This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon hosted by Rick’s Classic Film and TV Cafe. Check out all the other terrific entries here!
I can’t tell you exactly when I started loving THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. I can’t tell you exactly what made me start watching it or what made me keep watching it. What I can tell you is that it is one of those movies that holds a special place in my heart. It is one of those films that I have to watch every few months, one of those films that I know lines of dialogue from, one of those films that I tell everyone about. Any time that I see that THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is on TV, it doesn’t matter what point in the movie we are at, that is it I have to stop everything that I am doing and watch.
I am not going to get too involved in the plot, as I think many people know the movie and for those who don’t I really don’t want to spoil much and would much rather entice you to see the film and let me know what you think! That having been said…
Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is a Philadelphia socialite from a very old and very wealthy family. She is the ex-wife of one C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), sportsman and recovering alcoholic. The marriage between the two childhood sweethearts broke up due to Tracy’s imperious and holier-than-thou attitude which is due mostly to her wealth and privileged upbringing. Two years later Tracy is engaged to self-made man, and wind bag, George Kittridge (John Howard).
Tracy’s absentee father has caused the family some embarrassment of late by taking up with a dancer. Unfortunately for everyone, the publisher of the biggest gossip magazine has gotten a hold of some dirt on the affair and is now threatening to publish it. C.K. Dexter Haven now shows up at Tracy’s door with a reporter named Mike Conner (James Stewart) and a photographer named Elizabeth Imbrey (Ruth Hussey). It seems that Dexter has agreed to allow Mike and Liz to cover Tracy’s upcoming nuptials in exchange for the magazine agreeing not to publish the embarrassing information about Tracy’s father.
What follows is a most delightful mess of family dysfunction, love triangles, champagne, swimming, and redemption. All in all my idea of a really perfect movie.
Katharine Hepburn was considered undesirable in 1938. Several flops had led her to be added to Manhattan movie theater owner Harry Brandt’s list of “box office poison”. Taking some time away from Hollywood she starred in a play on Broadway, entitled THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Inspired by the life of socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a Philadelphia socialite known for her crazy antics, it was written by Philip Barry who happened to be friends with Montgomery Scott’s husband. Barry wrote the role of Tracy Lord specifically for Katharine Hepburn and she played alongside Joseph Cotten (Dexter), Van Heflin (Connor), and Shirley Booth (Imbrey). Barry and Hepburn both backed the play, with Barry forgoing a salary, and the play (and Hepburn) were a great success. Howard Hughes, then Hepburn’s boyfriend, purchased the film rights and gave them to her as a gift. In the hopes of undoing her label of “box office poison”, Hepburn sold the rights to Louis B. Mayer in exchange for $250,000 and veto rights over director, producer, cast, and screenwriter.
George Cukor was selected as the director and Donald Ogden Stewart was brought in as screenwriter. Hepburn initially wanted Clark Gable to play Dexter and Spencer Tracy to play Connor but both had other commitments, and Mayer was still wary of Hepburn’s poisonous status. As insurance he put in two A-list celebrities to co-star with Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Grant agreed to the part as long as he received top billing and his salary would total $137,000 which he would donate to the British War Relief Society. The film went into production in Culver City from July 5 to August 14, 1940 and was opened for general release on January 17, 1941. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY went on to break a box office record by taking in $600,000 in six weeks.
Now that we know a bit more about the history of the film, let’s talk about why I love it so. But first, here is the trailer which should give you a little taste of the greatness to come!
First of all, can you beat this cast? Katharine Hepburn is Tracy Lord. Full stop. No one else but Katharine Hepburn could pull off the role and give Tracy the complex dimensions that she does. Tracy is cold and aloof but underneath it you can sense that hurt and disappointment with her father and her ex husband have made her that way. She is privileged and wealthy but she also is in love with George and with the hope that he will give her something real, honest, and true because he is a self-made man. She is totally in control and wildly out of it. Tracy Lord is a woman who starts as one thing and ends as another and we take the journey with her and whats more we actually like her as well. In spite of the hard time she gives everyone, in spite of what other people say about her, we still like her and find ourselves rooting for her. Only Katharine Hepburn could do this and Tracy Lord is the role she was meant to play.
Then there is Cary Grant. What can I say? I would watch Cary Grant tie his shoes and it would be amazing. Here he brings his quintessential light humor to the role and where C.K. Dexter Haven could have been a somewhat nasty piece of work, he makes him into a man who is still in love with his ex-wife but feels betrayed by her lack of support and, more importantly, love during his struggles with alcoholism. He brings a humor to his scenes and seems to be having a fantastic time during the filming. Just watch his face sometimes, even when he isn’t the focus of the scene and you will see what I mean. And let’s be honest, only Cary Grant could start off a film shoving a woman to the ground by her face and still be a man you root for.
James Stewart won an Oscar for his role as Mike Connor and while I would have liked to see a double Oscar between him and Cary Grant, you can’t deny that this is a breakout role for him. Not to say that he had never made any great films prior to this, I mean THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON are fantastic, but I think that this film really showed Jimmy Stewart holding his own in an ensemble and even having moments of outshining even Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Mike is a complex character, an everyman who is tired of being the everyman. He wants to be comfortable and rich but sees the “old money” families as obstacles to his ultimate happiness. He wants to be an author but he works as a newspaper reporter for a gossip magazine. He also wants to dislike Tracy Lord because of everything she stands for in his mind, but he can’t because there is something magnetic in her and he can’t resist. Starting out cynical and hard, Mike ends up being chivalrous and genuine making a transformation that we can all believe and one that makes sense.
Like I said, this is a dream cast. And let’s not forget Ruth Hussey, Roland Young, and Virginia Weidler. Oh how I love Virginia Weidler in this movie.
If you didn’t at least smile once during that clip…then I’m sorry I can’t help you.
And that brings me to what I think I love the most about this movie. The words. I have loved words and books ever since I was little. True story, my first word was book. Even now when I am driving or going for a walk or cooking in the kitchen, I would much rather listen to a podcast or a book on tape than music. So for me, the script in this film is just heaven. The quick and witty dialogue, the truly funny jokes, the pure poetry of the monologues…this film makes me feel like a really great book has come to life before my eyes. The quality of the writing is palpable and I would be just as happy closing my eyes and listening to this movie as I would be watching it. Donald Ogden Stewart wrote in his autobiography that adapting the screenplay for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was the easiest job he ever had because the original material was so perfect. So whether it is thanks to Philip Barry or Donald Ogden Stewart that we have dialogue like;
C. K. Dexter Haven: Sometimes, for your own sake, Red, I think you should’ve stuck to me longer.
Tracy Lord: I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.
C. K. Dexter Haven: Aaah, that’s the old redhead. No bitterness, no recrimination, just a good swift left to the jaw.
Margaret Lord: Oh, dear. Is there no such thing as privacy any more?
Tracy Lord: Only in bed, mother, and not always there.
Macaulay Connor: The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.
Well, I could go on. But whoever it was…the script is divine and the movie is divine and I love it. I wish that I could fill this entry with clips of the film and quotes of dialogue and bits of trivia, but I can’t. What I can do instead is to wish you all a Happy National Classic Movie Day and encourage you all to go out and watch my favorite movie, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.