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The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story

Of all the famous Katharine Hepburn movies–and she is the longest-lived (in her career) and most honored star in picture history–the one I’ve had a little trouble really loving is The Philadelphia Story (available on DVD). It’s got an impeccable pedigree: the last and most popular of four comedies she did with Cary Grant, three of them directed by George Cukor, who not only discovered Hepburn for 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, but also directed her in seven other movies (two for TV); and quite faithfully adapted from a successful Philip Barry play that had been a hit vehicle for Hepburn on Broadway. In fact, The Philadelphia Story is credited with reviving Hepburn’s picture career after she had left Hollywood a couple of years before with the weight on her of a powerful exhibitor’s comment that she was “box office poison.” She negotiated to control the play’s film rights and was instrumental in getting Cukor, Grant and James Stewart to do the movie, thus essentially authoring her own triumphant return to the screen. For his performance, Stewart won the Oscar as Best Actor. All the star players have some excellent scenes and the supporting cast is splendid. So what’s wrong?

There is the overriding quality of Hepburn being cut down to size, of having to eat crow and humble pie for having been such a strong and strikingly independent woman in the 1930’s–certainly the best time ever for women in the movies. Hepburn had been a leader in that decade, typifying the newly emancipated female. (Remember, women didn’t even get to vote in the U.S. until 1920.) In films like Christopher Strong, Morning Glory (for which she got her first of four Best Actress Oscars), in Little Women and Alice Adams, Hepburn had been an inspirational figure: on her own, wearing trousers both on and off screen, and clearly representing a woman of ideals, passion, and integrity. The significantly named A Woman Rebels was another of her pictures, and she had the title role as the formidable martyr Mary of Scotland; in Sylvia Scarlett (her first with Grant), she was intriguingly disguised as a young man through most of it. But these last three, along with Quality Street, were resounding flops.

Trying to turn things around, Hepburn joined an ensemble cast for the successful female-oriented Stage Door, and followed with two of her greatest films, both released in 1938: with Grant and Cukor for another Philip Barry play, Holiday (in which she’s the nonconforming black sheep of a square banking family), and with Grant and Howard Hawks for the divinely screwball Bringing Up Baby (in which her dizzy character brings humanity to Grant’s stuffy scientist). Though both are considered classics today, they were not big box office attractions then, and Hepburn left Hollywood under a cloud.

Her last appearance on Broadway had been in a flop which inspired Dorothy Parker’s famous comment that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Undeterred, she came back with The Philadelphia Story and scored in a play which must have seemed to audiences to be about her personally rather than just the character Tracy Lord. She is disparagingly referred to repeatedly as an aloof “goddess,” a judgmental, distant and uncompromising person, without a truly “loving heart.” Her former husband (played by Grant in the picture and on stage by the pre-Citizen Kane Joseph Cotten) blames her for not being understanding about his alcoholism, thereby making him worse; her father blames her for not being compassionate to him about his philandering ways, thereby causing him to philander even more. Today, all this seems pretty ridiculous, I think, a load of self-satisfied cop-outs, all very seriously delivered, putting a pall over the romantic comedy. Significantly, though Hepburn had top billing over Grant in their three 30’s pictures, she had to take second place to him here in her own star vehicle.

It did the trick, however. A properly humbled Hepburn was reinstated in the cinema galaxy, and her next film, Woman of the Year, her third with George Stevens and the first of eight with Spencer Tracy, made a similar point: overachieving career woman finds that love and home are more important. Not until the end of the 40’s and the start of the 50’s, with the Cukor-Tracy Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, both co-written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, were her obviously superior qualities more unapologetically presented. Not the way they were in the 30’s, though; the values of those days have yet to be revived.

Despite everything, of course, The Philadelphia Story cannot be entirely dismissed. If nothing else, it’s the one and only time Jimmy Stewart appeared with Hepburn and their chemistry is intriguing, even though (perhaps too for the only time in his career) Stewart often is pushing too hard, overplaying his comedy hand. Maybe he felt threatened by the potent Grant-Hepburn combination, and by Grant’s matinee idol looks (this is also their only appearance together), and he strains uncharacteristically in his drunk scene. His winning the Oscar came about because the Academy felt guilty about not having given it to him the year before for his career-making, and infinitely better, portrayal in the title role of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hepburn herself is terrific throughout, as is the entire supporting cast, and Grant, subdued and in the least interesting part, is splendidly assured with his newly-won mega-stardom. But for the real fireworks between these two, see Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, or even the generally reviled but strangely likeable Sylvia Scarlett, three memorable pictures from Hepburn’s first glorious decade.

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Glad I stumbled on this blog, I am enjoying your movie of the week posts. But I’m puzzled by all this negatIvity on one of my favorites.

This is a very funny movie about very flawed people. Tracy’s over-the-top beatdown is made more ridiculous by the oh-so-serious characters delivering the blows, characters who, unlike Tracy, don’t deny their flaws but instead pawn off responsibility for them onto others. In the end, Tracy’s acceptance of her imperiousness and her pledge to overcome it is met by Dexter’s acceptance of his role in their failed marriage: “be anything you like, you’re my Red, you always have been and you always will be.” On the road to these and other life lessons, we get Uncle Willie and his hangover, Stewat spittting out “CK Dexter Haven you’ve got unsuspected depth!” and other unforgettable, watch ’em a million times moments. Tough to beat.

Jeanne, whose 15-year old daughter recently said, while watching Bringing Up Baby, “Hey, they based What’s Up Doc” on this!” Good girl.


I completely agree about the ‘self satisfied cop outs’. I found several parts of the movie quite preposterous. The scenes with her father were just ugly as someone pointed out above, and Hussey’s quiet acceptance of Stewart’s relationship with Hepburn was a puzzle. Also, this may just be me but I don’t think the ‘class’ angle was fully played out, especially with regards to Cary Grant’s character and his class. I am quite surprised to find such positive reviews of the film by most reviewers.

Andrew K.

I’ll admit that that problem with this film always gets to me, but it doesn’t prevent it from being in my top 5 films. Like Ty, I’d say to some extent Tracy specifically needs to be a little more humble and generally I do think that they’re wrong in thinking she does, but despite my issues with a few of the characters I still love the film.

Fine analysis, though.


Good starring. Interesting movie. I like the title Philadelphia.

Ty B.

I understand the criticism people make of The Philadelphia Story’s gender roles, but it doesn’t bother me to the extent that it does some. There are some rather ugly moments (Tracy’s father suggesting women should be understanding of a man’s need to stray chief among them), but the basic point about Tracy needing to be “cut down to size” seems less to me like a commentary on gender roles and more a personal observation about Tracy herself. Not so much that she needed to be “put in her place,” but that she needed to come to a realization about herself that she’d been ignoring her entire life. Grant needed Tracy, but felt she didn’t need him. The point was that she did in fact need him, she was just too busy pretending she didn’t need anybody to realize it.

But perhaps I’m simply trying to rationalize the subtext of the film because I find it so endlessly pleasurable to watch. Kate, Grant, and Stewart are all among the greatest treasures that Classic Hollywood has given us, and they’re in top form here. There are times in this film where Hepburn is so overwhelmingly charismatic that I’m not sure even Bogart could’ve held the screen against her. The script is remarkably witty and Cukor’s direction is, as always, sensitive and subtle. The film is wonderfully funny from the outset, but there’s a melancholy undercurrent running through it, and the way that undercurrent gains momentum and becomes more prominent as the film progresses is tremendously moving. It’s just a film I love to be in the company of. There are certain movies that to me define Classic Hollywood, that embody everything that I love about that era in American movies. The Philadelphia Story, whatever problems it may have, is one of those films.

Christopher Stilley

…Even a film like “Saint Jack”(a personal favorite,partly for having been a frequent visitor to Singapore in the late 60s),Peter shows you can “take it easy”,focus on character and still entertain. .Thats a rare gift these days.
I feel bad for kids now that don’t have anything like the great screwball classics to get lost into when they go out to a movie.I encounter so many Blogs on the internet now that are run by girls anywhere from 16 to 32 yrs old ,whos heroes are Carole Lombard,Rosalind Russell,Irene Dunne,Jean Arthur and Kate Hepburn..etc..They’ve discovered these great actresses and see that the ladies of today are no match for the real deal…and it dosen’t stop there,even the silent godesses,well know and obscure have their fan pages by young ladies around the world.Kids are desperate for engaging characters that they can love and root for…..
It is true tho,now that you mention it,Women did seem to ironically get sent back to the stone age with progress(heh heh..some might consider it a blessing!)..Even with Howard Hawks,where Kate and Roz once reigned supreme,Joanne Dru and Angie Dickinson appear a little beaten down in a mans world…I just love Bringing Up Baby,some people can’t handle it,the insanity overwhelms them,even a Marx Bros. movie gives you a chance to breathe with a song or switch to the love interest.but I think it runs like a well oiled machine.I enjoy THe Philadelphia Story,but I do notice that Hepburn is getting spanking for some unknown reason from the outside .


Dear Peter,

I’ll never forget Allen’s homage to Hepburn (and the Philadelphia Story) in his “Radio Days”. The scene at Radio City Music Hall’s entrance and then entering the real “movie world” is unforgettable. But I do agree with you… I had also “a problem” in relating to “Philadelphia Story”… Anyways…

I have to say that I am a BIG fan of yours – since a long, long time…

And I have mentioned you twiche on my last post on

When will you direct again?????? I miss your pictures….


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