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« Eisner Award Nominees | Main | Yes No Maybe So: "Maps to the Stars" »
Wednesday
Apr162014

A Year with Kate: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Episode 16 of 52 as Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order.

In which Katharine Hepburn wins it all back and then some.

For Classic Hollywood stars whose images so often transcended or eclipsed the films they appeared in, there often emerges one film that becomes image-defining. This film has the power to stretch forward and back in time, coloring biographical details and even other performances by that actor. It’s the film that will show up in retrospectives and Turner Classic Movies montages, be quoted by fans and impersonators. For Bette Davis, it’s All About Eve. For Gloria Swanson, it’s Sunset Boulevard. For Katharine Hepburn, it’s The Philadelphia Story.

What sets Kate and The Philadelphia Story apart is how deliberately this star-defining was done. Davis was a last-minute replacement for Claudette Colbert, and Swanson was on a list of Pre-Code potentials that included Mae West. But from the beginning, nobody but Kate was Tracy Lord. The part was written for her by Philip Barry, purchased for her by Howard Hughes, and performed by her first on Broadway, then on tour, then finally back on the silver screen again, less than two years after she’d departed. Tracy Lord is Katharine Hepburn, and Katharine Hepburn would spend much of her career playing variations on Tracy Lord.

So who exactly is Tracy Lord?

As a vehicle based on Hepburn’s image, The Philadelphia Story is preoccupied with this question. The film's purpose is to address the faults of Tracy, and by extension those of Kate. The plot is just a distraction while the character dissection occurs: On the eve of the Tracy’s wedding to social climber George Kitteredge (John Howard), Tracy Lord unexpectedly finds herself host to her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a photographer (Ruth Hussey), and a newspaperman named Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart). Their answers are witty, but mostly negative: Tracy is made of bronze, she’s a distant queen, a virgin goddess, an unfeeling heart, generous to a fault except to other people’s faults, etc. Considering this is a romantic comedy involving a love quadrangle at a wedding, everybody spends a lot of time being mean to Tracy.

Kate runs this jibe gauntlet through the first half of the film. But it turns out that insults stick to bronze statues as well as they do to virgin goddesses and screen legends, which is to say not at all. Kate is in top form throughout The Philadelphia Story, but she shines brightest in the moonlight with Jimmy Stewart, in a scene midway through designed to contradict the criticisms thrown her way for the first fifty minutes. The centerpiece of the film is Tracy’s “mistake” - she gets blasted and runs off at her engagement party to make love with the equally blotto Mike. At the pinnacle of her Drunk Acting ability, Kate is witty, sexy, and grounded, and--thanks to costumes by Adrian and an added purr to her voice--sexy.

At the time, the whisper of scandal brought on by two extremely good looking drunk people trading banter and then skipping offscreen for some implied pool sex was supposed to be enough to bring the haughty Hepburn down a notch. But, rather than humbling Hepburn, it’s humanized her. She’s desirable - in fact, three men want her. She gets to choose. I freely admit the end makes no sense. Kate only ends up with Cary Grant because he’s Cary Grant and she’s Katharine Hepburn and there are rules about that sort of thing.

Kate didn’t just triumph in the movie, she won the whole game. She owned the rights to The Philadelphia Story, so when MGM came calling she negotiated a contract with the legendary studio. The film grossed twice as much as her highest earner at RKO and netted her an Oscar nomination to boot. (Stewart won for Best Actor, but considered it a consolation prize for losing the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.) The only thing Kate didn’t get was her first choice for a leading man, a certain Irishman she had yet to officially meet. That would change for her next film, and Kate’s life and career would never be the same.

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday,

Next Week: In which Tracy and Hepburn explode on screen in a dynamic maelstrom of celluloid chemistry.

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Reader Comments (21)

Anne Marie, I am so enjoying your work on this series. Thank you for doing it.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

So much love for this performance, but the film, too, which is Cukor's lightest, warmest and best. It has one of my favourite film openings and film endings but I suppose it does all come back to Kate who is so delightful. We are in agreement that that drunken conversation is a highlight, but then this movie is so lovely it's difficult to hold one piece up as better than the other. I watched it with my sister last year and even she, a self-admitted "not a big movie enthusiast" says it's as fresh as any good comedy released today.

And, on Kate, so great throughout and with so many delightful line readings but the "Hello, Dexter. Hello, George. Hello, Mike."is certainly near the top. I can go on rapturously for days on this one, so I'll stop there.

Aside, I've never understood this being considered a consolation prize for Stewart re the Osar. He's fantastic here, and easily the second best performance behind Kate. Although, in a pitch perfect cast it bears mentioning that EVERYONE is great, here.

My, indeed, it was and IS yare.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

Anne Marie, you've outdone yourself--and that's saying something. Your writeups have made me see Kate in a whole new light. And Claudette Colbert--so she dropped out of this AND All About Eve. Definition of serendipity but not for her. Geez, girlfriend really boosted some legendary careers!

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Andrew, brookesboy, Henry, glad you're enjoying the write up and the movie. Kate is yare!

I can't leave this movie alone, because it's one of my favorites and 670 words are NOT ENOUGH, so below are some of my favorite quotes that I couldn't include even though I desperately wanted to:

"I'm going crazy. I'm standing here solidly on my own two hands and going crazy."

"This is one of those days that the pages of history teach us are best spent lying in bed."

"Champagne's funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's heavy mist before my eyes."

"Where's my wandering parakeet?"

Mike: "Are you going my way Miss?"
Tracy: "That's Miss Goddess, to you."
Mike: "Okay, Miss-Goddess-To-Me."

Dexter: "Sometimes, for your own sake, Red, I think you should've stuck to me longer."
Tracy: "I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon."
Dexter: "Ah, that's the old redhead. No bitterness, no recrimination, just a good swift left to the jaw."

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, you're converting me to Katharine Hepburn, a thing I never thought possible! Congratulations and keep it up! :)

As for Kate, The Philadelphia Story is my favorite performance of hers, alongside The Lion in Winter. She really hits it out of the park here. The movie is hers from the get-go and it shows; one of the finest comedic female performances ever put on celluloid.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Oops, sorry, Anne Marie, I need to learn to read. I see you were talking about Colbert and AAE, not PS. I think too much time on the Internet has impaired my reading comprehension. LOL

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

A sublime write-up for a sublime movie. I shall never, never tire of quoting it.

Tracy: "I think men are wonderful."
Liz: "The little dears."

I could spend hours gushing about the perfection that is Ruth Hussey and her line readings, but that one in particular SLAYS me.

Also you are positively killing it on your gif game. That is one of the greatest I've ever seen.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Love this series.

But this was NOT a consolation prize. Love Stewart in it.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

My personal favorite is already described but I mis-remembered it. I always thought it was Oh Goody we're going to talk about me, are we?

(and I prefer the no e spelling of yar)

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Also, "It's just a man expects a woman to behave herself, naturally."
""Of course, a man expects a woman to behave herself naturally."

A+ exchange.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

Andrew, I love that one. What about this?

Tracy:​ You’re so much thought and so little feeling, Professor.
Connor:​ I am, am I?
Tracy:​ Yes, you am, are you.

Drunk Tracy is fantastic.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

The movie is great except for the two male leads being turned into one character that ruins the end of the film. Such a stupid choice.

I did original music for a high school production of this last year. The director really tried to have her Tracy Lord do something different with the part; it didn't work. The girl wound up having to pull a lot from Katherine Hepburn to get the tone and pacing just right. The crowd ate it up, so I guess it worked.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I hate this movie. Hepburn at her most obnoxious.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRC

This is a wonderful movie but I do prefer Holiday. It's a shame that this was the end of her costarring vehicles with Cary Grant, they really brought out wonderful qualities in each other. As much as I enjoy them together it is a shame that Clark Gable, her first request for his role, refused. I think they could have made a fascinating match. C.K. Dexter Haven is a part that would have worked well with Gable's roguish charm.

Jimmy Stewart's performance is wry and assured but compared to Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath it simply isn't at the same level. However he's hardly the first or the last actor who received an Oscar for the wrong performance.

Everybody's great but my favorite performance is Ruth Hussey's gem as loyal photographer Elizabeth Imbrie.

The material that everyone is working with is very strong as proven when it was remade and musicalized with a very different set of performers and a less distinctive director as High Society. It not quite as good as this but because of a strong script it's a fine film.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Ugh, this is one of only two classic films from the 1940s (the other being Red River) that I just don't get. I even think that the remake High Society is better than this film. The performances in The Philadelphia Story are mostly wooden, the "gags" are mostly cringe-worthy, the pacing is lulling and the gender politics are downright horrifying, even for the early 40s.
And with a view to the satisfying amount of respectable Best Actor wins, I sincerely wonder why The Film Experience constantly feels the need to confront us with the terrible ones.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Another wonderful write-up, this time of one of my favourite films AND performances. 1940 was an extremely strong year (and Rebecca is a solid winner), but this should've swept the Oscars nonetheless. Picture and Actress, at least!

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Forgive my tangent, but I feel the urge to defend Robert Donat's Best Actor victory the year before in a very tight race. He so deserved it, no matter what some historians feel. He transformed treacle into a fully lived-in experience. I would rank them thusly:

1. Donat

2. Gable

3. Stewart

4. Olivier

5. Rooney

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

They just showed this again today on TCM and I had to pop back in and remark on the excellence of the supporting cast. Especially Roland Young, looking every inch the inspiration for the man on the Monopoly box, walking the fine line between the leering creepy pincher and the worldly wise man of the world.

Also the sadly short lived Virginia Weidler brilliant as the impish, or as Kate calls her the little fiend, Dinah. She's great throughout but her initial scene with Jimmy and Ruth when she and Tracy are working in tandem to scare them off is priceless.

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I can't disagree with anything written by either the blogger or commenters. I really hadn't considered that the Tracy role became the defacto Hepburn role after this, but it's so obviously true. Luckily, it was a good persona to use in films.

As Joel6 noted, Virginia Weidler was brilliant in this but she too became typecast by the role and versions of Dinah became all that MGM would write for a girl who through her previous seven years in Hollywood had proved herself able in different types of roles at several studios.

Once she started to mature past "the braided brat" stage, MGM showed little interest in rediscovering the range she had previously displayed and discarded her.

Anyone wanting to know more, please feel free to visit virginiaweidler.net.

May 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterginnyfan

I am catching up with this series, so pardon me for joining the party so belatedly.
The Philadelphia Story may have been my first Hepburn film, it was one of those Sunday Afternoon matinee films that launched my interest into Kate and old Hollywood in general.
It stands the test of time impeccably well, witty banter, and great performances by three leads and supporting players. Thank you for pointing out that Hepburn's comic timing is superb, she is right up there with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.
Notice that all of these films have Cary Grant as well...
I agree with those who prefer Hepburn paired with Cary Grant -who seems to spark her amusement and make her vulnerable in a touching way. This film is simply a classic.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I agreed TPS ages v well w time, this is one of the most sophisticated & sparking comedies ever to come out during the golden era, and every1 involved was in TOP form! When it was released, one critic commented: "When Katharine Hepburn set out to play Katharine Hepburn, she is unmatchable!" Indeed, Her Tracy Lord is so iconic and tailor-made, that not even Grace Kelly can slip into her glass slippers in the 1956 muscial remake.

Not only is Kate most identified with this role, it was her BIG truimphant comeback after being labeled a box office poison 2 years earlier. She had never been so GORGEOUS & SEXY ("Put me in your pocket, Mike") yet haughty and prissy. Tracy Lord is such an amazing & complex lady that I tink only Kate knows how to pull it off. In fact, she told playwright, Philip Barry: "Make her just like me, but make her all soft & womanly". And in the sure hand sof her fav director/mentor, Cukor, she really BLOOMED in the movie

Kate was the hot fav to win the oscar, having just won the New York Film Critics Best Actress, the only reason she din was that the voters want to bring her down a notch from her Goddess status & also they were unhappy w her snub (She never attended the ceremony, except in 1974).

Jimmy Steward's win is definitely a consolation for his loss for Mr Smith the previous year, considering his is actually a supporting role. Poor Cary is the LEAD & was unfairly snubbed of a nom!!! Its a pity Cary & Kate never made ano pic again. Their chemistry is so good! even betta than Tracy & Hepburn. They really matched each other wit by wit, tic for tac. With Tracy, Kate alws kinda conceded defeat, or defered to him in the end. Unlike w Grant, she alws stand up & prove her equals.

Point of note: the beautiful art deco dress above with gold panel in front WAS her actual wedding dress (when she wed Luddy Smith, her only marriage)

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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