The Philadelphia Story

US (1940) Dir. George Cukor

And so another much heralded classic gets scratched off the list of films that have somehow evaded old MIB over the years. This time it is a stylish romantic comedy with  three legends, a cracking script and the most verbose yet polite love triangle committed to celluloid.

Two years after the marriage between wealthy socialites Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) and C.K Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) implodes, Tracy is about to remarry, this time to aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). The wedding is to take place at the Lord family mansion and SPY magazine, a tabloid gossip publication wants to get the scoop on the big day.

The publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) sends two disgruntled employees, writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to cover the story with a little insider help from Dexter. The trio arrive at the house, the reporters under the pretence of being friends of Tracy’s absent brother, bringing with them many cans of worms to be opened before the big day.

Beginning life as a Broadway play by Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story fits in with the run of classic Screwball comedies which did big business in the 30’s and 40’s yet it has much in common with the sophisticated farces of Ernst Lubitsch. With a script adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt, this is a fast paced story of class arrogance, blackmail and self-discovery of the human soul which is thankfully is not as po-faced as it sounds, with a subtle acerbic undercurrent mocking the social elite to give it its witty edge.

The film opens with the wordless but palpably acrimonious break up between Tracy and Dexter, ending with the famous shot of Tracy being shoved to the ground! Moving forward to the weekend of the forthcoming nuptials between Tracy and George, the bride is sure this union is going to work, while her family, mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and younger sister Diana aka Dinah (Virginia Weidler), still have a soft spot for Dexter. When he shows up with Mike and Liz in two, he is welcomed with open arms, at least by them.

We learn it was Dexter’s drinking, a defence mechanism against Tracy’s lofty standards and inability to tolerate the weaknesses in other people that caused the break up. With George being abstemious and of a similarly haughty attitude, he seems perfect for Tracy but he is a black hole of charisma and somewhat in Tracy’s feisty shadow but the family go along with it anyway.

When Mike shows up, he becomes rather fascinated by Tracy and when she learns he is novelist of some talent he provides some interest for her. But Mike, along with Liz – who is in love with Mike herself – is there to get his magazine story albeit as part of a deceitful ruse. To wit, a salacious story with photographs about Tracy’s father Seth (John Halliday) and a New York dancer is ready to print, but Dexter has Kidd’s word he won’t publish if he helps them get the wedding story scoop instead.

There are numerous themes running beneath the snappy dialogue, the most prominent naturally revolving around Tracy and her snooty attitude. She is the centrifugal force of the entire story and not just by having three men after her but how they view her. The word “Goddess” is used numerous terms to describe Tracy but in different contexts. Dexter uses it in a scornful manner to suggest his ex-wife has a far to high opinion of herself and hopes his harshness will knock her off her pedestal.

Mike is the poor sap which is so bewitched that he does indeed see Tracy on that pedestal and is keen to see her stay there in all her glory while he willingly worships her from beneath. However Mike isn’t that gullible and easily played, hoping for some personal reward for the attention he pays her and seems to bring something new out of this steely and self-motivated woman. George is the more curious of the three as he might straddle the line between the two – he worships Tracy like Mike but wants her as an equal companion which she is clearly not capable of.

Being made during the era of the Hays Code meant that any sauciness or improper behaviour between the bride-to-be and another man was to be kept completely innocent or left implied. As it transpires the script is so full of whimsical distractions and strong characters that any explicit activities simply aren’t necessary. And while the stage origins of the story are very much evident but the many single location scenes, director George Cukor is able to create a work of tremendous energy and action to avoid the pitfalls of such a direct stage to screen translation.

Of course the most precious components of this production is the cast, with three future bona fide legends fresh out of the starting blocks of their careers and racing assuredly towards cinematic immortality. Katherine Hepburn is on form in the sharp tongued firebrand role she made her early mark as, especially alongside co-star Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, who is not initially sympathetic here as Dexter, only later does he reveal his good side.

James Stewart is the totem of the Hollywood every man and he is again in that role here but he is giving sufficiently effective ammunition to allow Mike to trade barbs with Tracy and Dexter. Supporting these three are an typically well cast selection of dependable character actors with a special nod for child actress Virginia Weidler as the amusing bratty observer Dinah, proving to be a good sparring partner for the adults.

The Philadelphia Story is one of those films about which many essays can – and have – been written, so I’ll close by simply saying this is an exceptionally well constructed and clever romantic comedy, dripping with a fiery wit and oozing panache.