“Holy mackerel. What goes on here?”
Based on the successful 1939 play by Philip Barry, adapted for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and an uncredited Waldo Salt, The Philadelphia Story (1940) is the epitome of classic Hollywood artistry, and a prime showcase for the era’s equally refined elegance. Directed by George Cukor, who could achieve such erudite style as well as anyone, the film exists in a delightful fantasy world; not some far-flung sci-fi colony, but a province where nearly everyone looks effortlessly chic, where there is always a perfect wisecrack for the occasion, and where everyone is touched by a flair for the dramatic. Romance is in the air; it’s contagious and it’s all anyone seems to talk about. And if not entirely likeable, no one is especially dislikable; at the very least, they’re worth spending a few hours with. In The Philadelphia Story, the verbal sparring doesn’t just sound good—quick and witty and practiced—but the sharp bickering bristles with a narrative purpose and a strong thematic undercurrent. It gets to the heart of the story, revealing character foibles and prompting projected personal development. There are moments of revelry and moments of sadness—more of the former than the latter, and both in just the right dose—and that prevalent romance is appropriately effusive one minute, suitably disillusioned the next, then seamlessly back again (add some bubbly to make the transition that much more entertaining). And because The Philadelphia Story is the type of film that it is—and at that, it is better than most any other—we can happily sit back and watch the charade play out, comfortable in the knowledge that all will end exactly as it should.
The Philadelphia Story begins with its famed silent prologue, a dialogue-free opening that affirms the bitter end of the marriage between wealthy socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and her correspondingly affluent spouse, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Infused with enough cinematic sweetness to keep the incident from becoming distasteful (as Dexter shoves Tracy to the ground), this establishing animosity is sliced with a discreetly comedic knife, prefiguring how the rest of the picture will approach and handle the contentiously frenzied drama to come. Two years after this celebrated opener (its wordless execution is credited to producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz), a new wedding day is on the horizon, this time between Tracy and George Kittredge (John Howard). New to the lifestyle of the rich and famous (he actually wants his picture in Spy Magazine), George isn’t quite accustomed to the ways of this high-class milieu (he can’t mount a horse, for Pete’s sake). But it’s not that he is necessarily unpleasant; it’s just that he can’t hope to compete, not only with Tracy, which is obviously imperative, but with the rest of those in her social circle. More than anything, though, he can’t contend with the likes of Dexter, and more accurately than that, he can’t contend with the likes of Cary Grant.
Unfortunately for Dex, he is currently persona non grata at the Lord manor … at least for Tracy. Everyone else is considerably more tolerant and welcoming, almost as if they can see the Cary Grant behind the C.K. Dexter Haven. Grant was second on the list to play Dexter (Hepburn wanted Clark Gable), and he only agreed on the grounds of three conditions: top billing, a salary of $137,000, and the donation of that salary to the British war relief effort. The requests were well worth meeting. Not only does Grant excel as a counterpart to Hepburn (this was their fourth collaboration in less than six years), but he embraces the amiable blend of cad, charm, and common sense foresight that often identified his most popular characters. Even under the weight of his ostentatious name—frequently announced in full, as if it were all one word—he may be the only clear-headed one in the bunch; newly sober, his intentions are clear from the start.
Dexter’s reemergence amongst the Lords also involves a blackmailing tabloid publisher named Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) and two of his employees, writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Like Grant, Stewart secured his role only after the first choice (Spencer Tracy) declined, but unlike the rest of the illustrious cast, Stewart came away with an Oscar for his efforts, beating out The Grapes of Wrath’s Henry Fonda, for whom Stewart actually voted. (Donald Ogden Stewart took home The Philadelphia Story’s only other Academy Award, though nominations also went to Mankiewicz, Hepburn, Hussey, and Cukor). As the Average Joe in this highfalutin venue (as average as anyone can be, anyway), Mike has a pronounced disdain for the exceedingly wealthy, and his snide demeanor early on reveals an acerbic side rarely seen in Stewart to this point in his career—“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world,” he sardonically remarks, “is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” His obsessive contempt for money results in an evident discomfort in this lap of such luxury. It’s an unease that mirrored Stewart himself, as he expressed some doubt about the role, primarily the affected dialogue. He had nothing to worry about, of course; his amiably comic performance is one of the film’s many highlights—his hiccupy-drunk routine is itself worthy of the Oscar.
Part of Cukor’s directorial brilliance lies in his ability to balance so many of The Philadelphia Story’s entrances and exits, to keep pace with who is where and when and how he or she should appear. Among those on the margins of this ensemble are supporting characters like Tracy’s womanizing father, Seth (John Halliday), who scandalously ran off with a New York dancer, and her dirty old man uncle, Willie (Roland Young), who has a pervy penchant for pinching (along with the casually joyous reaction to Dexter “socking” Tracy, Willie’s handsy conduct is perhaps the film’s most uncomfortably dated feature). There is also Tracy’s mother, Margaret (Mary Nash), generally in a tizzy and not particularly significant, and Tracy’s teenage sister, Dinah (Virginia Weidler), a precocious youth whose wise-beyond-her-years sarcasm grounds the adults and exposes the ridiculousness of their mannered pretensions. Not that it needs any, she also provides some cheery comic relief, delighting in the shenanigans of her inebriated elders.
Center stage in this finely chaotic set-up is the “goddess” and “queen,” the “society bride” herself, Tracy Lord. Inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a WASPy social butterfly aflutter in the City of Brotherly Love, Barry wrote the decisively central character specifically for Hepburn. And she needed the break. Following a string of commercial and critical failures (several of which are now among her most beloved features), Hepburn was deemed box office poison. She first appeared as Tracy on stage (and would continue to do so after the film was released), then, with a financial hand from Howard Hughes, who had an intermittent relationship with the star, the play and the character made the rewarding big screen conversion. It’s obvious that The Philadelphia Story hinges on Tracy, but it takes an actress like Hepburn to maintain this degree of captivating substance, and with all due respect to Grace Kelly, the difference is clear when comparing Hepburn’s presence to that of the soon-to-be princess in the 1956 candy-colored musical remake, High Society (in Kelly’s defense, even the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby pale in comparison to their The Philadelphia Story templates).
A magnet for drama and quixotic conflict, Hepburn imbues in Tracy an endearing earthiness, which keeps her upper crust detachment still firmly within reach. Though she makes an unceasing mess of things, bringing much of it upon herself and yet still wondering how it ever happened, her genuinely virtuous naiveté preserves our sympathy. This, too, is largely attributed to Hepburn’s innate personality: on screen and off, she is folksy, quirky, amusing, and radiant (Mike says Tracy is “lit from within”). Even the supplements of the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Philadelphia Story attest to Hepburn’s dominance. Aside from a wide-ranging commentary by Jeanine Basinger, the other features form a veritable love letter to this iconic star: a documentary about the origin of the Tracy Lord character, another feature about Hepburn’s role in the development of the film, two interviews between Hepburn and Dick Cavett, and Farran Smith Nehme’s accompanying essay, in which the author aptly observes, “The Philadelphia Story was as sweet a comeback as any Hollywood actress was ever granted.”
Ultimately directing Hepburn in ten films, including her first, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), George Cukor was coming off his own period of professional difficulty (he was booted from Gone with the Wind the previous year). So much attention gets paid to the featured acting trio of The Philadelphia Story, and understandably so, but none of it would come off as it does were it not for Cukor’s tactful, meticulous direction. He was a master at coordinating and harmonizing one-on-one interactions, coupling characters so that each individual has a distinct moment to shine. And working with the great cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, the two cast the entire production in a luminous halo—“I just photograph well,” declares Liz in the film’s keynote understatement. Cukor’s devotion to character/actor is so pronounced, that oftentimes, as lavish as it is, the background simply fades from focus (it takes more than one viewing to fully notice Dexter’s oddly ample arsenal, for instance). He also adds warmth and clarity to this extravagant situational setting, one which most who see the film are wholly removed from in reality. In the best possible sense, Cukor’s camera reflects Mike’s derisory article title of “What the Kitchen Maid Saw Through the Keyhole,” for we, too, are now provided a glimpse into something exceptional. For a few frivolous hours, we are made privy to what affluence allows these characters to get away with. It’s a place rarely attained in real life, but it’s a place Hollywood could regularly realize. Though never so well as this.