The Philadelphia Story
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
While I make it no secret that MGM musicals were the movies of my youth, they were, for the most part, the only classic Hollywood movies I saw. When I first went through the pages of 1001 Movies, making note of which films I had already seen, I was truly shocked to realize just how few classic films I had already seen. But one of the few classic films I had already seen prior to embarking on my cinematic journey was The Philadelphia Story. My parents introduced me to this one at a young age, and frankly, it only gets better as I get older.
Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is a New England wealthy socialite about to embark on her second marriage to the bland and blustery George. Naturally, there is no better time for her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), to make an appearance at the family compound. Turns out, though, that Dex has good reason to turn up, as he is actually trying to head off at the pass a sniveling paparazzi journalist who wants to unearth some sordid family secrets about the Lord clan. Reporter ‘Mike’ Macauley Conner (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are strong-armed into covering the wedding against their wishes. Things get complicated as all these people around her turn Tracy’s normal, even-keeled emotional life on its head.
How on earth am I supposed to talk about the verbal perfection that is the dialogue and its delivery in this movie? How unbelievably quotable is every other line that comes out of someone’s mouth? It’s clear that this was a stage play first because of the sheer import that is placed on the specific phrasing of the lines, along with how much they are allowed to shine. This is not a film that shines due to fancy camerawork or flashy special effects, or even on a genius conceit. No, it’s the dialogue that is pitch perfect and painfully brilliant. When you aren’t howling with laughter over Dinah’s pronunciation of “innuendo” or snorting over Mike crank calling as the Voice of Doom, you’re feeling Tracy start to come across at the seams as she hears again and again language of statues and goddesses and ice queens. In my opinion, The Philadelphia Story is easily one of the most quotable films of all time.
When I was younger, it was the broad comedy, found mostly in the dialogue, which I loved in The Philadelphia Story, and it was why I liked the film. But as I got older and I inevitably kept revisiting the movie, I slowly began to understand something more. I really, truly enjoy watching Tracy’s journey from well-meaning but somewhat blind and insulated pride to a more open, more understanding, and definitely happier woman. I didn’t understand Tracy’s story when I was a child; it’s a subtler journey than one typically sees in film, as it’s not as simplistic as “she starts evil and is shown the error of her ways.” No, she somehow manages to start the heroine and end the heroine. But that’s precisely why I like it so much, why I like HER so much.
I identify with Tracy Lord, which maybe isn’t entirely a good thing to admit. But I do. I like her strength throughout the entire film. She starts out as strong but stubborn, and she ends strong as well. I think it takes a lot of guts for her to confront her faults and try to come to terms with them, to admit that she might be making a mistake for marrying someone like George, and for admitting that she has things to learn. She makes mistakes throughout the film, gets sloppily drunk, and generally throws everything into disarray. She isn’t perfect. And you know what? I love that. It’s refreshing. Hers is the sort of character I haven’t seen out of Hollywood in quite some time. Hepburn pulls off the role with aplomb, and it’s easy to see why this is the film that convinced the American public at large to forgive her for… whatever it was they had accused her of. I love the remake of The Philadelphia Story, but damn, it’s hard to one-up how perfectly Hepburn pulls off Tracy Lord.
But the character of Tracy Lord and Hepburn’s performance would not be nearly as interesting if she weren’t surrounded by two equally wonderful roles performed by two equally amazing actors, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Dexter and Macauley represent choices Tracy can make as she approaches her wedding. Watching Macauley set her free throughout their drunken revels is brilliant. While I would be hard-pressed to call this Jimmy Stewart’s most impressive film performance (it is the only one for which he won an Oscar), it is certainly a fine performance and it is easy to see why the Academy saw fit to recognize it. He is not simply the drunken fool, but full of heart as well, and not afraid to call shenanigans when he sees them. But really, Cary Grant’s Dexter just ties everything together. I absolutely adore Cary Grant, but I do feel like he tends to play different aspects of his celebrity persona in most of his films. His C.K. Dexter Haven, though, is reserved and hard in a way that one doesn’t expect from Cary Grant. He is unsettlingly stoic. And yet Grant has to convince us that Dexter really loves Tracy, that he never stopped loving her despite divorcing her, and that he loves her while being unafraid to speak the truth to her. Convince us he does, through several sometimes small, sometimes not so small gestures throughout the movie. How he hides the bracelet, how he hits Macauley first, how he stays out of her way when she asks him to at the party, how he doesn’t judge her too harshly, how he is all too willing to save Tracy’s family from incendiary press, and finally, how he tries to help her save face at her botched wedding. Grant doesn’t try to make Dexter perfect, but he does make him perfect for Tracy. He is wonderful in this role, and I easily think it’s one of his best.
Lovely dialogue, well-formed and interesting adult characters, actors who fully inhabit their roles, and a rollicking comedy with a happy ending. Really, it shouldn’t take anyone by surprise that I have loved this movie ever since I saw it and I will continue to love it for the rest of my life.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. Duh.