This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.
The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.
Extra-marital affairs might have been frowned on under the restrictions of the Hays Code. But Hollywood had ways of smuggling in forbidden material – and one of those ways was the comedy of remarriage, which allowed a couple to divorce, romance others and then, inevitably, get back together again. Two of the greatest movies in this vein were both made in the same year, 1940, both starring Cary Grant as the ex-husband who steps in on the eve of his ex-wife’s second wedding. In His Girl Friday he’s the newspaper editor who won’t let reporter Rosalind Russell escape his clutches. The dialogue might be delivered a little more slowly in Cukor’s screwball great than in Hawks’s, but it is every bit as sharp, with endless lines to take away and savour. It’s easy to see why it was such a smash hit, especially with the added ingredient of James Stewart as the other man who also falls for Hepburn’s charms, and who gets some of the best lines.
Like her character in this film, Hepburn was herself having to change her image, after a succession of flops led to her being labelled ‘box-office poison’ . Some of these are now recognised as great films, including Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby, but the audience failed to warm to Hepburn, who was reportedly seen as too perfect. So Hepburn went back to the Broadway stage and starred in a play written with her in mind, The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, before then managing to get the rights for the film adaptation and re-creating the role on screen. The film, scripted by Donald Ogden Stewart, succeeded in softening Hepburn’s screen personality, as it shows Tracy coming down off her pedestal, rejecting descriptions of herself as a ‘goddess’ or ‘queen’ and insisting at the end ‘I feel like a human being’.
But the film has its cake and eats it here too, because Hepburn is of course a beautiful movie ‘goddess’ in this, and some of the most memorable scenes are those where she is at her most triumphantly upper-crust and insouciant. Director Peter Bogdanovich has an interesting piece about the film on his blog where he says that he finds it a hard film to love because of the insistence on cutting Hepburn down to size and making her eat humble pie. I would have to agree this layer of sexism is a troubling element, with shades of The Taming of the Shrew. It would be nice to see Grant’s character having to give a little more too – and yet, somehow the impression Hepburn gives at the end of the film, despite all the changes she has been forced to make, is not humble at all.
I suppose it could be argued that Dexter’s own big change has been made between that opening scene and the main part of the film, during the space of the title card ‘Two years later’. The reason given for his break-up with Tracy is not one of the usual screwball comedy misunderstandings, but a surprising touch of reality. She threw him out for his drink problem and he has since been drying out in ‘a couple of sanitariums for alcoholics’. Tracy gets the blame for his drinking – he suggests that her coldness drove him to the bottle and also accuses her of failing to be a “helpmate” in beating the problem. (Ludicrously, she is even blamed for her parents’ break-up – apparently her father was tempted to have affairs with dancers because his daughter was so judgmental and failed to worship him enough!) All this is pretty hard to take, but the couple’s warmth and affection, and all the banter between them, as they call each other ‘Red’ and ‘Dex’, makes their relationship enjoyable to watch despite it all. And Grant is great as always at creating a character with an urbane surface but hints of complicated layers below. As Stewart says to him: “CK Dexter Haven, you have unsuspected depth.”
One of the joys of this film is its wonderful cast. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart all play against each other brilliantly, and Ruth Hussey is also great, filling out the somewhat underwritten role of Liz, the photographer watching over and yearning for Mike. There are also fine supporting performances, in particular from Roland Young as Uncle Willie and Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s younger sister Dinah. Looking at how well the whole cast works together, it is rather surprising to realise that Grant and Stewart were both second choices. On stage, Joseph Cotten played Dex, with Van Heflin as Mike and Shirley Booth as Liz. When the film was being cast, Hepburn initially asked for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy – they didn’t know each other yet, but she wanted to work with him. Both of them were unavailable, so Grant and Stewart were cast. It’s interesting to speculate on how Gable and Tracy would have altered the roles, but it’s impossible to imagine anybody could have been better than Grant and Stewart. Having said this, I do find it rather odd that Stewart won the Oscar for best actor, something he himself saw as a consolation prize for losing out the previous year in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Yes, he’s great in this too, but it is surely Hepburn’s film all the way, and if one of the leads had to receive an Oscar, it should have been her.
This piece first appeared on the Wonders in the Dark website as part of the Comedy Countdown there. All the pictures are gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.