Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: David Ogden Stewart
Based on the play by: Philip Barry
Producers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 112 mins
Generally, when reviewing a Hollywood classic (or any film, for that matter), I’d open with a broad overview of the movie itself and the context in which it emerged before arriving at the point of closer dissection. But to get to the root of why I have finally drawn the conclusion that George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story falls short of its reputation as an indisputable masterpiece we must start at the story’s very beginning, “a very good place to start” according to Julie Andrews but, in this case, a very sour opening note. The Philadelphia Story opens with a wordless sequence in which rich socialite Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) escorts her soon-to-be ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) out of their house and symbolically snaps one of his golf clubs over her knee. Enraged, Dexter approaches her and raises his fist. Thinking better of it at the last moment, he instead places his entire palm over her face and forcefully throws her to the ground. Now, there’s no reason a romantic comedy shouldn’t begin this way but the problem is the tone in which the scene is played. This quite disturbing event is portrayed as a whimsical comment on the battle of the sexes; a japesome representation of the ups and downs of modern marriage. Its pantomime quality urges us to not take it too seriously and one can clearly imagine 1940s audience members of all genders belly-laughing their way through this opening sequence. It’s not for the film critic to try and excuse these misjudgements of tone but rather to contextualise them and obviously the many changes in predominant attitudes that have come about in the three-quarters of a century since The Philadelphia Story first hit cinemas play a significant part in explaining this disastrously dated opening gambit. But while it strikes a bum note that resonates long afterwards, it is not so much this alarming moment of spousal abuse that leaves a bad taste as it is the not-so-subtle subtext of the rest of the film which attempts to suggest that, well, maybe she deserved it.
The Philadelphia Story is regularly and at least partially justifiably celebrated for its script by David Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Philip Barry. Packed with quotable lines, poetic turns of phrase and moments of likeable goofball humour, its sparkling wit is often compared with the champagne so regularly uncorked by its cast of socialite characters. And yet, with too much champagne comes the inevitable hangover and, in this case, the subsequent remorse comes courtesy of The Philadelphia Story’s forays into drama. One of the reasons this film is so highly praised over other romantic comedies of the era is its ambition to include a vein of serious social commentary and examine human relationships with a sensitivity lacking in its more knockabout counterparts. The story begins a couple of years after its grotesque prologue, with Tracy divorced from Dexter and soon to be married to George (John Howard, struggling to make a mark in an underwritten role). As she prepares for her upcoming nuptials, Tracy is alarmed by the arrival of Dexter who brings with him two journalists from ‘Spy’ magazine. Although she is resistant to their presence, Tracy eventually finds herself drawn to reporter Mike Connor (James Stewart). So we have the makings of a classic love triangle (I say triangle rather than square because no-one in their right mind thinks Tracy will ever end up with non-entity George) complicated by the presence of Tracy’s extended family including her disgraced philanderer of a father.
There is plenty of room in this scenario for exploring relationships, love, marriage and gender roles in depth and you’d have to be fairly naïve to expect populist views of the 1940s to marry up with present day equivalents. What’s more, The Philadelphia Story is really more concerned with commenting on basic humanism than it is interested in gender politics. The main theme is the virtue of understanding people’s weaknesses and the power of love, warmth and kindness. But the script tips its hand as regards its own prejudices by managing to put the blame for practically every negative thing that happens squarely on the shoulders of one woman. The men in Tracy’s life have made some serious mistakes. We learn that the break-up of her first marriage, and no doubt the catalyst for that brutal introduction, was Dexter’s descent into alcoholism, while her father left the family to pursue an affair with a young dancer. Fairly early on in the film, Dexter explains how his drinking increased because of Tracy’s coldness towards him over his habit. Rather than support him through his problem, she turned her back on him and drove him deeper into the bottle. There’s certainly a case to be made that Tracy’s behaviour played a part in Dexter’s deterioration but for this to have any weight Dexter himself would have to accept some responsibility for both his drinking and the crumbling of his marriage. There is no hint of remorse from him over either. He declares Tracy’s reaction to his heavy boozing to be born of impossibly high standards and portrays himself as a victim rather than a co-conspirator in his own downfall. Tracy takes Dexter’s accusatory speech to heart but what has Dexter learned from the experience? Later on in the film, we see him slipping off with some of the chaps for an “eye-opener”.
If Dexter’s denouncement seems somewhat rich, at least there is a grain of relatability in it which is more than can be said for The Philadelphia Story’s most abominable moment courtesy of Tracy’s father. As played by John Halliday, Tracy’s dad is a pillar of level-headed respectability and the script aims to underline this, despite informing us early on of his abandonment of his family in order to pursue an affair. Despite Tracy not wanting him at her wedding, dear old Pop barges his way into the celebrations (because Daddy knows best!) and then, when confronted with his actions, unleashes one of the most unbelievably bare-faced pieces of hypocritical nonsense ever uttered by a character we’re actually supposed to heed. He claims that his philandering is the result of lacking an adoring daughter, “a girl of his own, full of warmth for him, full of foolish, unquestioning, uncritical affection”. He actually blames his actions on Tracy’s lack of warmth towards him. The crux of his argument is the line “A devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his…because, without her, he might be inclined to go in search of his youth.” Now, the psychological flimsiness of this statement aside, everyone seems to forget at this point that the man speaking has TWO BLEEDING DAUGHTERS! Tracy’s sister Dinah, wonderfully played by the young Virginia Wielder, has already appeared prominently and established herself as anything but cold and forgettable. Was one adoring young girl not enough to satiate Daddy’s lust for youth? Or is it just possible that he went after that dancer with intentions that extended beyond the need for a daughterly adoration? As with Dexter’s speech, there is little in Tracy’s father’s words to suggest he accepts much blame himself and his contention that a philanderer is better than a spinster is atrocious. The Philadelphia Story is clearly a film that puts a lot of stock in the institution of marriage but at what cost? In an early scene before they are reunited, Tracy’s mother sighs regretfully that she got her dignity back at the expense of a husband. The clear implication is that the loss of a man, however unfaithful, is too high a price to pay for a woman’s self-respect.
OK, so we’ve torn some strips off The Philadelphia Story but why is it so revered? Well, for one thing there’s the cast. I can barely think of three more inviting banner names than Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart and to have all three of them together in one film is an embarrassment of riches. Each of these superstars has their own very distinct acting style and they play off each other beautifully, never once giving the impression that any one of them is vying for the spotlight. Stewart, in particular, is excellent in his Oscar-winning performance as the cynical newspaperman, slipping effortlessly between the roles comedic foil and romantic lead and throwing in one of the most charming pieces of drunk acting in Hollywood history. If Stewart takes the top acting honours, Hepburn arguably has the tougher role to play. Despite her perpetual mistreatment at the hands of a string of men, Tracy is the story’s centre and her fluctuation between headstrong resilience and wounded vulnerability is the major factor in saving the persistent emotional pounding she takes from appearing even more ugly. Grant, meanwhile, is disarmingly likeable as Dexter, calmly keeping control over events and tossing in one-liners from the sidelines. The only issue with the performance is that we never once glimpse any element of the despairing alcoholic he apparently once was, but this is more a flaw in the writing which, after all, wants us to believe that none of that was really anything to do with Dexter himself!
The Philadelphia Story is often described as “beautifully written” but that is to ignore an inescapable ugliness that lurks within it. It is certainly eloquently written, often witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny but I’d go so far as to say there is a side of it which staggers into emotional-stupidity. For what is essentially a story with a female focus, David Ogden Stewart’s script has such a painfully, consistently male viewpoint that when Tracy declares “I think men are wonderful” at the end of the film, it feels like an uncomfortably literal statement of the moral but with the words “if only us women would treat them right” being the barely-hidden subtext. I can certainly see why The Philadelphia Story is thought of so fondly by so many but, particularly in the current post-Weinstein era, its harder and harder for me to turn a blind eye to its devaluation of women and deification of men. At its best, the film really does sparkle like champagne but every few minutes the viewer is compelled to neck back a shot of vinegar.
The Philadelphia Story is released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on 13 November 2017. Special features are as follows:
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Audio commentary from 2005 by film scholar Jeanine Basinger
- New introduction to actor Katharine Hepburn’s role in the development of the film by documentarians David Heeley and Joan Kramer
- In Search of Tracy Lord, a new documentary about the origin of the character and her social milieu
- Two full episodes of The Dick Cavett Show from 1973, featuring rare interviews with Hepburn, plus an excerpt of a 1978 interview from that show with director George Cukor
- Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1943, featuring an introduction by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille
- Restoration demonstration
- An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme