Early in "The Philadelphia Story," Cary Grant's society playboy arrives for his ex-wife's wedding. When he comes across her in the drawing room, they take up a little two-step. He advances, she retreats; he thrusts, she parries. If you want to understand the genius of Katharine Hepburn, this is the place to start.
George Cukor's 1940 screwball comedy, one of four Depression-era Hepburn vehicles newly boxed together by Turner Classic Movies for its "Film Legends" series, was her career "comeback" after a series of box-office flops. After appearing in the play from which the film is adapted, she bought the rights herself — with one caveat, that she would be the star. And, despite the valiant efforts of Cary Grant and James Stewart, she is: "The Philadelphia Story" is a film about Hepburn's craft, less comeback than culmination.
A patrician in a color-blocked pantsuit, Hepburn's Tracy Lord can be willful, petulant even: when her little sister, hoping she'll reunite with Grant, asks how she can postpone the upcoming nuptials, Tracy tells her to "get smallpox." She's no cold fish, though: she cycles through anger, bitterness, good humor, romance, and contentment. Even more than Susan Vance, the privileged free spirit of "Bringing Up Baby" (Howard Hawks, 1938) — a slapstick performance of the first order, one that seems to augur the very breakdown of society — Hepburn brings to Tracy the wit and regret of self-awareness.
As a wealthy woman with an independent streak, Hepburn shows off a willingness to get down and dirty, taking a tumble with her new nouveau riche fiance just to mark up his jodhpurs. Then she mounts the horse with the same athleticism that would be on display in 1952's "Pat and Mike" (Cukor). But she can play against her growing star persona for laughs, too; when she pretends to be the perfect hostess for Stewart's reporter, she dons a long checked skirt and a puffy, slightly sheer blouse, skewing the straight lines of that early moment with Grant by flitting and floating. She even twists those sharp New England vowels, making them sinewy with sarcasm.
Viewing her earlier films — "Morning Glory" (Lowell Sherman, 1933), "Little Women" (Cukor, 1933), and "Stage Door" (Gregory La Cava, 1937), each of which is included in the boxed set, and "Baby," which is not — you can see the persona forming. Watch the clip from "Morning Glory" below, and note just how high she reaches with the pitch of her voice, draping her body over the chair with surprising sultriness. Five years later, in "Baby," she'll use almost the same technique, only amplified: what was dimly acknowledged will be underlined, what was subtle will become pure screwball. The ruckus she makes trying to convince David (Grant) that the leopard is poised to attack is ingenious — this woman isn't nearly as stupid as she might seem — at the same time that it is patently absurd.
"The Philadelphia Story" takes this personal screen history, melds it with aspects of the tomboy Jo from "Little Women," and adds to it a new gravity. When her father accuses her of being a prig, a spinster, an egotistical goddess, she tries mightily to muster a rejoinder and ends up with the glimmer of tears. Tracy, seemingly like Hepburn herself, hates being pegged. "You're the worst kind there is, an intellectual snob," she tells Stewart's character. "The time to make up your mind about people is never."
Despite the many accolades she'd get for later, more "serious" roles, it's in "The Philadelphia Story" that we see Hepburn most clearly for what she truly was, the consummate comedienne — willing to get down and dirty, but never satisfied to hit her mark and leave it at that. Stewart himself sums it up best when he tells Tracy that she possesses "a magnificence that comes out of your eyes and your voice and the way you stand there and the way you walk." Hepburn was unafraid to use her body or her backstory to deepen or ripen a role, and with each passing film in this early period she reaps greater dividends from that vulnerability.
On screen, she never let anyone make her out to be anything she was not. She knew she could be all things when she wanted, the prig and the goddess, the romantic and the rebel, the tomboy and the toast of the town. "The world never appreciates genius," she says in "Morning Glory" about acting. On this point, I can assure you, she was wrong.