The Philadelphia Story (1940)

On my fifteenth birthday, a cousin while wishing me, added, “Did you know? You happen to share your birthday with the legendary American actress, Katharine Hepburn!”

“Oh, any relation to the gorgeous Audrey?”, I quipped. It was the first time I had heard of Katharine Hepburn.

Just a month before, much to my family’s amusement, I had been through a massive Audrey Hepburn (incidentally another May-born) phase, watching all her classic films (Sabrina, Roman Holiday, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and of course My Fair lady) repeatedly, and reading up as much stuff I could find on her. (This was the early 90’s – so no Internet. Sadly though, six months later, Audrey Hepburn would pass away and I would get to read much on her then!)

So a few days later then, our local video library wallah had a new assignment – to fetch me movies of another Hepburn this time. Poor man! One of the movies, he managed to fetch, was The Philadelphia Story (1940). And that was the first time I watched this delightful movie. And I really enjoyed it. I watched it again (for the nth time), a couple of months ago, when I was going through a major James Stewart phase.

And what better than to review this wonderful movie, starring a dishy James Stewart and the dashing Cary Grant besides the adorable Hepburn? This would be a tribute to Hepburn and Stewart on their respective birthdays – Hepburn would have turned 108 on May 12 and Stewart would have turned 107 on May 20.

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The Philadelphia Story (1940) marked a turning point in Hepburn’s career. After successive failures at the box office, Hepburn had been labeled ‘box office poison’ and she was more or less down and out. At this juncture, Philip Barry, the playwright visited her with a play he had written with her in mind. Hepburn did and the play was an unprecedented success. Her then boyfriend, Howard Hughes bought and gifted her the film rights of this play to help her comeback in Hollywood.  Hepburn sold these to MGM for a paltry sum, even as it specified in the contract that she had full veto over the cast, screenplay and direction.

Cary Grant and James Stewart were cast opposite Hepburn. Her friend, George Cukor came on board as the director and Donald Ogden Stewart as the screenwriter. This comedy-farce was a big success and Hepburn’s career was back on track. She was nominated for Best Actress while the film had a total 6 nominations at Academy Awards. James Stewart bagged his only Oscar for playing the fast-talking Macaulay Connor and Donald Ogden Stewart won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The story is set in the privileged upper class in Philadelphia and is about an arrogant heiress, Tracy Lord who is about to marry for the second time. She is betrothed to George Ketteridge, a dull, solid, self-made millionaire. A day before the wedding, Tracy’s first husband, the dashing, reckless and irresponsible C.K.Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) lands up at the Lord mansion bearing some bad news. A slimy, blackmailing magazine editor, Sidney Kidd has got hold of some damning news about her father and is threatening to print it, unless the family allows a reporter, the ambitious, cynical Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and a photographer, Liz to attend and cover the wedding. The movie covers the night and day leading up to the wedding – with many complications thrown in between, including Tracy’s romantic involvement with Connor, who vies for her love too!

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The movie begins with a temper tantrum. Tracy Lord Haven (Hepburn) breaks her husband’s golf club. The husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who evidently loves his golf clubs more, socks his wife in the chin. And the marriage is over.

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Two years later, we are informed by The Philadelphia Chronicle of Tracy’s second marriage – to solid George Kittredge (John Howard). We are led into the Lord mansion, a day before the high-profile wedding, where Tracy’s mother, Margaret Lord is busy with the preparations. Tracy is very much there and is revealed to be snobbish, arrogant and utterly spoiled. She also has a sweet teenage sister, Dinah. We get to know that both mother and daughter have ‘picked the wrong first husbands.’ Seth Lord’s excessive womanising had led to Tracy’s parents estrangement; while Tracy left Dexter because he was irresponsible and an alcoholic and to preserve her self-respect. While Tracy is happy about her upcoming marriage to an ‘angelic’ George, Dinah and Margaret prefer Dexter!

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Dexter now lands up in the mansion with Mike Connor and Liz in tow. Mike Connor and Liz are pretending to be friends of Tracy’s brother. Mike Connor is a cynical, ambitious writer who hates this job. He does not approve of either the privileged class or this low brow plan and pretence. But since Dexter can’t lie to save his life, the secret is soon out. And Tracy is forced to continue with having the reporters in the house because she doesn’t want the story of her father’s womanising all over the papers!

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Tracy and Mike meet at the library and get to know each other a bit more and strike a camaraderie. Other sub-plots lead to several complications and by the end of the evening, Tracy gets drunk (for the second time in her life), all set to prove to the world that she is no cold Goddess; Something that both her father and Dexter accuse her of!

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Under the influence of alcohol, Tracy is more open, relaxed, informal and certainly less cold. The stiff George does not approve of this informal Tracy, but then she doesn’t care. Also Dexter and Mike Connor are busy concocting a scheme to slander the slimy Kidd. Somehow, a drunk Tracy lands up at Dexter’s place and Mike Connor has to drive her back to her mansion. Once at the mansion, a drunk Tracy and Mike indulge in some witty banter, go for a swim and land up kissing and are seen going towards her bedroom.

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So does Tracy’s upcoming marriage withstand this seeming betrayal? Did anything at all happen that night? And more importantly, whom does Tracy love? 

My two cents: This is a sophisticated, witty upper-class comedy filled with sparkling performances. One reason for its stupendous success was because it showed the taming of the rich heiress. Hepburn was perceived as being arrogant and aloof in real life. So the fact that she is humbled probably contributed to its success. What I liked was that yes, the rich heiress did come down a peg or two but she was not broken or humiliated in the process. All the men in Tracy’s life (her father, Dexter, Connor, and George) do scold and admonish her (they call her a cold Goddess), but they love and admire her.

Katherine Hepburn is absolutely adorable in this movie; her confidence, accent, drawl – all are perfect as she shines in the role of a haughty, arrogant, and slightly insecure lady. Tracy’s hurt, confusion and her wish to be loved as a woman are nicely brought out by the charming Hepburn.

Cary Grant plays the irresponsible Dexter with panache and style. He is assured and in command. And yes its Dexter who is on an even footing with Tracy, pointing out her faults relentlessly and being supportive when she falls. And then there is James Stewart. Sigh. mmm. I liked everything about him. He is extremely drool worthy. He brings a goofy charm to his portrayal of Connor – filled with witty quips and lovely silences.

Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart make a good pair. And this brings me to the one grouse I had with the film. The pairings were not very clear. While yes, Grant and Hepburn make a lovely couple and have a fabulous on-screen chemistry, it was not clear as to who the OTP of this movie was. Tracy looked equally good with both Dexter and Connor, so there was a bit of confusion. While the ending made perfect sense to me, for die-hard romantics, it could be a bit of a bummer.

Not in the same league as Holiday (1938) (my favourite Grant-Hepburn movie), this Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn- James Stewart movie is definitely worth a watch – especially for the three lead actors and its overall light wit and comedy.

11 thoughts on “The Philadelphia Story (1940)

  1. Lovely film, and Stewart was a hoot. Grant had the choice of roles, he chose to play the first husband.

    Her then boyfriend, Howard Hughes bought and gifted her the film rights of this play

    That is incorrect; Hepburn bought the rights herself, though she did ask Hughes for advice. Funnily enough, I’m just reading her autobiography, and she is definitely not a very nice person. 🙂 Her only virtue that I can see is that she is completely honest, even to her own flaws.

    • Is it so? Whatever I have read on the Internet said that he gifted her the film rights.

      What a coincidence, Anu, that you are reading her autobiography. Do let me know how it is after you read it. I have a biography of hers lying round somewhere. Will read it some day. 🙂

      How are you doing? Do take care.

      • Harini, I went back and checked, and I sit corrected. You are right – Howard Hughes bought the film rights to the play, and gave it to Hepburn as a gift. Just wanted the clarification also to be public. 🙂

        I finished the book today. Must say that KH doesn’t come across a very likeable person. She seems to have used people left, right and centre. But she loved her parents and her siblings unconditionally, and she seems to have loved Spenser Tracy the same way – in fact, so much that she subsumed her own character just to keep him happy. And she is brutally honest about herself. Perhaps I will review it when I get around to blogging again.

        As for the rest of it, things are so-so. Thanks for asking.

  2. I have never got around to watching this film, despite my love for both Cary Grant and James Stewart (Ms Hepburn I am not quite so keen on, though I do like her in some roles). It sounds a lot like the Grace Kelly-Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra starrer High Society; I wonder if that was a remake of this one.

    • Oh Madhu, you should watch this one. James Stewart and Cary Grant are absolutely wonderful! I am not a big fan of Ms Hepburn, but I loved her in this role. From what I have read High Society is a remake of The Philadelphia Story.

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