The Philadelphia Story (1940)

George Cukor | 1hr 52min

It is nothing short of remarkable that George Cukor managed to unite Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in one film and capture such fine performances from each, though the brilliant comedy of The Philadelphia Story goes beyond its raw star power. Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is marvellously constructed in its romantic entanglements and sophisticated wit, as over the course of 24 hours preceding the wedding of one wealthy socialite, Tracy Lord, he entwines and then unravels a knotted web of fiancés, divorcees, crushes, and affairs. The end of her previous marriage to magazine reporter C.K. Dexter Haven is captured in a brief, wordless prologue, with each step, push, and snap of a golf club playfully punctuated by Franz Waxman’s jaunty score. The terms they depart on are far from amiable, and it isn’t until thirty minutes later that we see them reunited once more with Grant’s delightfully dry greeting.

“Hello friends and enemies.”

Dexter’s intentions seem shady at first, as he is bringing his colleagues Mike and Liz undercover for a report on Tracy’s wedding to posh aristocrat George Kittredge, though soon enough he reveals his true motive of distracting his boss from the bigger story regarding her philandering father. Meanwhile, Mike’s opinion of her as a “rich, rapacious American female” softens upon their meeting, and soon another romance begins to blossom between the two as he begins to see her instead as a “radiant, glorious queen,” obliviously disregarding Liz’s own feelings for him.

Delicate beauty in this romance between Tracy and Mike, eventually turning into a hilarious drunken fling.

All across the male ensemble, Tracy comes across similarly narrow views that reject her humanity in favour of simplified stereotypes which, however loathsome or adoring, do bear at least some semblance of truth. To her father, she lacks an “understanding heart” and behaves like a spoilt goddess, casting judgement upon those she deems beneath her. To George, the “beautiful purity” of her demeanour is exactly what attracts him, worshipping her like a statue to be placed on a pedestal. As for Dexter, it is that perfectionistic intolerance which drove him to drink during their marriage, resulting in their divorce.

“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. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”

Of course though, she isn’t a goddess, and after a series of upsetting conversations revealing the way these men view her, she downs three cocktails, setting in motion a drunken night that pulls back the curtain on her imperfections and insecurities. Still, this doesn’t stop an equally inebriated Mike from falling even deeper into his infatuation, and Cukor relishes every comedic beat from Stewart as he slurs and hiccups his way through a confession of love for Tracy to a weary Grant. Cukor’s elegant camerawork serves the humour here well as it navigates interactions between characters with a nimble lightness, often moving away from those dominating our attention to amusingly reveal others eavesdropping from just outside the frame.

A meeting of two great actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart, both at the top of their comedic game.
Wonderful camera movements shifting our focus to eavesdroppers, emphasising the web of fantastic characters and their dynamics.

Visually though, Cukor is clearly much better suited to large-scale musicals with bold production designs like A Star is Born, and while we can see traces of that style seep through the handsome décor of the wedding reception’s white tablecloths and candles towards the end, The Philadelphia Story rests its creative strengths on its sharply pointed screenplay. Given his profession as a writer, it isn’t surprising that Dexter seemingly has no limit to the number of barbs he throws Tracy’s way, and Grant’s deliveries never fail to land with pure, cutting ferocity.

“I thought all writers used to drink and beat their wives. You know, I always used to think I wanted to be a writer.”

Handsomely mounted production design in these last few scenes as the dynamic between Dexter and Tracy softens into a sweet romance.

Then there is the passing of specific phrases between characters, each one serving to strengthen their bonds and development. When Tracy chides Mike at one point for his apparent prejudice, she finds herself using the same words that Dexter used against her earlier, and stops herself mid-sentence in recognition of their shared perspective. Most notably of all though, the two ex-lovers frequently recall the nautical term “yar” from their past sailing on boats, defining it as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.” In effect, it embodies the flexibility, kindness, and patience one shows towards their partner in a relationship, and the metaphor grows even more apparent each time it arises, leading to the final declaration of love between the two divorcees-turned-fiancés.

“Oh, Dexter, I’ll be yar now. I’ll promise to be yar now.”

“Be whatever you like. You’re my redhead.”

Of the three potential lovers Tracy has been caught between over the previous night, it is clear she has made the right choice. Where someone like George cannot stand to see her fall from the pedestal he has placed her on, and Mike remains obstinately blind to her flaws, Dexter is the only man who fully understands and accepts her as she is, yar or no yar.

A wedding with no groom saved in the last minute by the ex-husband, tying up loose ends with a sweeping romantic gesture.

With a wedding ready to go and the groom no longer around, the setting is perfect for Dexter to step into his shoes, inviting the impromptu bridal party of Mike and Liz to escort them down the aisle. And of course, the tabloid photographer is right there waiting for them at the altar, giving Cukor his perfect ending with a freeze frame of their shocked faces looking straight at the camera. With such insurmountable charm and refined form as this, Cukor’s relative lack of visual style is easy enough to forgive, as The Philadelphia Story’s lightly pointed comedy cleverly picks apart the complex dynamics of troubled romances and the humility that can turn them into flourishing relationships.

A perfect, charming union of each main star in the final wedding scene.

The Philadelphia Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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