Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, honouring the fantastic classic duo from the Hollywood’s brightest times, and my contribution is a short review of one of Hepburn’s most distinguished films:
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” is based on a Broadway play of the same name also starring Katharine Hepburn. In this film, Hepburn plays a rich socialite Tracy Lord, who is about to be married to George Kittredge (John Howard), after her previous marriage to a yacht designer C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant, fell apart. Meanwhile, two reporters Mike Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are secretly “planted” in the house of Tracy to spy on her and to try to cover the big wedding. Surely, they are helped in their endeavour by Tracy’s ex-husband Dexter, who still secretly hopes that Tracy will realise that their love was genuine and true. The gist of the comedy here is that Tracy knows about the true purpose of Connor and Imbrie, and her family puts on the show to impress and mislead the reporters. As Tracy flirts with Connor, the realisation of her mistake in the decision to marry Kittredge becomes more apparent. The great thing about this film, apart from its cast and performances, is the way it cleverly combines a witty story, involving a theatre of “appearances deceiving”, and the reflecting character study.
It goes without saying that the script is ingenious; otherwise, it would not have been first a successful play and then, after the 1940 film, be translated to the screen by John Patrick in the form of “High Society” (1956), a film starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The plot leaves plenty of room for both laughs (in fact, there are many laugh-out-aloud moments) and sad contemplation. However, it is probably the witty dialogue which makes it so good. For example, smiles are guaranteed when the character of James Stewart speaks archaic English to a librarian, or when Dinah Lord (Virginia Weidler), Tracy’s teenage sister, makes her entrance as an amateur ballerina and singer to impress the reporters. The film ends on a very heart-warming, reconciliatory note, even though the ending could be guessed half-way through the film.
The film marks Katharine Hepburn’s return to success after a number of cinematic “failures”, and it is easy to see why Hepburn is again in the midst of popularity after this film. Hepburn could do no wrong in the role which was written specifically with her in mind, and her performance here is outlandishly great. At least publically, Hepburn was known as an independent “rule-breaker”, who had her own standards and views on many things in life. In “The Philadelphia Story”, Hepburn showcases this side of her public persona and uses it to win the hearts of her audience. Hepburn’s Tracy is vivacious and charming, but also sharp-tongued and may appear very cold. As a character, Tracy is the centre of attention, spoiled by her riches, but it is evident that, as the story progresses, her inner fears and vulnerabilities start to show, and she starts to understand that the path to true love (or true love itself) may be imperfect and rocky, but that does not mean that it is any less true or real. Thereby, our heroine learns her lesson. There are many interesting scenes to that effect in the film, and, at one point, Tracy importantly exclaims: “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”.
The script, direction and Katharine Hepburn’s brilliance should all go without saying, but what are remarkable here is how perfectly cast other characters are, and how much undeniable chemistry the ensemble as a whole has. James Stewart is perfect in the role of Mike Connor, the reporter, and gives the performance of his career (winning an Academy Award for it, too). In this role, Stewart is his usual self, playing a laid-back (sometimes tipsy) working man, who suddenly discovers something curious and unusual in the set-up created by Tracy and her family, and desires to find out more, similarly to his role in later Hitchcock’s film “Rear Window” (1954). Cary Grant, in the role of Tracy’s ex-husband, is equally good. He probably demanded too much to appear in the picture, but any conditions imposed were worth it, since he makes a nice contrast with both Stewart’s character and also, strangely, with Howard’s character. Surprisingly, Ruth Hussey, in the role of Liz Imbrie, a photographer-reporter, is a real scene-stealer. It is impossible to look anywhere but at her in every scene she is in. She has this quiet beauty about her, and her character appears so distinct, even though it has limited screen-time. It is no wonder, thus, that she was nominated by the Academy for the Best Supporting Actress Award.
Nowadays, “The Philadelphia Story” is regarded as a Hollywood classic, and rightly so. The film is a timeless story which has many important messages and themes, and some of them include the importance of accepting imperfection, because life is such, and not allowing one’s high standards to dim one’s happiness. When laughs and wit are combined with a well-presented plot and strong character presentation, what more would one want from a film like this? The film not only has a very entertaining script, its direction, cast and performances are also so good they leave a very lasting impression. 10/10