emotionally thin, reedy, righteous, rather humorless, self-centered, a terrier. He yaps and tries to dominate the seven minutes. (In his other scenes with Grant as well.) Self-absorption, which Grant absorbs; Stewart performing throughout as the Talented, Unappreciated Writer Seething with Wisdom. While Grant listens and watches, the most humanizing and generous-hearted screen presence in movie history – still, (by being still) he cannot help but expose the callowness of the Stewart character, and of the actor. James Stewart on screen is always only about James Stewart. (Brought to a brutal and tortured zenith, or nadir, by Hitchcock in Vertigo.) While the other man. . . .
He listens to Stewart with a faint smile, and a deep hurt in his eyes, as if, somewhere, he knows so much better than Stewart, about all that. About Tracy and moonlight and women and being taken and blackmail and the power of words. At one point he says, regarding the blackmailer (this blackmailer), "The world's his oyster with an 'r' in every month." "Hey, that's not bad. When did I say that?" says Stewart. "You didn't. I did. Sorry. . ." And he never will. For Grant has the remoteness of a man who's crossed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death which leaves him isolated from the mass of others; a remoteness which can spot a dirty dealer, or a true heart, from distance, on sight. He is never not sorrowful in the picture, while bringing the only moments of joy into this thin, joyless romp -- a picture firmly in the minor key of Stewart in conception; elevated by Grant's broken ardor whenever he appears. His physical grace and attraction are immense, yet he uses his powers to put others at ease, to naturalize things, to relinquish control and power.
Within eighteen months, across 1939 and 1940, Cary Grant appeared as "husband" in six pictures: In Name Only (sorrowful and trapped), His Girl Friday (complete control), My Favorite Wife (goofy and manipulated), Philadelphia Story (deeply hurt), Penny Serenade (a heart-broken failure), Suspicion (very dashing and very weak) -- six men as different from each other as are the seasons, all men in love, Grant's love coming at us slowly, like a slow dark wave. Yet always isolated, in perfect, isolated darkness, outside the world. . .