Things are screwbally in the Keystone State: ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Directed by George Cukor

Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey

* Published specifically for The Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon hosted by Annette at Hometowns to Hollywood *

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Introduction

MGM Studios was in their prime during the later part of the 1930s and into the 1940s. In 1939 alone, they released two of their biggest hits – The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. By the time 1940 rolled around, the studio had decided to cut their production schedule to half of what it had been, allowing them to focus their energies on making quality films with creative accuracy: extravagant sets, lavish costumes (custom designed by Adrian), and appealing stories. They no longer wanted to churn out films factory style, rather opting to give more attention and precision to their projects.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant chatting and relaxing between takes.

The Philadelphia Story was originally a play written by Philip Barry that debuted in 1939 with Katharine Hepburn playing the lead role. Louis B. Mayer had expressed interest in buying the rights so to make it a motion picture but it turned out that Hepburn herself had already acquired them. Having dropped her from contract due to her status of ‘box-office poison’, Mayer was not exactly keen to bargain with her. A deal was eventually made and filming took place over a 6-week period from July to August 1940.

The Story

“It’s a small story but it is so beautifully played.”

John Landis

We are introduced to the characters of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in an abrupt fashion as the young married couple is in the middle of a fight. Tracy kicks Dexter out of their home, going so far as to snap one of his golf clubs in half while he, after dusting himself off, ‘socks’ her right on her bottom. Two years after the fact, we find Tracy preparing to be remarried to a man named George Kittredge. George is labelled a nouveau riche because his wealth is recent, which is in stark contrast to Tracy who comes from an established family that has long been financially grounded. The family estate is sprawling and their mansion houses Tracy, her mother, her uncle, and her little sister, Dinah; all of whom preferred Dexter to George, much to Tracy’s chagrin. Despite this and Tracy’s reserved behaviour towards her future husband, wedding plans go along like clockwork.

In the meantime, Dexter has gone to the headquarters of a questionably reputed gossip magazine called Spy where he meets reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and his photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Mike has been assigned the task of covering the Lord/Kittredge wedding with the aid of Dexter, who claims that he is doing so to settle a score. Past events have shown Tracy to be highly uncooperative towards the press which leads Mike to feel hesitant about taking the job. It is Mike’s boss, Stanley Kidd, who sums up Tracy like this: “Married on an impulse and divorced in a rage, and always inapproachable by the press.” Dexter eventually brings Mike and Liz to the Lord mansion where they will stay in guest quarters and be granted access to cover the wedding. Though Tracy is displeased, she has no choice as she has been threatened through blackmail by Dexter, who claims that Spy has an illicit story in their possession concerning her father and his mistress. If Tracy does not cooperate, the story will be published and her family will be will irreversibly humiliated. In retaliation, Tracy decides that she will exaggerate her usual behaviour in order to spoil the magazine’s coverage. The rest of the story mainly follows Tracy’s interactions with Dexter, Mike, and George, and how she deals with having feelings for all three men.

Observations

I have noticed that when watching the films on the AFI 100 list, I will often seek out the outstanding moments that prove to me that what I am watching is a definitive classic. More times than not, I cannot pinpoint these moments and feel very perplexed as to their inclusion on such a prestigious list. My approach to The Philadelphia Story was no different but unlike with other films, I found myself being quite content with the dialogue and, most of all, with the cast. The trio of Grand, Hepburn and Stewart is almost beyond imagination because of their star values and sheer talent. One has to really wonder if this casting would ever had happened if Hepburn had still been considered – and treated – at the top of her game. Not since 1932’s all-star film Grand Hotel did MGM place so many of their big names under one marquee.

Cary Grant was given top billing by his own request and he, like most of the cast, was hand-chosen by Hepburn. He is no stranger to screwball comedies and does a fantastic job in this. I actually found him to be far more reserved in comparison to past performances though thankfully he doesn’t employ such a monotone delivery of his line as he was inclined to do in his later years. He is definitely overshadowed by Stewart’s performance but, at the same time, you get the feeling that Grant does not mind so much. He admired Stewart and accepted the role to help his pal and frequent on-screen partner Hepburn. Grant even donated his record-breaking salary to a British wartime charity. There is a brilliant scene with Dexter and an inebriated Mike and it is obvious how much the two admire each other, not to mention how hard they worked not to crack each other up. As Grant himself said, “We did a scene together in which he was drunk … and I became absolutely fascinated with him—watching him—you can see in the film—he was so good.”*

Katharine Hepburn is brilliant in this role that more than fit her like a glove. The theatrical role had originally been written with her in mind, well before Philip Barry knew that she would accept to play it. Her performance is further supported by the talent with whom she chose to surround herself. She chose George Cukor to direct, a man she knew extremely well because he had directed all of her cinematic collaborations with Spencer Tracy. Also scouted was writer Donald Ogden Stewart who wrote some of Golden Hollywood’s best romantic dramas including: Marie Antoinette, Kitty Foyle, A Woman’s Face and An Affair to Remember. There is obvious chemistry between Hepburn and her three leading men and you could easily see her ending up with either three of them. Clearly Hepburn knew her stuff both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes.

“The withering glance of the Goddess”

This film marks James Stewart’s final appearance in motion pictures before leaving for active duty in the U.S. Air Force during WWII. He certainly went out (temporarily) with a bang. Stewart fans will find him in top form and with his usual unique way of speaking. Here are some classic Jimmyisms: ‘Doggone It’, ‘Holy Mackerel’, ‘Well how do you like this!?’ – All the while with his hat magically tilted to the side. After Mike shares a kiss with Tracy, she responds by declaring ‘Golly Moses!” His everyday, small time commonality was irresistible. Had Stewart known that he would be given a major award for this film, it might not have turned out as nicely light-hearted as it did. According to director and 30+ year friend Peter Bogdanovich, Stewart once mentioned that he “never though much of (his) work in The Philadelphia Story.” Nonetheless, “the Academy awarded him an Oscar for that performance, though it’s probably true, as the story goes, that they gave it to him mainly because they had passed him up the year before on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

The supporting cast brings a lovely overall harmony to the film, in particular Ruth Hussey and Virginia Weilder. Hussey is perfect with sharp, wise-cracking yet dry attitude in the likes of Eve Arden and Myrna Loy. The only problem with her portrayal is that it leaves little room to effectively believe that there is a romantic spark between her and Mike. She plays her character too ‘good old Liz’ and, in turn, Stewart’s Mike has nearly no reaction to her subtle suggestions of romance. Other than that, I cannot fault Hussey. Weilder was only 13-years-old when she made this film. She had appeared a year earlier in Cukor’s film The Women where she had done a simply magnificent job playing Norma Shearer’s daughter. As an MGM regular, she appeared in a number of films – including one in the Andy Hardy series – and it is safe to stay that she was one of the most talented child actors of her day. The character of Dinah is smart and brings much needed realism to this world of melodramatic, sometimes zany, adults. There is one scene in which she attempts to blackmail Tracy, her own sister, into not marrying George it is so finely done. She was well beyond her years.

Controversy

Thus far, I have given the film much deserved praise but I cannot end this assessment without bringing up something that I found quite controversial, borderline offensive. At one point in the film, Tracy is speaking with her father, Seth, who has recently returned home from a lengthy sabbatical with his mistress. When discussing his absence, he says: “What most wives fail to realise is that their husbands’ philandering has nothing whatsoever to do with them. (Perhaps it is) a reluctance to grow old, I think.” He goes on to directly blame Tracy that because she not a warm enough daughter, her behaviour made it so that he had to seek solace with a mistress so to relieve his inner pain. Seth Lord further tells Tracy: “You don’t have an understanding heart. You might as well be made of bronze.” Now, I am perfectly willing to remember that this film was made at a much different time than the one in which we currently live. Social- and gender-related views have greatly evolved since the first part of the 20th century but even this is beyond belief.

Who would be so bold as to blame their own child for their infidelity and, moreover, state that said child’s personality drove them to commit immoral actions? Seth’s words naturally both startled and troubled Tracy, who was not expecting such a confrontation after not having seen her father for some time. She did not think he would show up to her wedding; much less chastise her when it was he who abandoned his family for another woman. Though his remarks did not affect her on a large scale throughout the bulk of the movie, I cannot help to feel that the movie’s end would have been different had he remained mum (or just had never reappeared in the first place). Tracy’s decision does not seem natural although Hepburn plays the scene extraordinarily well. It is only after you digest the film and ponder it a bit that you can come to such conclusions.

Director George Cukor with Katharine Hepburn

It is sadly ironic that the Hays Production Code made it so that women could not be portrayed as having sexual/romantic liaisons, even after they had been divorced, whereas it was acceptable for men to carry on in such ways. This film is one of many ‘comedy of remarriage’ pictures designed specifically to show women who have been estranged from their husbands eventually finding their way back to them, usually through remarriage. It does not matter what the husband has been up to in the meantime, whether he got remarried or has simply been sowing his oats, the wife has to remain chaste and virtuous because, ultimately, she is at fault for went wrong in the marriage and is responsible for making it right again. This specific enforcement of the Code is rather unforgivable but thankfully it hardly ruins the movie altogether.

Final Thoughts

Overall, The Philadelphia Story is an excellent choice to have been chosen for inclusion in the AFI 100 list. As this film was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1995, it is also a comfort to know that it will be around for many generations to come.  Fans of this film may be interested in checking out the 1956’s High Society, an inferior re-make featuring the equally impressive trio of Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

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Source: Who The Hell’s In It by Peter Bogdanovich – * pg. 254 / ** pg. 253


9 thoughts on “Things are screwbally in the Keystone State: ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

  1. Fine review, as always. So many sticky wickets in these old films. The paradox of loving films from another time is that we love to see “another time” depicted even though certain things from “another time” are hard to accept. I like to give those from the past the benefit of the doubt and – as opposed to considering them inherently evil – assume they simply hadn’t “gotten there” yet; their thinking was unenlightened to certain things and their attitudes and their understanding simply hadn’t evolved yet. If that makes sense. Carry on with the good work, lady!

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  2. I really like this film, although it’s not one of my favourites. James Stewart was great in it- he may have had overall greater performances but that drinking scene you mention is one of my favourites of his. He deserved the Oscar just for that!

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  3. Great piece,mate. A total masterpiece and everyone involved does some of their best work in this. I totally agree about how weird it is for Seth to blame his daughter for him having an affair. You could understand where he was coming from if that line had been said to his wife, but what has Tracy’s behaviour or personality remotely got to do with him sleeping around? I’m sure this bit must have been weird for audiences when it was first released.

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  4. Love this film even with the flaws, but yes Seth’s “defense” for his philandering is weak and very sexist, even for the period. Cool Trivia: Tracy Lord is actually based on a real woman, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, who lived on the Main Line in Philadelphia PA, my old hometown. Ms. Scott was known for her lavish parties, even during the Depression and War years, which made her wealth more of a legend as nobody believed she could spend so freely and not end up bankrupt.

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  5. I consider The Philadelphia Story a comedy of manners rather than a screwball comedy. It helps to distance myself from the father blaming the daughter dilemma. If it hadn’t worked at the time, I assume it would have been eliminated or changed during the pre-Broadway tryouts. The bottom-line lesson of Tracy learning to loosen up and have some understanding is important to the character and story but how they reached it makes me shake my fist at the screen.

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  6. I’m with you and Carol, that infidelity speech makes me cringe every time. I often fast forward over it when I watch this movie, and I watch it a lot. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this movie, this is a post that made me think and appreciate things about the movie I’d long started taking for granted because I’ve seen it so many times.

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  7. I love this movie so! Though sometimes it feels like almost two hours of people beating up on Tracy/Kate. I agree, Dad’s speech is the worst of it. Still, I love it for the chemistry between Hepburn and Stewart. Always makes me wish they’d worked together again.

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  8. I’ve never warmed up to this film, despite some terrific lines and the stellar performances. But you have me thinking I’ve been too harsh and ought to see it again.

    Really enjoyed your review. 🙂

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