Jessica Jørgensen | Dec 15, 2017 | 3
Vintage Film Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940) -A Classic Showpiece for Fabulous Actors
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I am delighted to be able to introduce you to one of my very favorite films, The Philadelphia Story.
The Philadelphia Story Summary
Tracy Samantha Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is a Philadelphia socialite who is preparing to wed for the second time. Unfortunately for her, the editor of a popular tabloid magazine has bribed his reporter and photographer as well as Tracy’s ex-husband into providing coverage of the wedding. His bargaining chip is incriminating evidence he holds against Tracy’s philandering father. So, in spite of her wish for a quiet, private wedding she agrees to this invasion of her special event.
So, in spite of her wish for a quiet, private wedding she agrees to this invasion of her special event.
RELATED POST: Top 5 Katharine Hepburn Lines to Use in Real Life
Her path to matrimony is unexpectedly complicated by her attraction to the male reporter Macauley “Mike” Connor (James Stewart). The arrival of her ex doesn’t make things any easier. She and CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) had fallen deeply in love years ago but were driven apart by her excessively high standards and his affinity for alcohol. But now Dexter has returned to a warm welcome from Tracy’s family. He uses his relationship with her family to constantly remind her how unsuitable her new fiancé is for her.
To add to the confusion, Liz, the female photographer is in love with Mike. It’s a love quadrangle folks! Or is it a love pentagon, it’s hard to keep track of who wants who in the few crazy days leading up to the wedding.
Then to make matters worse, Tracy’s two-timing father arrives just in time to point out her character flaws while laying the blame for his behavior at her feet. When Dexter also challenges Tracy on her lack of understanding and compassion for others, Tracy’s self-worth takes a major hit. When this goddess/radiant queen/citadel decides to jump off her pedestal she does it with great panache. Following the example of the men in her life, she gets drunk and has a fling. But what happens when the morning of her wedding dawns? Will she apply her pretentious self-righteous standards to her own behavior? More importantly, will she learn anything from her fall from grace?
The Biggest Flaw
Let’s just address the major issue of The Philadelphia Story right away. As much as I love this film, it is very much a product of its’ time in Hollywood history. There is nothing substantially wrong with Tracy except for her snooty attitude and exceptionally high moral standards. However, between her father and Dexter, she is taken to task and verbally harassed for being a moral snob. Neither of these men has the right to do this since their own standards are rather low. This makes them look at best, hypocrites, and at worst, total jerks. Mr. Lord is obviously selfish and takes no responsibility for his poor behavior or his lack of paternal feelings toward his daughter. Dexter at least seems to have reformed and genuinely cares about Tracy becoming the warm, merciful woman she is capable of being.
Tracy’s fiance George and Mike the reporter aren’t much better. Although both men seem to worship her, they have created a fantasy of her. Neither man truly cares to know the essence of who Tracy is. The way all the men respond and react to Tracy underlines the sexist attitudes prevalent during that time.
A Valuable Lesson
For all of the complexity of the plot, the purpose is to highlight Tracy’s need to acknowledge her own pride and human weaknesses. Though the message is somewhat obscured by some repellent behavior from the male characters, it is still a valuable and worthwhile message which never expires. Though it is good to have standards to live by, it is even better to extend mercy and grace to others when they don’t live up to our standards. Because inevitably our own human weaknesses will land us in situations where we also will need compassion and forgiveness. That is really the moral of the story in The Philadelphia Story.
“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.”
Famous Actors Can Act!
Of course, one of the greatest strengths of this film is the actors. The role of Tracy Lord was written specifically for Katharine Hepburn and it definitely plays up to her strengths as an actress as well as her innate personal characteristics. Hepburn was always confident and opinionated and this is mimicked in Tracy’s character. But Hepburn was also surprisingly skilled at playing vulnerable onscreen. This is shown to perfection in the scenes when Tracy is contemplating the challenges from Mr. Lord and Dexter and also when she must face the consequences of her actions.
Cary Grant and James Stewart were not the original choices for their roles, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing the reformed patrician playboy Dexter, and the awkward, uncomfortable writer Mike Connor. This was Grants’ fourth and final film with Hepburn and their rapport is easy despite the conflict between their characters. I really love the scenes between Grant and Stewart as they develop an unlikely partnership. In particular, towards the end of the film, Mike pays a drunken unexpected late night visit to Dexter. The scenes between the two were mostly ad-libbed. Stewart is a genius as a genial and curious drunk, while Grant’s reactions are even more funny for their sincerity. I’m not surprised Stewart won an Oscar for this performance although some argue he had other performances more deserving.
Character Actors Almost Steal the Show
The Philadelphia Story also benefits from several stellar performances from popular character actors of the time. My two favorites are child actress Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s much younger, but precocious sister Dinah. Roland Young plays Tracy’s drunken, playboy uncle Willy. Between the two, they nearly steal the film from some of the most famous film stars in cinema history. Ruth Hussey plays tabloid photographer Elizabeth Imbrie as the common sense voice of reason and really grounds the film. Though her performance is a quieter one, it is vital to the plot.
Despite its sexist overtones, The Philadelphia Story is a film I never tire of watching, mostly thanks to an interesting storyline, compelling characters, stellar performances and of course its’ utter quotability. I love the truth and occasional passion woven into the script and will often burst out with a line from the movie at random times. Though it is at times offensive, frustrating and ridiculous, it is also inspiring, witty and unique. And although The Philadelphia Story does show its’ age at times it never grows old.
“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”
Fun Fact: Re-made as a musical in the 1950’s titled High Society starring Grace Kelly, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra
Content Note: Has no objectionable material and is safe for the family to watch.
Where to Watch: Purchase The Philadelphia Story on DVD or rent on various online platforms including Amazon and Google Play. Or check your local cable listings as this occasionally airs on television.
Buy on Amazon HERE (affiliate link).
Photo Credits: MGM
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me
to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”