The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Adapted for the screen by David Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Philip Barry
Directed by George Cukor
Disclaimer: I love this movie. It’s my all-time favorite.
Yes, it’s dated and sexist (married middle-aged fathers wouldn’t be tempted to cheat if their daughters just appreciated them, rather than criticizing them. Uncle Willie is a harmless old lech; boys will be boys, even when they’re grown men.) but also clever, with snappy and poetic dialogue, and its design is to humanize what appears to be a haughty, self-righteous, judgmental, unyielding, and smart high society woman. Tracy Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) both is and is not all of those things.
There’s so very much that is excellent about this film. The dialogue is witty, appropriate, fast, and smart. The directing, adapting from play to film, focuses the audience’s attention just where it needs to be when it needs to be there. Casting and performances are dead-on. The mood of the film shifts from comedy to drama, seriousness, back again, throughout, never abruptly, consistently well-balanced throughout. It’s difficult to tell who Tracy might end up with, if anyone at all. Lots of reaction shots in this film make the viewer uncertain about who to root for with Tracy. The Guardian’s review, from 2015 by Peter Bradshaw, on the re-release of this film, calls it “utterly beguiling, funny, and romantic”, praising the “deceptive strength in the writing and performances.” That’s an apt description of the film.
This movie started as a hit Broadway play, with the Tracy Lord character based loosely on real life Philadelphia heiress Hope Montgomery Scott. Phillip Barry wrote the play for Hepburn, who originated the role of Tracy Lord on stage; with a little help from friend Howard Hughes, Hepburn purchased the film rights, orchestrating her own film return after being labeled “box office poison.” Although she originally wanted Clark Gable and Spenser Tracy for her co-stars, she got something better: Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, the latter of which won an Oscar for his performance in this film. Peter Bogdonovich on IndieWire praises its “impeccable pedigree”, as “the last and most popular of four comedies pairing Hepburn and Grant, three of which were directed by Cukor.”
The opening scene sets the stage for the wealthy estate location of the rest of the film. With no dialogue, just orchestral music accompaniment, the audience is shown the ending of a marriage. Conflict, confrontation, and pride dominate the final marital interactions of two main characters. C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) stalks out of the mansion to the waiting car, his wife Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), in a long, flowing negligee, strides out behind him, dramatically taking his golf clubs out of the bag he’s carrying and breaking them over her knee with a satisfied smile. She spins to return to the house. He follows, tapping her on the shoulder in the doorway. She turns back to him. He draws his arm back, making a fist, then changes it to an open hand, applied slowly over her face to shove her bodily down onto the floor.
Two years later, newspaper headlines in the society section announce Tracy’s remarriage engagement. At her parents’ palatial home with her mother and her younger sister, she prepares for her wedding to George Kittridge (John Howard), rising from the middle class through his management skills. He’s not of her blue-blood set, something that she’s exceptionally proud of, seeing him as a self-made man, unlike Dexter, who inherited his wealth, and also unlike Tracy, who will do the same.
Two reviews from the original release of the film worth taking a look at are Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review and Herb Golden’s Variety review, the latter of which notes Hepburn has to fight to maintain the lead against a barrage of wit and fast dialogue from co-stars, and that this serves as her film comeback.
While most critics refer to the film as shaped by 1930s screwball romantic comedy conventions, with the lead characters caught in a tense conflict with one another, it’s fairly easy to see the roots of this kind of comedy in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the more sophisticated Much Ado About Nothing.
Obviously, Hepburn’s Lord character is suitably “tamed” by the end through the scoldings she receives from her father and from her ex-husband. But the Benedick-Beatrice witty banter and hints at a shared troubled romantic history make a more apt predecessor for this play, given the love the couple still holds for one another and the emphasis on public image both works contain. One difference, though–it appears that it was Benedick who walked away from Beatrice after she hurt him, while in this film it appears to be Tracy who left Dexter.
My understanding of the reasons for the end of Tracy and Dexter’s (Cary Grant) marriage is weak, at best, given the snippets provided through the couple’s sharp exchanges throughout the film. Alcohol, pride, lack of communication, and rigidity of character seem the core of their problems. According to Dexter, Tracy holds everyone else to a higher standard than she does herself. She admits no room for human frailty, error, or mistakes. It makes her appear hard-hearted, mostly to men, who–with the exception of Dexter, appear to deserve her accurate assessments of their character.
Tracy’s condemnation of her father and the rumors surrounding his relationship with a certain dancer is made to appear similarly rigid and judgmental. Tracy’s mother (Mary Nash) insists that if Tracy’s father is having an affair, as the paparazzi suggest, it’s no one’s business except his, which he completely (no surprise) approves of. We can’t know what agreements others have made in their marriages, what’s acceptable to them and what isn’t. Still, it’s hard not to side with Tracy in this, assuming her father is cheating on her mother, in a very public way. Ironic, of course, given Hepburn’s own affairs with older married men played out in public, first director John Ford, then actor Spencer Tracy. This film predates those, however.
C.K. Dexter Haven, hat rakishly aslant, hands in pant pockets, is elegant, charming, kind, and graceful, at home in the wealthy set he and Tracy were both born to, but without arrogance or a sense of entitlement. He’s also an astute observer of human behavior and he remains protectively fond of Tracy and her family. It becomes clear that he’s still in love with her as the film progresses.
In her commentary on this film, movie historian Jeanine Basinger says that Grant had the choice of leading man roles, but he had played something similar to the Connor role recently, so he chose the Haven part instead.
Macauley “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth “Liz” Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) work for Spy magazine as journalists, secretly covering this high society wedding, as writer and photographer. They’re keenly aware that the wealthy and privileged world they’ve gained entry to isn’t theirs. They’re curious, but not particularly interested in this assignment. Connor is the embodiment of crabby, irritated, annoyed, and mocking, often taking center stage or directly in the background of other shots. Connor, from the working class, has an imaginative, creative writing talent and a lot of condescending preconceived ideas about the privileged class, especially “the rapacious, privileged American female”, which he initially assumes Tracy to be. One of the short stories he’s published is titled “With the High and Mighty, Always a little Patience.” Clearly the working class, represented by Connor, Imbrie, and Kittridge are expected to bond against the privileged elite, represented by Haven, Lord, and her family. But that’s not what happens.
Tracy and her little sister Dinah’s “performance” for the intrusive press consists of ballet, in which they speak French, the younger sister plays piano and sings vulgar bar songs (“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”), while both are attired in ruffled dresses with diamonds dripping, is one of the film’s highlights. They deliberately play to the press’s fascination with the details of the wealthy set’s lives; their performance mocks the idea that the wealthy are eccentric, superficial, and foolish. Although Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are a terrific combination, Virginia Wiedler as Dinah always steals this movie; her wise-beyond-her-years kid sister act is absolute perfection.
“What’s the McCauley for?” Tracy interrupts Connor’s introduction.
“It’s Mike to my friends,” responds Mike, uncomfortably.
“Of whom you have many, I’m sure,” Tracy snidely replies.
When he tells Tracy that his father teaches English, she retorts, “Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper…” Her light tone belies the list of manipulative, deceitful politicians and criminals from English history she’s listing, equating these with what Mike’s father teaches. The reporters can’t quite keep up with this banter, but they realize they’re being taunted by their journalistic prey.
Much later Tracy is surprised by Mike’s beautiful and insightful writing in his book. Mike is surprised by Tracy’s appreciation of his work and her kindness. They recognize something compatible in one another that neither of them expected, and they eventually acknowledge a mutual attraction, to the dismay of both Dexter and Liz.
Connor’s first suit seems too big on him, but the tux he later wears to the ball is tailored, moving him from outsider to insider, and more specifically, to a possible romantic lead.
And Dexter and Mike strike up a friendship based on mutual respect for one another, as well as their shared respect and affection for Tracy. They form an alliance against their mutual enemy, Spy‘s editor, to reveal his manipulative, morally bankrupt behaviors. The scene between Mike and Dexter late at night at Dex’s place is especially charming.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger notes that Stewart decided to try one of the takes on this scene with hiccups, without warning Grant. That’s the take you see on film, with Grant adlibbing a surprised “Excuse me” in response and the two co-stars locking eyes and trying not to break character by laughing.
Later that same night, back on the Lord estate, a still-tipsy Mike and Tracy fight, flirt, dance, and kiss in the moonlight back yard before taking a midnight dip in the pool. Tracy tries to accuse Mike of her own vices, calling him an “intellectual snob”, among other things, but halfway through her diatribe, she realizes exactly what she’s doing–and that she’s repeating Dexter’s criticism of her from earlier–and changes tactics. She tries to distance herself from Mike and to taunt him, but he’s not having it, instead praising her complexity.
“There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy. You’re lit from within. You’ve got hearthfires and holocausts banked down in you. That’s the blank unholy surprise of it,” Mike says, in wonder.
“Shut up, shut up, oh, Mike, keep talking,” murmurs a drunk Tracy.
Dex waits for Mike to return from carrying Tracy up to her bedroom and is confronted by a suspicious George, who assumes the worst upon seeing Mike in a bathrobe and plans to call off the wedding.
The next morning brings hangovers, fuzzy memories, an unwarranted, self-righteous reckoning from George, and Tracy facing her own frailties and a newfound sense of accountability. This story humanizes Tracy Lord Haven and the film at the time of its release worked to do the same for Katharine Hepburn, whom the audience is led to identify with the character.Tracy goes from being embarrassed and uncertain about what exactly happened the night before between her and Mike to indignant that he may have found her repulsive rather than attractive, when he assures her that they only kissed.
“On the contrary, but you were a little worse for the wine. And there are rules about that,” he gently corrects her. Damn straight there are, Mike. See–Mike gets it, in 1940.
Once Mike’s interest in Tracy is apparent, creating a triangle of suitors around her, it’s no longer clear how this film will end and whom Tracy will choose.
You’ll have to watch the movie to find out how it ends for Liz and Dex and Mike and Tracy. And the photo above? Taken by the Spy editor, who crashes the wedding himself, exemplifying the out-of-context exploitation of paparazzi pics promising insider information on the private lives of their targets.
1939 had been a powerhouse film year: Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Love Affair, and The Wizard of Oz. Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Grant had a lead role in Love Affair. In 1940, Jimmy Stewart beat out Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), and Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) to win the Best Actor Oscar.
High Society is a 1956 color musical remake of this film, starring Bing Crosby, of all people, as jazz musician C.K. Dexter Haven, Grace Kelly as Tracy, and Frank Sinatra as Connor. It lacks the chemistry and novel charm of the original.
Awards won: Academy Award for Best Actor (Jimmy Stewart), Academy Award for Best Screenplay (David Ogden Stewart), and the New York Film Critics Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn)
Awards nominated: Academy Awards Best Picture, Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Hussey), and Best Director (George Cukor).