When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was released last year, Quentin Tarantino took great pride in acknowledging the film’s pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, which he described as a throwback to the time when the stars were the headlines of a movie. Perhaps he was, unknowingly, referring to The Philadelphia Story, George Cukor’s delightfully acerbic adaptation of Philip Barry’s play which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year (although it wasn’t released in the UK until June 1941) The names of its three stars have passed into legend: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. This, the only film to feature all three, is a perfect showcase for their considerable talents.
The movie falls into the genre known as ‘remarriage’ comedy, in which a couple separate, consider relationships with other people and then remarry. It’s largely fallen by the wayside in modern cinema, but that’s more to do with changing time and tastes than the genre itself not working. For Katharine Hepburn, the film served as a sort of redemption. At the time, she was considered box-office poison, having appeared in a string of flops (including Bringing Up Baby, which also starred Grant and is widely regarded as a classic now). She had previously appeared in the initial stage version, and with the help of Howard Hughes, acquired the film rights. She had approval on director, screenwriter and co-stars. Both Cukor and the writer Donald Ogden Stewart were selected by her. Sadly, for her, her choice of male co-leads, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (with whom she was romantically involved for several years) were unavailable, but their replacements proved more than adequate.
Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy socialite who is engaged to marry ‘man of the people’ George Kittredge (John Howard). The wedding is eagerly sought after by the tabloids, and journalist Macauley Connor (Stewart) is sent to cover the event, with Tracy’s ex-husband C.K Dexter Haven (Grant) helping with the deception by having Connor pose as a friend of Tracy’s brother, who works as a diplomat. Connor’s editor has proof of an affair involving Tracy’s father, so she is effectively blackmailed into having her big day covered by the newspaper. Tracy detests imperfection and her marriage to Dexter dissolved because of his drinking problem. As events ensue, Tracy finds herself drawn into a triangle between Kittredge, Dexter and Connor, all three of whom represent something Tracy either wants, or needs.
It’s true to say The Philadelphia Story is heavy on dialogue, but it’s not exposition heavy. There’s a real fluidity to the scenes, which helps keep the narrative momentum high. A lot of the things that are said are reincorporated into the climax, either through repetition or the actions of the characters. Dexter and Tracy’s reminiscing about their boat serves two purposes- to display the obvious affection between them and the escape they couldn’t quite get. The film has a unique group of characters, who all have their own personalities and roles to play within the story. Compare that with a lot of modern films, where there are often too many characters and not enough room to give them proper depth.
The Philadelphia Story is a film about embracing one’s imperfections. Tracy buries hers deep down, choosing to put on a front rather than embrace the unique qualities she possesses. Dexter, on the other hand, is proud of his flaws, and openly embraces them. During their first meeting, Dexter describes Tracy as being her own ‘favourite person in the world’ before she responds by insulting his drink problem. The key conversation between them sees him confront her about why she chose to end their marriage. He stings her by saying ‘You’ll never be a first-class human being, or even a first-class woman, until you’ve learnt to have some regard for human frailty’. His drinking became more pronounced once she became critical of him, and her refusal to accept him as he was, contributed to the breakdown of their marriage. The Philadelphia Story confronts the issue of the facades we put on to look good in public versus how we truly are behind closed doors.
The character of Mike serves to expose Tracy’s flaws. His job as a journalist openly disgusts her and when he finds her drunk, she repeats Dexter’s words to him. Mike, like almost all journalists, has an answer for every question and a query for every person, but his own fast-talking ignorance blinds him to the love his photographer Liz (a wonderful Ruth Hussey) has for him. He finds the ‘magnificence’ within Tracy, and though he’s drunk, his words have the effect on Tracy that she needs to realise she’s making a mistake in marrying Kittredge, who has fallen in love with her as an image rather than a human being. Mike’s character also represents the vulture-like nature of the media- even that long ago, tabloids were determined to get the scoop on the scandals that engulf the unattainable members of society and are perfectly willing to use underhanded means to get it. Connor’s early interrogation of the Lord family is more respectable than some of the tabloid tactics used today, but the emphasis is the same.
Hepburn and Grant had worked together three times before, but it’s here where their chemistry really shines. These two actors, who were both incredibly private and had vastly opposing interactions with the press (Grant was charming, Hepburn evasive), bounce off each other perfectly. In the film’s first scene, she breaks his golf club and he knocks her to the ground. The characters must save face with the other and the actors play it for all it’s worth. Grant insisted on top billing for the film and donated his salary to the British War Fund and his performance is very much ‘warts and all’. He makes no attempt to soften Dexter, but in doing so, displays the human imperfection at the heart of the story. Hepburn, equally, manages to make Tracy a three-dimensional character rather than an unlikeable caricature. Her transition is both believable and touching.
James Stewart, the third wheel as it were, won his only Oscar for playing Macauley Connor, a character unlike many in his filmography. Unlike L.B Jefferies in Rear Window, or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Connor possesses a controlled energy, a desire to get under the skin of the socialites he’s surrounding himself with, but also to find the human beneath Tracy’s icy exterior. Stewart himself was surprised to be given the award, as he felt it was an apology for not winning for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but that does a disservice to his excellent work here. The film’s best sequence involves Grant and Stewart (this was the only film they ever made together, despite both working with Hitchcock and Frank Capra) as they discuss love, literature and ‘unexpected depth’ at Dexter’s house. The scene sees Stewart acting drunk and a mistaken hiccup surfaces. Grant says, ‘excuse me’ and both actors stifle a laugh before the scene continues. There’s an elegance and class in how they approach this scene- it’s a shame they didn’t work together again.
The Philadelphia Story was remade in 1956 as a musical called High Society, with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra taking on the roles played by Grant, Hepburn and Stewart. It’s an entertaining film, and the actors are fine, but it lacks the wit, sophistication and thematic richness of the original. Like a fine wine, The Philadelphia Story has aged brilliantly- it functions as a capsule to the past, a sophisticated and complex love story and as a perfect vehicle for its three leading stars to show off their considerable talents. It’s very much old Hollywood but all the better for it- nothing like this could be made as well today.