The Philadelphia Story (1940) – George Cukor (Niall McArdle)

Synopsis: Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is due to marry George Kittredge (John Howard). But then her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up with a tabloid reporter, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and a photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey).

PS poster

Cary Grant seemed tailor-made for the smart, sophisticated comedies that propelled him to stardom. It’s difficult to think of him without seeing him in tails and sipping a martini. In several peerless comedies of the thirties and forties he matched wits with clever women like Constance Bennett, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, and was casually cruel to a succession of chumps, usually poor, dull Ralph Bellamy. Grant would win the girl through connivance, guile and dirty tricks, and have a grand old time doing it.

His easy wit, charming manner and air of genial superiority created the Grant persona: the high-born, well-spoken cad at ease with himself and the world. It was a persona severely at odds with the reality. He was born into poverty in Bristol. When he was nine, his mother left the family. He suffered immense emotional insecurity that would dog him for most of his life, and he was notorious for his penny-pinching (he used to charge for autographs).

You would be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood invented the comedy of remarriage especially for Grant. In “My Favorite Wife” he has to win back his ex-wife Irene Dunne from Ralph Bellamy. He’d almost lost her to him in “The Awful Truth”. He wins ex-wife Rosalind Russell back from Bellamy in “His Girl Friday”.  In “The Philadelphia Story”– a film about “the privileged class enjoying its privileges” – he wins ex-wife Katharine Hepburn from the clutches of her priggish fiance, John Howard (where was Bellamy?) but not before she has an innocent dalliance with James Stewart.

Annex - Hepburn, Katharine (Philadelphia Story, The)_06

In “The Philadelphia Story”, nobody other than Hepburn could have played Tracy Lord, the cold, spoiled heiress with clipped Bryn Mawr tones. For much of the film it seems like she’s just playing herself, or playing with the audience’s image of her. “Oh, we’re going to talk about me, are we? Goody.” Speaking about their old yacht – “My, she was yar” – she stretches the vowel in that last word to an extreme.

And nobody other than Grant could be C.K. Dexter Haven. The film opens with her throwing him out of the house. She breaks his golf club over her knee. Emasculated, he makes to punch her, but opts instead to push her back through the doorway. With anyone else, that would be a violent gesture, but even Grant’s physical aggression seems futile. Besides, he was always better suited to verbal sparring and playful repartee. James Stewart shows up drunk; when he hiccups, it’s Grant that says “excuse me” (an ad-lib that almost has the two actors in giggles).

Katharine Hepburn_023 (The Philadelphia story wedding)

“The Philadelphia Story” started life as a Broadway play by Philip Barry that had been tailored to suit the talents of Hepburn. At the time, she was “box-office poison” and was in exile from Hollywood, but when the play became a hit, she made sure to buy the film rights and have creative control. She chose Grant and Stewart as her co-stars. Donald Ogden Stewart wrote the script, Joseph Mankiewicz produced, and George Cukor directed it. It was a huge hit.

It’s easy to see why. It’s brimming with confidence; it has an easy wit and many a sharp line.

Dexter: I think you should have stuck to me longer.

Tracy: I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.

When Macaulay says he drinks only a little, Dexter says brightly, “A little? And you a writer? Tsk, tsk, tsk. I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives.” He gives Tracy a sharp look. “You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.”

Tracy’s mischievous little sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) welcomes guests by singing the risque “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”, and when the grown-ups need to talk, she says, “I can tell there’s something in the air because I’m being taken away.” After much drinking and much confusion, there is a hungover morning after. Everyone is in need of “an eye-opener”; luckily Uncle Willy (Roland Young) knows “a formula said to pop pennies off the eyelids of dead Irishmen.”

James Stewart - the philadelphia story - & Katherine Hepburn

Speaking of drinking, the film isn’t afraid to skirt dark corners: Dexter is a reformed drunk (not a character audiences would expect in a comedy about society types). He delivers a speech about how Tracy knew about and took on his “deep and abiding thirst” when she married him, and how she could have and should have helped him . It’s an uncomfortable moment for all concerned. It’s one of the few times in Grant’s career when he lets the mask slip, and you can see what a serious actor he could be if given the opportunity. James Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar instead of Grant, and as fine and funny as Stewart is as Macaulay Connor, it’s really a supporting performance. It’s a great shame that Grant never won an Oscar and had to be content with an honorary award (which he received in 1970).

The film declares its intentions with the Spanish proverb that Stewart’s character is fond of quoting: “with the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” It would be almost impossible to make a film like it today (who would want to go see a film about the 1% as witty, superior snobs who don’t get their comeuppance?), but it remains a truly charming comedy of manners. Like many bright comedies of  the time, it has a near-perfect cast, especially Ruth Hussey – “we’ve come for the body of Macaulay Connor”.  I find it infinitely superior to the musical remake “High Society”.

Niall McArdle

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7 Replies to “The Philadelphia Story (1940) – George Cukor (Niall McArdle)”

  1. I like this film quite a bit, although as of yet I have not had the desire to dissect it. I recently viewed it with the commentary by Janine Basinger and found her constant admiration for Carey Grant amusing (there is clearly true love there). Awesome article. -Eric N.

  2. Niall, you are right with so much of this. It wouldn’t be made today, the industry is not intelligent enough, and neither, sadly, are the audiences. There are also no actors good enough to play this kind of witty comedy anymore, and I cannot think of anything in modern times that comes even close, without resorting to sex, slapstick, or car chases.
    Last, but not least, it is indeed far superior to the remake, ‘High Society’, in every way imaginable.
    As always a great review, and on this occasion, of an excellent film too.
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

  3. cheers. i watch this about once a year. i don’t know if visually it’s all that interesting, but it’s certainly enjoyable. ‘High Society’ is dreadful by comparison

  4. It is practically a carbon copy plot-wise for the musical, High Society.

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