By Leo Racicot
The Philadelphia Story – 1940 – dir. George Cukor
There are few movie treasures as evergreen as The Philadelphia Story, few movie stars as everlasting as the incomparable Katharine Hepburn. Labeled “box office poison” by Hollywood after making a string of nascent hits followed by a string of stinking bombs, Hepburn fled to her native East Coast to lick her wounds and find solace on the stage, namely in Phillip Barry’s play, “The Philadelphia Story” which became a lucky theater penny for everyone involved, Great Kate most of all.
Hepburn had the savvy to buy full film rights to the vehicle, provided she play the lead. She saw the play as her ticket-to-ride back to Planet Stardom, a kingdom she was to rule over for the rest of her life.
The Philadelphia Story is a comedy of manners and re-marriage, a genre popular in the 1930s and ’40s in which a couple divorce, flirt with others then get back together again. Hollywood scriptwriters used this format to get around the film censorship board. It allowed its characters to fool around outside of marriage without having to say so explicitly, also making cheating tolerable since the woman usually ended up in the same bed with the man she had been married to in the first place.
In this case, Mr. Ex-Husband, C. Dexter Haven, is played with relish and a wink-and-a-nod, by the irrepressible Cary Grant who realizes the mistake he’s made in letting Hepburn (socialite Tracy Lord) go and who must now win her affections away from not one but two suitors (her fiancee, George Kittredge, played by John Howard, and a handsome but sarcastic tabloid reporter covering her wedding, Macaulay Connor (the can’t-ever-say-enough-wonderful- things-about-him Jimmy Stewart).
Hepburn is delightful as Tracy Lord, spoiled and insufferable on the surface; perhaps tender and vulnerable inside, hiding behind a wall of armor (and money and privilege) but deep down scared to death of making another marital mistake. She guards her game board religiously, playing these three men as well as assorted family and friends, like so many complicated chess moves, fighting their every attempt to drag her out of her acid bath to force her to take a good, long look at herself.
Hepburn’s Tracy Lord is an iceberg. Stewart tries to melt her with fire; Grant with humor and happy memories of their marriage; Howard with the more conventional twins of stability and fidelity. She is not sure she wants any of it. At certain points, you can see she would rather be hit head on by a train than try her hand at a second marriage. For her ability to juggle the balls of all these emotions simultaneously, Hepburn received another of her many, record-breaking Academy Award nominations.
Like Hepburn herself, the film is lit with a lasting magic, infused with perfect dialogue; there is not a false word in it, every “a”, “an” and “the” plays like Mozartian music, every second of it beats with perfection: the direction (by master director, George Cukor — Hepburn insisted he and only he man the film; they were lifelong personal friends), the script, the costumes, the cinematography, the supporting cast. Hepburn at first wanted Clark Gable to play the Dexter Haven part and Spencer Tracy the Macaulay Connor role but both actors were committed to other films, and since Gable and Cukor had not gotten along at all during the filming of Gone with the Wind the previous year, it was believed that teaming them up again would have been a disaster.
Grant and Stewart shine in what was one of each’s best movie performances, and Stewart who won the Oscar (his only one) for his portrayal of a cynical soul, in trying to bring Hepburn down from her rich girl’s society pedestal, also succeeds in opening up his own, cold heart. Their swimming pool scene together is legendary; Hepburn did her own dive in it; Stewart refused to wear a bathing suit and later said had he performed the scene in swimming trunks, as he had been asked to do, “It would have been the end of my career”. That Hepburn is practically naked and Stewart is totally clothed renders their sensuality undeniable; the scene, a study in silent sparks flying, incinerates the screen.
In addition to Stewart’s Oscar, the golden statuette was also awarded to David Ogden Stewart (Best Adapted Screenplay), and Oscar nominations went to Hepburn (Best Actress), Ruth Hussey (Best Supporting Actress, playing Stewart’s wisecracking assistant) and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Best Picture). You will also recognize Virginia Wiedler, as Hepburn’s precocious sister, Dinah, Wiedler being sort of a poor man’s Margaret O’Brien.
The Philadelphia Story is deservedly one of Hollywood’s lasting classics. You can see it many, many times and still find something new and exciting in it. It is that rarest of entities: a perfect film.