The Philadelphia Story is a 1940 picture starring Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord (I know. If you’re a child of the MTV age, you can’t help but think of this person. They’re not the same person,). This Tracy is a rich, young society divorcee about to wed for a second time. Tracy’s first marriage to CJ Dexter Haven, (I know. If you’re a child of cable TV, you can’t help but think of this guy when you hear the name Dexter. They’re not the same person.), ended two years earlier, Dexter punctuated their break-up with a smack that knocked her to the ground. Now, she’s about to marry George Kittredge, a coal-miner-turned-executive who is clearly there for the money and the status. Tracy abhors publicity in the gossip rags, but that’s exactly what Kittredge wants given his new station in life. It’s plain to see that this union is doomed, and it’s unclear why they got together in the first place, but most of us have an ex like that.
Meanwhile, at the offices of an evil gossip rag, Macaulay Connor is assigned to cover the Lord wedding, along with photographer Liz Imbrie. The pair meet Dexter who, inexplicably, will be a constant presence at the home of his ex-wife during her nuptial weekend. He’s their “in.” Doesn’t seem like a great plan, but it works. Tracy is initially hostile about the reporters’ presence in her home during her wedding prep, but quickly grows fond of Connor (and really, who wouldn’t be fond of Stewart?). The night before her wedding, Tracy gets drunk and is seen looking cozy with Connor. Kittredge sees this and sends her a letter (I know, isn’t that cute? On paper and everything.) the next morning questioning her faithfulness and whether a wedding should even take place. Kittredge is quickly dismissed and Tracy seems set up to marry Connor. After all, she’s already in her dress, and the guests have arrived, so you may as well marry someone. That doesn’t pan out, either. In a contrived bit of plot twisting, Tracy ends up marrying Dexter (remember, not the serial killer), even though he, you know, knocked her to the ground two years earlier. But he’s reformed and looks like Cary Grant and everything, so it’s all good. Also, I don’t think you’re supposed to think about it too hard.
Overall, the material is well-written. It’s a solid romantic comedy with no real surprises. The film only makes passing reference to the fact that Dexter had hit his ex-wife and doesn’t seem too flustered about the issue of domestic violence. Plus, the guy’s supposedly all kinds of reformed so it’s supposed to be considered acceptable by 1940 standards. By today’s not so much, for obvious reasons. The notion of privacy being invaded by a single magazine photo spread is kind of quaint in today’s climate of paparazzi, deliberately leaked sex tapes, celebs posting their dinners to their Instagram accounts and the entire Kardashian family.
Class and privilege are central themes to the movie. Tracy, pampered from birth, hasn’t thought too hard about all of her privilege. She doesn’t grasp the fact that some people, including women, have to work for a living. Connor and Liz serve as character foils. Connor is an aspiring novelist and poet who earns his living as an ink-stained wretch (not unlike myself), and Liz is a divorcee who supports herself with her photography. Tracy doesn’t quite understand why someone would write magazine articles when what they want to be is a respected author (cause, you know, respected authorship just falls out of the sky). On the same level, as a non-wealthy divorcee in 1940, Imbrie is part of an emerging class of female working professional who is in sharp contrast to Tracy, the future Lady Who Lunches. Still, it’s hard to fault Tracy, who seems like a genuinely nice person, just sheltered. I’m sure that in the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of a second World War, Tracy’s gorgeous clothes and society wedding might have provided a nice mental escape. Or they really pissed people off.
The biggest upside of this movie is that Stewart is his usual delightful self and has excellent chemistry with Hepburn. I sensed no chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, which is odd because they had been romantic leads before. Grant seems unnecessary in most scenes; his main purpose is to hook up with Hepburn’s character at the end. Throughout the film, he appears wooden and kind of lost between Stewart and Hepburn. Indeed, it was the film that earned Stewart an Oscar, although he is quoted as saying that Henry Fonda should have won for The Grapes of Wrath. It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Grapes of Wrath, but that was probably a fair assessment. There’s nothing wrong with Stewart, it’s just that it’s a role he could have played half-asleep.
The bottom line: It’s an enjoyable movie if you don’t think too hard about it and you overlook the opening scene.