CYNICAL writer Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and pragmatic photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are the tabloid team charged with getting the undercover scoop on the society wedding of the year, between old-moneyed Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and a self-made industrialist. Their way into the party: Tracy’s ex-husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Will Tracy actually marry a social-climbing stiff, or fall for the angry young reporter with an unnatural capacity for champagne? Will Dexter be able to turn the tables on Spy magazine’s diabolical editor? And why can’t we all dress like Cary Grant?
The centrepiece of the BFI’s Hepburn season, George Cukor’s 1940 classic is an effervescent social satire that pokes fun at all sides in the class war. It’s wickedly witty, gloriously romantic, whip-smart and complex, even verging on the unsavoury at times – all in all, something of a complete entertainment.
Adapted from Philip Barry’s stage play, The Philadelphia Story opens with a silent, piquant prologue, in which we witness the final explosion in Tracy and Dexter’s combustible marriage. Two years later she’s about to remarry, on obvious rebound, to George Kittredge (John Howard). What a boring wedding it would have been, were it not for the last-minute, unexpected guests, including Tracy’s philandering father Seth (John Halliday), arriving just in time to throw several spanners in the works.
One masterful aspect of the premise is that Connor and Imbrie are reluctant snoops, he a published author, she a painter, the pair only Spying for a crust; another is that their hosts are immediately wise to their true identities. The plot silkily moves through the gears as the newly-acquainted get the measure of each other, the intimidating extent of the Lords’ wealth versus the vehemence of Connor’s pride and distaste. “What’s her leading characteristic?” the dismissive reporter asks Dexter of his ex. “She has a horror of men who wear their hats in the house.” Touché.
Alongside the class war is the harshest element of the film, the humbling of Tracy Lord, whose exacting standards and perceived superiority are seen as a weakness, by men who shouldn’t have put her on a pedestal in the first place. The worst condemnation comes from her odious father, who calls her a prig for deigning to disapprove of his adultery; worse, he does this with the meek acquiescence of his cheated wife.
The idea is that Tracy must become tolerant before she can be happy; fair enough, though the execution is an aspect of the film I’ve never been comfortable with, revealing The Philadelphia Story to be less enlightened in terms of gender politics than the screwball comedies of the period. But it also gives an added edge to proceedings, something to grate against while the enjoyably Shakespearean romancing plays out.
Ironically, given her character’s chilly rep, Hepburn offers one of her warmest performances. The actress had starred in the play on Broadway, owned the screen rights, and wanted Cukor to direct (he had just been unceremoniously dumped from Gone With the Wind). The film reunited the pair with Grant, the trio having worked together on Sylvia Scarlett and, more significantly, Holiday in 1938. Whereas Holiday presented Grant’s working-class, self-made man as an idealistic romantic hero, who has to navigate a world of upper-class sharks before getting the girl, The Philadelphia Story is more even-handed in its attacks.
The Lords may be snobs, or simply too rarefied to contemplate someone worse-off than themselves, but Connor is initially mired in prejudice and Kittredge a pompous ass, obsessed with the notion that his marriage to a socialite could be “of national importance”. As Connor eventually realises (after a well-timed punch from a friend), “In spite of the fact that someone’s up from the bottom, he can still be a heel, and even though someone’s born to the purple, he can still be a very nice guy.” The sentiment is so beautifully expressed that one can miss its strength, particularly for a time when the American class system was more pronounced, more British than it is today.
The cast is uniformly excellent, including Roland Young as Uncle Willy, a sly old dog who can’t keep his hands to himself, the reliably venal Henry Daniell as Spy’s editor Sidney Kidd, and young Virginia Weidler, delightful as Tracy’s teenage sister. The surprise is Hussey, the oft-forgotten but fabulous fourth lead, whose Liz Imbrie is the story’s most rooted character, and displays remarkable fortitude while her own love, Connor, succumbs to Tracy’s dazzle.
The understated Hussey seems to have taken a leaf out of Grant’s textbook. The preeminent screen actor, who could express more with his eyes while co-stars were speaking pages of dialogue, is on fine form here, not least in the moment when his “Red” may finally slip through his fingers forever.
Grant gave his entire fee for the film to the British war effort. Typically, he was the only one of the principals not to be nominated for an Oscar. Stewart won for best actor (if he’s fun when he’s drunk, he’s even better when sobering up), and writer Donald Ogden Stewart for his adaptation. They simply don’t make them like this anymore. As Tracy and Dexter say of their yacht, The True Love, “My, she was yar.”