From Goddess to Human Being: Tracy Lord’s Journey in The Philadelphia Story

MGM | Trailer screenshot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tracy Lord is a perfect name. It’s a patrician name; the name of someone who doesn’t eat too many sweets, someone who refrains from laughing too much at rude jokes, someone who wouldn’t be above judging you. It’s a perfect name and, therefore, a terrifying name. You can’t be casual friends with Tracy Lord. 

In George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (the 1940 movie version of the 1939 Broadway play of the same name), Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord as someone who has trained themselves to be exactly that: practically perfect in every way. Unlike Mary Poppins, though, Tracy Lord can’t breeze in and out of someone else’s life and fix all their problems; she’s stuck squarely in her own life, poised simply to correct the flaws in those around her (whether they want to be corrected or not). It was this tendency, we gather, that led to the failure of her first marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (an inscrutably mischievous Cary Grant)—or rather, it was this tendency and her ex-husband’s latent alcoholism, a struggle which she was not at all interested in addressing with anything approaching empathy. 

The Philadelphia Story’s plot is ostensibly driven by Tracy’s rapidly approaching second wedding—and by her ex-husband’s interest in throwing a little chaos into the mix, in the form of Macaulay “Mike” Connor (a top-of-his-charming-game, pre-WWII Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussie), a reporter and photographer embroiled in a scheme more complex than they realize. However, the real plot engine is the question of whether Tracy Lord will maintain her carefully correct image and guarded inner self (so guarded as to be obscure even to her own mind), or whether she will, for lack of a better phrase, fuck things up. 

I watched this film very recently with a five-year-old home from kindergarten with a stomach bug. I wasn’t sure how he’d react to an 80-year-old black-and-white romantic comedy centering on a wealthy socialite, but I shouldn’t have worried; it’s the sort of film that sweeps you up in its buoyant chatter and charismatic charm, seducing you with the precision in the ticking of its down-to-earth heart. My kid was both fascinated by the performances and immediately invested in whether Tracy would marry the clearly beneath her George Kittredge (John Howard, performing cringe with game aplomb) or not.1]About 30 minutes into the movie, he declared assuredly, “She should marry Mike.” Fifteen minutes from the end of the movie, my nine-year-old came home from school and sat down on the couch to watch the end. He’d seen nothing else, and I gave him only the barest summary to ease him into the final scene. “All of these men are fools,” he quickly assessed. “She doesn’t need them.” 

And I think those two knee-jerk reactions from two young boys actually reflect, pretty accurately, two justified critiques of the film’s plot—1) she should marry Mike, and 2) all of these men are fools. 


If The Philadelphia Story were remade today (shhh, I know, this must never happen), it would end with Tracy Lord marrying no one. That’s the empowering choice, I suppose; that’s the move that makes the most contemporary sense. She doesn’t need a man, after all, to make her whole; the film’s love trapezoid works to push her to a breaking point of transcendent revelation about the self that needs no ultimate partner to cement. 

But where’s the fun in that? 

The film romps along at a rapid clip, and, as viewers, we soon find ourselves in the same boat as Tracy—in love with Dexter, Mike, and Tracy all at once, and ready to heave George out the nearest window.2 As Tracy, Katharine Hepburn pulls off an impressive trick: she creates a character with whom we struggle to identify—who distances herself from others purposefully—but whom we can’t help rooting for anyway. We see her silver and her gowns and her pool and the way she treats the people around her, but instead of seeing a one-percenter beyond saving, we see a youthful soul struggling to pretend it’s okay to go through life as an insulated work of art. She is Snow White in the coffin—not dead, just immobilized in lovely, inaccessible repose.3

We need to see her woken up; we yearn to see the color return to her cheeks.

What is it about Katharine Hepburn and Tracy Lord that makes us want to break them? I’ve been pondering this. I suppose there is something unmistakably delicious about taking a person who believes themselves to be better than you and bending them backwards until they snap. Even more delicious if the person in question is a rich white woman—those who man the bastion of false purity. This move, of course, can get muddily misogynistic very quickly; I’m thinking of something like Overboard (1987),4 where the puritanical rich white woman is broken (yes, broken, like a horse—though taught to mother and nurture instead of to trot) through deception and kidnapping as well as through love.

It would be easy for The Philadelphia Story to slip into this sort of problematic territory; after all, there’s deception at work here, too, as well as alcohol and more than a slight whiff of sex. At what point is the effort to reduce a virginal, arrogant woman to her barest, rawest self actually abusive instead of cathartic? But the movie manages to transcend that concern. Casting, of course, is a big part of that. Neither the film nor the audience nor Tracy herself sees Tracy as a woman who must be broken; rather, she is a person, floundering to find some way to be in this world that is fulfilling and genuine. We get the sense not that her stand-offishness is the result of some female desire to be private, but rather that it’s a person’s careful defense mechanism against the gaze of society, a learned behavior trying to satisfy some inner dissatisfaction with the self and others. This read of her character’s motivation—that it’s less about stripping a woman of her female inhibitions and more about allowing a person to feel fully, wholly themselves—is bolstered by that beautiful exchange she has with her father at the end, right before her inevitable reunification with Dexter:

Tracy: How do I look?

Mr. Lord: Like a queen—like a goddess.

Tracy: And do you know how I feel?

Mr. Lord: How?

Tracy: Like a human. Like a human being.

Hepburn’s natural tilt towards androgyny helps underline this message: Tracy wants to be seen not as some feminine icon in need of protection and supplication, but as a more genderless being, yawing with the surges in their natural surroundings: a boat, not a queen. 

On the other hand, isn’t this pursuit, in and of itself, specifically feminine? Men don’t need to make the argument for themselves as human beings. Everyone already sees them that way. We have seen so many C. K. Dexter Havens fall from great heights and then rise again, untouched by alcoholism or drug abuse or racist behavior or sexual assault (or or or), free to be seen however they want to be seen: humans who make mistakes. To have to come to a cathartic breaking point in order to accept yourself as fallible and strange and malleable and mercurial and full of desire—isn’t this the domain of the American woman? 

Hard not to think, in fact, while watching Tracy, of Daisy Buchanan5from The Great Gatsby—but where Daisy chose to adopt a loose and breezy and vulgar approach to life as a way of lowering her expectations about what a woman can be in this world,6 Tracy chose to go the other way, raising her expectations to impossible levels and sealing herself off, safely siloed away from the world in a Parthenon of her own making. Both Daisy and Tracy are told they have distinctive voices—Daisy’s is “full of money,” and Tracy’s is full of “magnificence.” Where Daisy turns into a cautionary tale, though, Tracy offers the hope that perhaps, if you have a strong enough will—and a person who loves you enough to give you a second chance—you can transcend the societal trappings of feminine decorum. You can kiss the writer and turn him into a prince for a night and lose your head and swim while drunk and still return to the waiting arms of someone who doesn’t see you as anything but a soul doing their best to be alive. 


As a viewer, I tend to fall for films that seduce me with visuals, not words. Last week, I got to see Psycho with a live orchestra, and though I’ve seen the film many, many times and teach it frequently to high school students, I fell in love all over again with its leanness and economy—with the way each frame is composed so precisely, so spare and perfect. A mirror in the corner here, a bird there, the light falling just so across someone’s eyes or neck. The Philadelphia Story, I first thought, had perhaps too many words for me to truly love it. It’s a talk-y film; an actor’s film.

But then again: the way the camera understands Hepburn is maybe phenomenal. Tracy is continually compared to a statue, a goddess, a work of art meant to be worshiped from afar. Mirroring this understanding of her character, the camera often lingers on Tracy as though she were some sort of Greek sculpture. In our first glimpse of her, she stands erect, framed by the classical columns of her very large house’s front porch, sheathed in a white nightgown and holding out her soon-to-be ex-husband’s possessions as though they were some unclean artifacts belonging to a banished peasant. Her authority in the frame is clean, untouchable—that is, until we see C.K. Dexter Haven make a fist, think better of it, and then place his unfurled hand over her face, shoving her unceremoniously to the ground. 

Talking to Dexter in the changing room by the pool, she is sheathed again in white—a near toga-like gown, composed of folds and drapes and cinched solely to show Hepburn’s unforgivingly slim waist. Cukor frames her standing over the sitting Grant, shoulders back, chin up; the camera tells us exactly how hard it would be to love this woman, to pierce her shell in order to expose any small glimpse of a soft, yellow vulnerability. Over and over again, we see her in positions of obstinate asceticism: executing a nearly splashless dive off the diving board, leaning against a door as though the door would be lucky to touch her flesh. 

What a shift in composition, then, during that dreamy scene with Mike after the ball. The camera catches Hepburn off-balance, impulsive, leaning in across the back of a wicker chair nearly horizontally—a shock to the viewers who have seen her almost solely completely vertical. The image of Mike carrying her back from the pool—swathed in a towel, legs bare, head completely unsupported by her own body—feels transgressive not because of any sexual implication, but because of the way he’s been able to disable her up-until-now trademark erectness.


So: why does it feel inevitable and right that Tracy re-marries Dexter rather than pursuing something impulsively passionate and unexpected with Mike, the reporter whose sentences read like poetry, the ash-girl lifted from obscure toil into the beautiful moonlit world of the ball?7

There is something so bittersweet and heartbreakingly hard about reuniting with someone you have both loved and hated and have since parted ways from. Someone who has seen you at your worst and still embraced you, but who has also seen you at your best and treated you like dirt. Someone you’ve said horrible things to, things you can’t take back. Someone who’s hurt you. Someone who’s made you feel alive. 

Historically, the “comedy of remarriage” genre of the 1930s and 40s arose largely to help evade certain Hays Code regulations. (It’s okay to dabble in a relationship outside of your marriage as long as you are divorced when said relationship happens—and as long as, eventually, you return to the morally impenetrable fortress of marriage with your original love.) But there is also something to be said for the painful beauty of the hope it takes to return to a relationship you failed at once already, and may fail at again. There is a sweepingly passionate air to famous remarriages: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.8 Their reunions symbolize something more than just “true love”—they represent the idea that you can fuck a good thing up beyond recognition, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose it forever. 

With grace and forgiveness and the idea that people are allowed to have terrible years and terrible behaviors without being terrible forever, we can fumble back from even the most egregious rift.

My college boyfriend and I had a relatively classic on-again/off-again relationship. We were together for five years, but we broke up almost every year, almost always because of me. I was always worried something wasn’t right, was always restlessly looking for something better. But eventually I would be crying in the bathroom during an a cappella concert during a cold Connecticut winter realizing that the thing I thought I was looking for was an illusion; that what I wanted, really, was a person who could see the subtext in the things I said, who would put up with my anxieties, who thought I was beautiful even when I felt at my worst. When I look back on our relationship—which I can do now with some decent objectivity, two long decades away from the start of it—I think most fondly of our reunifications. The feeling of knowing that someone you’ve wronged has forgiven you—the absolution in that first re-kiss—it’s spiritual, really.

The film sees Tracy and it sees Katharine Hepburn and it sees them both as individuals. No, Tracy doesn’t need anyone at the end other than herself. But individuals, of course—human beings—need each other, like the Barbra Streisand song says. We don’t need each other to feel human, but we do need each other to enjoy our humanness. The best partner, The Philadelphia Story seems to say, is the one you know you can have the most fun with, weighted down by nothing—not class division, not expectations about who you ought to be or how you need to appear, not social scheming. The best partner is there to build you a boat, to knock down candles in a fussy centerpiece, to swim beside you as you figure out how it feels to keep yourself afloat, to celebrate you for who you never thought you could be. 

  1. It really doesn’t take a lot of worldly knowledge or sophisticated understanding of art to see that George is the wrong choice; when, about eight and a half minutes in, he is shown absolutely flailing while attempting to mount a horse, and then, on top of that embarrassing behavior, mis-genders the horse, revealing his lack of respect for the animal, it is beyond clear that this is not the kind of man a Tracy Lord should hitch herself to in this world.
  2. The Philadelphia Story’s men are actually a perfect fuck/marry/kill setup, in which there is a clear right answer.
  3. I know the fairy tale referenced in the film is Cinderella, but remember, it’s Mike who’s the Cinderella here.
  4. because if there’s one film that surely comes to everyone’s mind when thinking about The Philadelphia Story, it’s Overboard
  5. Mike seems to think of Daisy—or at least her type—too: “The young, rich, rapacious American female,” he intones sarcastically. “No other country where she exists.”
  6. I could write a very very long essay about my interpretation of Daisy Buchanan, but I do not see her in any way as a fool the way some readers do. She is very clear, in fact, about her desire for her daughter to be a fool because it’s “the only way for a woman to be in this world—a beautiful fool.” Her seeming promiscuity and love of money and amoral approach to life isn’t a character trait, it’s a method of thwarting society’s expectations of women by meeting their lowest bar. She doesn’t cry because Gatsby’s shirts are beautiful; she cries because he’s throwing shirts at her the same way Tom threw pearls at her the night before her wedding, and what she wanted while sobbing in that bathtub and rejecting the pearls, what she was clutching in her wet naked fist, was Gatsby’s letter—proof of love—proof of something outside of capitalism and greed. But now, years later, the dream of love has proven to be just that: a dream. Here’s the man she thought could see her as a person, seeing her, instead, as yet another admirer of wealth and showy possessions. And she gives up in that moment; that’s the moment she surrenders. A cautionary tale for wealthy American women, and one that Tracy skates perilously close to.
  7. I know I’ve already written a footnote about Cinderella, but I do love how Mike’s association with the character adds to the Shakespearean gender-swapping feel of the whole thing. That and, of course, Mike’s undeniable chemistry with Dexter himself.
  8. Half-joking here, but also, half-not-joking?
Senior Editor
  1. “A magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.”

    *This* is why it would never, ever work with Mike. He doesn’t actually know Tracy at all. It’s not ever clear he wants to. It is enough that he discovers that she’s not who he thought she was, a, and b, that she makes him feel welcome in a rarefied world.

    In high school, there was this popular girl, a cheerleader and beautiful and unknowable. Friendly, not mean, but in a way that my weirdo friends and I could never understand.

    One night, I was hanging out with some of these friends. We were in someone’s back yard, drinking and smoking swisher sweets. She showed up to this gathering. It turned out she had a crush on one of our cohort and wanted to swing by and spend some time with us.

    I was gobsmacked. She was hanging out with us? What? It was almost incomprehensible and I said some embarrassing version(s) of “whoa so cool you’re here” and “I would never have expected to see you here,” that kind of thing.

    What I thought I knew about her was wrong. What I learned about her was over-the-top appealing and suddenly I found her *amazing* – still knowing nothing about her at all!

    I was Mike. I was poor, besotted Mike – in love with the idea of people, but less about the people and more about my own sense of the new and the unexpected.

    He’s a good guy, Mike is. But he’s unmoored and drunk and thrilled about participating, if temporarily, in a lifestyle he acted as though were beneath him.

    He’ll probably be a good husband. Ruth Hussey will make sure of it. But I can’t help but think he’ll always be a little wistful for an imagined life.

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