By Christian Gay
George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is a fascinating film, rewarding the viewer with each repeat viewing. The film is perhaps the quintessential remarriage comedy, the finest of a popular cycle of films produced in Hollywood during the 1930s and ‘40s that share certain formulaic narrative similarities. The Philadelphia Story contains some of the best acting performed by screen legends Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart (who won an Oscar for his performance). It reinvigorated Hepburn’s stalling career by turning a healthy profit and earning an Oscar nomination for the actress who had been recently labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
The film’s quirky, haphazard narrative is part of its comic charm – but after many viewings, I still find it difficult to reconcile the film’s beauty and Hepburn’s luminous power with the gender dynamics of the story. Patriarchal undertones abound; from the film’s prologue, where Hepburn’s Tracy Lord Haven is wordlessly thrown to the ground by Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven, through to its conclusion, where Tracy makes a dazed and confused (and seemingly arbitrary) decision to marry. All the men in Tracy’s life chide her for her “blank intolerance,” her “disregard for human frailty.” At the same time, they idealize and objectify her as a distant “goddess” and a beautiful statue; there are even allusions to Tracy being similar to the boat designed by her ex-husband, the True Love. Was she sea-worthy, or “yare,” she wonders aloud? Could she be? Why can’t she accept the injuries and imperfections of men? Does the film suggest that the combined abuses of alcohol and her ex-husband serve to instruct and transform Tracy for the better?
Despite these troubling narrative conceits and questions, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord Haven ultimately transcends everything and everyone around her in order to orchestrate her own transformation in the film. Through the role she is able to wink self-referentially at her reputation as an erudite, and at times, condescending, Connecticut Yankee. Off-screen, Hepburn was more than willing to play the role: she starred in the Philip Barry play written especially for her, and, when the play succeeded, she had Howard Hughes’ help in securing the film rights. She brought those rights to MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, whom she convinced to make the picture while allowing her control over the film’s production, direction, and casting. Director George Cukor and co-star Cary Grant were previous collaborators of Hepburn’s, and by selecting them she must have known they could be relied upon to share her vision. Thus, Hepburn was instrumental in bringing this quasi-Pygmalion story to the screen, suggesting that, in spite of the patriarchal studio system, the veteran actress was able to hold her own – a force amidst the powerful men who surrounded her both onscreen and off.
In the film, we learn that Tracy has divorced Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven and shunned her cheating father because of her own high standards and code of ethics. She has chosen to marry George Kittredge because “he is a good man and a great man” of national importance. “Everyone loves George,” Tracy protests throughout the film, but we, the audience, don’t buy it. Tracy and George rarely share the screen and never show that they are in love; she has better chemistry with her diving board. It is suggested early on that Tracy is “hard” and unforgiving, first by her younger sister Dinah, then by reporter Macaulay Connor, and so on by the entire cast throughout the first half of the film — with the exception of Mrs. Lord, who does not reproach her daughter. Mrs. Lord laments the absence of her husband, who she has abandoned at Tracy’s suggestion. It is interesting to note here how eager everyone is, on the eve of her wedding, to openly criticize Tracy for being critical herself. Based on this resounding chorus, Tracy drinks heavily before her rehearsal dinner party, a choice she makes on her own, alone and for no one else’s benefit.
Floating across the dance floor on a cloud of tiny bubbles, Tracy soon abandons her embarrassed fiancé to spend a night cavorting with Stewart’s reporter. She seems to project her insecurities on Connor, repeating the criticisms levied at her unto him, calling him a prejudicial “professor.” Tracy has an epiphany while sipping champagne in the moonlight with Connor, delivering perhaps the central thesis of the film: “The time to make your mind up about people…is never.” In the morning, when Tracy learns from Dinah about her behavior the night previous, or rather the perception of her behavior, she is embarrassed. Here, Tracy must forgive herself, and dismiss any pretense of her moral superiority to those around her. When she sees that her fiancé doesn’t trust her implicitly, she refuses to fight for him.
While at first, one might argue that The Philadelphia Story portrays a headstrong woman being “taken down a few pegs” by the men who cannot control her, a closer analysis reveals that the film is in fact the story of one woman’s transformative journey to self-awareness, wherein she abandons her reliance on public perception and mores to establish her own personal code of ethics, embracing the power of forgiveness. Taking into account the story of the film’s production, The Philadelphia Story can also be seen as the self-conscious reflection of a pioneering Hollywood feminist on the notion of idealized femininity in general, and her own public persona in particular.