A lot can change in two years, something that Katharine Hepburn knew all too well.
In 1938, she starred in George Cukor’s HOLIDAY as a principled socialite rebelling against her wealthy family and their obnoxious credo, that “there’s no such thrill in the world as making money.” In fact, HOLIDAY capped off a string of financial disappointments for Hepburn that led the Independent Film Journal to call her “box office poison,” their term for a star whose rich studio contract was unjustified by her “negligible” public appeal. That same year, Hepburn would use those riches of hers to buy out her contract with RKO and leave Hollywood altogether. It wasn’t until 1940 that she returned, armed with the rights to THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and the conviction that nobody should star in it but herself. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY went on to become the one of the most popular films of 1940, reigniting Hepburn’s career and also confirming a proverb from within the film itself: “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”
Like I said, a lot can change in two years.
Two years is also the amount of time that passes following THE PHILADELPHIA STORY’s prologue, which shows the breakup of a high society marriage between Tracy Lords (Katharine Hepburn) and C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Now engaged to self-made man George Kittredge (John Howard), Lords’ wedding preparations are interrupted by Haven’s return alongside two supposed family acquaintances, Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Seeing through her ex-husband’s ruse, Lords forces Haven to admit that Connor and Imbrie are really tabloid journalists sent to report on her second marriage and, in her words, “examine, undress, and generally humiliate… at fifteen cents a copy.” However, in return for submitting to the journalists’ prying eyes, their publisher promises to bury an article about Lords’ father (John Halliday) and his affair with a young, female dancer. Lords accordingly welcomes Connor and Imbrie into her home, only to hobble their efforts with sharp jibes and screwball games of mistaken identity. As the pair discover, Lords is a proud woman who won’t even be blackmailed unless it’s on her terms.
Yet to escape her reputation as “Katharine of Arrogance,” a nickname earned from her dismissiveness towards the press and fans, Hepburn couldn’t play yet another superior socialite flinging barbs at those beneath her. Instead, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY allows the objects of Lords’ criticism, from the invasive journalists to her alcoholic ex-husband, to be more than mere annoyances to the heroine, but also insightful critics of her character. In one scene, Haven recalls how Lords scolded his drinking as “unattractive” rather than offering emotional support, then finally tells her,
“You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you’ve learned to have regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime, but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”
This accusation, which the press could have just as easily leveled at Hepburn herself, leaves Lords visibly shaken. She can’t deny that her characteristic strength has alienated her to weakness, that her need to show grace at all times has made her unsympathetic to those who may stagger and fall. While her high standards have turned her into a superior member of society, that same superiority is revealed to be her own fatal flaw.
As she speaks with Kittredge on the night before their wedding, Lords also realizes that setting herself so high above others has made it impossible for her to be loved as an equal. While fawning over his future wife’s stiffly maintained beauty and poise, Kittredge praises her as a “statue” and a “marvelous, distant, well, queen,” all flattering terms colored, not with tenderness, but worship. In response, Lords can only say, “I… I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved.” Unfortunately for her, Kittredge does not know the difference.
Lords’ need for a love of equals soon delivers her into Connor’s arms, though a few too many glasses of champagne also help fuel the impulse. Whereas Hepburn’s character in HOLIDAY understands drunkenness only from listening to her brother describe it, Lords finds that she can be every bit as foolish as the men in her life. Even though she doesn’t go as far as to sleep with Connor, her behavior is still so “shocking to [Kittredge’s] ideals of womanhood” that he tries to make her promise to never drink again. She refuses, though, saying, “I don’t believe I will. There are certain things about that other girl… I rather like.” In her one moment of weakness, Lords has discovered something better than being an ideal woman, as perfect as a statue. She’s discovered what it’s like to be fallible, and alive.
Discussing her plans for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Hepburn said, “I don’t want to make a grand entrance for this picture. Moviegoers think I’m too la-dida or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face.” She ended up giving audiences just that, portraying a proud woman who stands tall only to fall short of her own standards and expectations. Through that humbling experience, though, Lords recovers a lost vitality that completes her more than a respectable husband ever could. Before finishing the story by remarrying Haven, whom she has learned to accept despite his shortcomings, Lords shares a tender moment with her father who once again tells her she resembles a queen, a goddess. In response, she says, “And do you know how I feel? …Like a human. Like a human being.”
Hepburn’s sharp but ultimately vulnerable performance would humanize her too, undoing her reputation of arrogance with the public and the press. “Come on back, Katie,” said a review in Time, “all is forgiven.” Over time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY would come to mark a total change for the actress, transforming her nearly dead career into one that would endure for decades to come. It would have been unthinkable two years prior, but, like I said, a lot can change in two years.