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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Recently played as the February entry in TCM and Fathom Events’ Big Screen Series, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Katharine Hepburn needed to prove herself. But prove herself she did with this hilariously witty George Cukor-directed tale of the haves….and the bitter have-nots. I’ve seen The Philadelphia Story several times, and though it doesn’t have the side-splitting one-liners as another Hepburn/Grant pairing, 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, it can induce a smile easily. Hepburn, Grant and Jimmy Stewart have never been more “yar!”

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is a wealthy socialite whose recently divorced the playboy C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant).  On the eve of her new wedding, Haven returns with a reporter named Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) with the intention of getting photos of the Lord nuptials for a tabloid.  As Tracy grows doubtful of her impending marriage, she starts to fall for Mike, while at the same time wondering if she owes Dexter another chance.

The Philadelphia Story is generally regarded as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle, which makes sense since she did organize the making of the film.  At the time, Hepburn had been labeled “box office poison,” and it was this movie that revitalized her career.  On the surface, it’s a screwball comedy shining a light on how out-of-touch the wealthy are, but there’s far more to it.  I will say that the above mentioned theme doesn’t stick entirely throughout the narrative.  By the end, Mike has fallen for Tracy’s charms despite saying that he could never deal with the world of the idly rich.  He got over that quickly.  If anything, The Philadelphia Story spotlights the fact that regular people assume the worst of the wealthy, and make themselves feel awkward.

With that, Hepburn is a strong woman, probably more so than she was in Bringing Up Baby.  Here, she never plays dumb at all.  Sure, she acts like a snooty socialite to fool Connor and his girl Friday Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey) in order to give them the story they’re looking for, but that’s abandoned rapidly.  Tracy Lord knows exactly what she wants, and is willing to struggle to find her happiness.  She wants a rugged man, who’s not afraid to get dirty, and who also appreciates her independence.  You understand that her relationship with George Kittredge (John Howard) is doomed to failure when he corrects her on the proper pronoun for their house.  She refuses to allow publicity in “her” house, while he calls it “our” house.

Of course, this being a Hepburn movie in the 1940s, we have to witness Tracy finding her inner female in order to succeed.  In order for her to establish true happiness in a relationship she must break, and admit that she has a weakness to secure love.  She doesn’t want to live in George’s “ivory tower” (and there are numerous comparisons of Tracy to Grecian statues.  In one scene, she even wears a dress that looks like a flowing toga.)  George wants to worship her, and her father feels that she’s “made of bronze.”  One line has Tracy discussing a boat as “easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.”  I wasn’t exactly sure where we end up with Tracy by the conclusion.  Yes, Tracy is steely and determined, but one can’t say that her father (who has taken up a relationship with another woman) isn’t a jerk for what he’s done.  Why do we have to tear Tracy down for what she wants?  I didn’t see her character as cold, simply determined (unless I got that wrong).

It’s why I enjoyed her relationship with Grant’s Dexter Haven.  These two are made for each other because they understand each other so well.  The film opens with their marriage ending and Dexter violently shoving Tracy (to comic effect).  Later on, there’s a lengthy argument between Dexter and Tracy that is a perfectly written moment because it A) presents an argument in a way that feels comic while B) presents each characters’ flaws while not devolving into petty insults; and of course Grant and Hepburn are still able to banter with ease.  It’s a prime example of why screwball comedies of this time period are far better, from a writing perspective, than movies today.  You could convey all the exposition necessary, while still propelling the narrative.  Their discussion in the above mentioned scene emphasizes how their romance deteriorated  and how it was a mutual effort.  It’s sad, but covered in a way that you can still find them funny and likable.  I actually think Hepburn and Grant are given better characters than in Bringing Up Baby.  They’re rooted in reality in a way that Baby wasn’t.  When they fight, you believe it, but you also can see their fierce love for each other as well.  The moment where Dexter goes to find a drunken Tracy asleep in the car, and the two touch heads lightly, is an incredibly romantic set-piece.

Of course, there’s two other men vying for Tracy’s affections.  Everyone should be aware of my general disinterest in Jimmy Stewart, but I do like him here; mainly for his drunken antics toward the end.  He’s the one who, despite his love for Tracy, fails to acknowledge Elizabeth’s love for him.  It does seem as if Connor settles at the end, and Elizabeth is given Tracy’s sloppy seconds but hey, it’s a romantic comedy.  The middle and end of the movie is where Stewart is integrated into the love (rectangle?  quadrangle?).  The plot alludes to him and Tracy having a nude swim, although there’s no proof of it.  That moment is actually one of my favorites as we see how Tracy, in a drunken haze, sees all the men in her life.  She uses three distinct tones to say hello to each of them.  With Dexter she says hello jealously, to Mike she says it with love, and to George she says it seriously.  Of course, I do take umbrage with George only believing Mike when he says nothing happened between him and Tracy.  Tracy telling him apparently isn’t enough.

I’ll carve out a niche to discuss child actress Virginia Weidler who plays Tracy’s little sister Dinah.  I’ve seen Weidler in a few things, most notably The Women, but here she’s a real smartass with her finger on the pulse of the goings-on of the Lord household.  She’s got a lot of witty one-liners.  My personal favorite being after Tracy vows to choke her, to which Dinah retorts “It’d postpone the wedding.”  Dinah also opens up the third act by recounting a “dream” of seeing a drunken Tracy with an equally drunk Mike.  Of course, Dinah acts like a little girl, and recounts her story to Tracy as such, even though the audience is aware that she’s far smarter.

The Philadelphia Story is a side-splitting farce filled with humor, emotion, and true romance.  When Tracy proclaims “Good golly, why didn’t you sell tickets” it says so much about the role of publicity within the film, and the idea of a public romance.  Hell, you can go further and say the theater audience, who did pay tickets, extends this idea of voyeurism.  I do adore this movie.  It works best as a group effort with Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart all lending their unique comic talents to make a strong blending of romance and comedy.  If I looked up rom-com in the dictionary, I’d like to see this pictured.

Ronnie Rating:


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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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