A Slap on the Back and Heavy Mist Before the Eyes

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940) | art by Sophia Foster-Dimino
illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The Philadelphia Story begins with a kind of homage to silent film: Morning, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) follows her husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) to the doorstep of their impressive mansion. She wears a nightie, he packs up the car. Wordlessly, she offers his golf bag—pulls out a club, breaks it in two over her knee and tosses it at him with a smile. In return, he pushes her by her charming face to the ground. We’re left with the image of Tracy, more churlish than wounded, glowering from the lintel. And that preface sets the tone for the film—and our position while watching it: Anything reprehensible in action or dialogue is utterly countered by the charm and glamour of the pitch perfect cast.

The film has been described as a comedy of remarriage; what’s notable about this designation is that its peers, say His Girl Friday, (also starring Grant, with Rosalind Russell), are often workplace comedies where the husbands are matched or outmatched by their wives. The women are not indifferent to the charms of their former mates but they’ve seen through them. In The Philadelphia Story, the question of professional competition is irrelevant, except for secondary characters found lower on the chain of capitalism. We’re free to focus on more intimate matters, namely the personal development of one Tracy Lord.

Katharine Hepburn is perfect for the part. Her Tracy Lord is the embodiment of Yankee privilege—sporty, lean, self-reliant, and imperious. Despite a failed marriage, Tracy is unhindered by self-doubt; she hasn’t yet encountered the limiting weaknesses within her own character. Hepburn found early tragedy in life (with the suicide of her brother), but she seemed to defend herself with ambition and talent. She has a distinctly Northern edge (biographers say Hepburn picked up her accent as a student at Bryn Mawr which is cheek by jowl with the Lord’s Main Line home). She was utterly convinced of her own opinions, stubborn (famously a wearer of trousers to the dismay of studio chiefs) and relentlessly independent. Early in her career, Hepburn was a hard star to love—audiences didn’t quite know what to make of her willful persona and spare physique. Hepburn was thought box office poison for most of the thirties, which prompted her (with Howard Hawks’ help) to acquire the rights to the play The Philadelphia Story, in an attempt at a big screen comeback.

The film was adapted by David Ogden Stewart, and its first achievement is addressing, dead on, any resistance that an audience might have to Hepburn. “She’s sort of cold, isn’t she?” asks Tracy’s puckish sister Dina, who becomes instrumental in sorting out Tracy’s mismatched romantic pairings and helps (or meddles) in redelivering Tracy to her first husband.

Think of the Lords as the better off and better kept Philadelphia relatives of the Beales of Grey Gardens. They speak with a now-defunct accent that’s geographically locatable only in the social registers of Hollywood’s upper class in the 1930s and 40s.

Their concern is discretion. Not only is Tracy divorced and on her second marriage, but more scandalously her father has left the family home to pursue a relationship with a dancer. (The Main Line inflections imply all sorts of ideas about the variety of dancer Tina Mara might be.)

A commoner leads us through this world: tabloid publisher Sidney Kidd asks Macauley Connor (James Stewart), a down-at-heels writer and his official photographer/unofficial girlfriend, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to infiltrate the Lord wedding. Dexter (Grant) ensures their entry, agreeing to vouch for them as friends of an expatriate relation. To protect the family honor, Tracy tells Dexter she’ll play along with the charade and act ignorant of Connor and Ms. Imbrie’s actual identities. But never a victim, Tracy ferrets out the invading reporters’ personal discontents—Connor views himself as a failed novelist; Imbrie pines after Connor but is hampered by embarrassment over an early marriage.

The ensuing film is a kind of Midsummer’s Night Dream within America’s social elite. There are multiple romantic rhombuses—can any contemporary film boast as many fully-drawn characters with conflicting desires that are examined, parsed and resolved? And since a love object is a reflection of self-perception, both actual and aspirational, Tracy’s very ego identity is at stake in the matter of her marriage. She thinks better of herself for choosing a man of the people; but, like a pair of celebrities who believe their own publicity, George and Tracy relate to each other as a set of symbols. Tracy has decided to be a dutiful wife. George is an anodyne figure of broad-shouldered diligence. At the start of the film, Tracy asks her mother and niece: “Can Tracy pick ‘em or can she pick ‘em?” The question is part self-congratulation and part unease about her choice.

The film follows an outdated hierarchy—the lower-caste characters are Irish, the upper class are Quaker—and the merits of those backgrounds are upended with its characters’ contradictory behavior. “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” This colossal line of dialogue, the film’s humanist credo, is the reason I’ve loved the movie for so long. It’s a confounding thought, really, because while it gives a rosy view of the human capacity for change and forgiveness, it also contains the unnerving warning of our unpredictable and kaleidoscopic selves. We’re the sum of our behaviors, let’s say, and have a number of opportunities to revise who we are in the world’s and our own eyes, for better or worse.

Amidst this rather democratic sentiment the film itself reinforces the glamorous values of Hollywood—the rich are charming and eccentric, flawed but vulnerable, at license to pursue their desires and follow the mandate of their feelings, with fewer consequences. The tiresome—the dull workhorse that is Tracy’s would be second husband versus the charming silver-tongued first spouse—merits less of our attention.

The film charms us exactly the way Cary Grant does. As with many actors, Grant was an invention; as with great stars, he was more a myth than a man, and a creature of a very particular and peculiar moment in filmmaking. In America, he was an emissary of British sophistication, but quite literally he was a carnie, having started his career in the physical comedy of circus, stilt-walking and mime. He had the expressiveness of a silent star, the comedy chops of an old vaudevillian and the mutable accent of someone who had reinvented himself on foreign soil (you can hear a bit of Bristol if you listen for it). He’s not all posh—but Grant is the hazy idea of something perfectly placeless. Not only did he have a perfect profile and a dimple in his chin, he had a perfectly attractive remove.

For most of this film, Dexter is a mischief maker—it takes a long time to recognize the progression of wounded pride to the self-interest that propels him to meddle in Tracy’s wedding. Grant’s Dexter wants to protect the Lord family but he also wants to win his wife back. Like many good seducers, Grant seems utterly appealing but reveals very little—until the end when he rescues Tracy with a surprise proposal. He’s more genuine than he seems, but only through the more open-hearted interlocutor, Connor, do we understand Dexter’s unvoiced hopes.

Casting is an alchemical process. Imagine the romantic mismatch if Spencer Tracy (as Connor) and Clark Gable (as George Kittrege) had starred in the film. Both those actors are rougher than this drawing room fiction requires; it would have thrown off the equation. Jimmy Stewart is lighter and more graceful than Spencer Tracy; virile Gable would have overpowered Kittrege, and miscalibrated the romantic implications of the story. Instead, we get a George who seems to want to impersonate Gable. Tracy assesses her fiance’s weaknesses—he has the poor man’s reverence for wealth and its trappings. Her natural impulse is to rough him up a bit. When George shows up to the stables, Tracy exclaims: “You look perfect.” And she tackles him to the ground and starts to rub dirt and gravel into his newly purchased riding costume. George is inflexible—he has neither the irreverence that accompanies privilege or the disdain that comes from never wanting it. It’s hard to imagine Gable wanting to play such a bore.

Macauley Connor is my favorite Jimmy Stewart role. He’s best when his aw-shucks ingenuousness is tempered with darkness (we see it in his later Hitchcock films). In this case, Stewart’s Connor is hampered by moderate literary failure and extreme self-abnegation; this discontent produces some savagely comic lines when he wanders among the wealthy. The tag line for his character, quoted by Tracy when she pinches his slender volume of stories from the nearby library: “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” He is at once impressed and bemused by the rococo absurdities that comprise the life of the Lords.

C.K. Dexter Haven had a drinking problem during his marriage to Tracy, and we discover he read Connor’s book as he attempted to get sober. The implication is that people turn to words when in need of a world outside of their experience. Dexter Haven seems to be the only monied character who meets his unhappiness with self-examination. Though he is sharpest to Tracy, he is her most agile sparring partner for her. He’s not intimidated or too worshipful, and he understands her when she’s awakened to her own flaws.

Films, especially this one, which originated as a Broadway play, were indebted to drama, where characters reveal and know themselves through speaking. It makes much more sense that the very verbal Dexter or Connor make better matches for Tracy, who can slay all opponents with her nimble mind (“Is she human?” asks Ms. Imbrie before Tracy retracts her verbal claws).

According to her father, the flaw that keeps Tracy from being a “lovely woman” is her lack of an understanding heart. For her happiness, the film suggests, Tracy must be humbled. Perhaps it is a bit disturbing that a proud and powerful woman should be taught such a lesson. Subtract the word “woman” from the sentence and replace it with “human being” and you have a better idea of what the best of the film suggests. “With your fellow man, always a little patience.”

What people overlook or don’t notice is how very good Hepburn was at adoring her co-stars—when she respects them. She’s particularly good with Grant, perhaps because this was their fourth film together. Her Tracy is able to resist him in the stiff and wary manner reserved for a worthy adversary, and then rely on him when she realizes he’s what she wants and needs.

Fans may protest the ending—I know there are legions of Jimmy Stewart supporters who find that Connor might be the better partner for Tracy (and maybe Hepburn did, too, since she originally envisioned her longtime lover Spencer Tracy in the role). “So much thought and so little feeling, Professor,” Tracy levels at the cerebral writer who romanticizes people but resists his impulses. Connor is a bit of an adolescent, and when his partner Liz suggests that she doesn’t want to entrap him in a marriage because he has some growing to do, well, she shows wisdom.

Take Connor’s solution to Tracy’s dishonor. George believes that Tracy spent the night with Connor and calls off their wedding. Connor steps nobly forward to save her reputation by offering marriage, but Tracy recognizes the stricken look on Liz Imbrie’s face and demurs. Not that it quite seemed a match between Tracy and Connor—for though Connor can spend much of the movie making light of Tracy’s world, he’s also in awe of it. Connor doesn’t want to be a citizen of the upper classes, but he does want to retain a close relationship with its chief goddess—like George, like all of us.

George Cukor directed the film—as with so many other Hollywood songs and stories, a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side imbued feeling in a myth of Americana. The surprise is how his collaborative fantasy rewards, Purple Rose of Cairo-fashion, when these glamorous people stand for us; we are elevated, persuasively, and quite beautifully, by matters of their hearts.