It is interesting to experience classic films with modern eyes. There are times when you wonder how certain film elements, which would be considered politically incorrect now, even made it to the big screen. Though, you are secretly glad the film was able to express itself in a manner that fit the time it was made. The Philadelphia Story is one of those films. It delivers on both the comedic and romantic front, while also serving as a reminder of how far the battle of the sexes has come…and how little it has changed.Two years after her marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) fell apart, socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to remarry. Her pending marriage to businessman George Kittredge (John Howard) is the talk of the town. As the wedding approaches Dexter, in a last ditch attempt to get revenge, convinces the editor of a tabloid magazine that he can sneak a reporter, Macaulay Connor (James Stewart), and his photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), into the exclusive wedding. The unexpected presence of Dexter and his two guest leads to much anarchy. Soon Tracy finds herself questioning who her heart really belongs to? Is her true love current flame George? Her past love Dexter? Or is there a potential future with Macaulay?
One thing that modern audiences will notice right away is how The Philadelphia Story takes a rather nonchalant approach to domestic abuse. Dexter has a great moment where, after remarking that that he thought all writers drank excessively and beat their wives, he looks at Tracy and slyly states “at one point I wanted to be a writer.” The line is clearly a direct reference to Dexter’s alcoholic and abusive tendencies when he was married to Tracy. Similar to most of the dialogue in the film, lines like theses are played up for great comedic effect. While humour like this would be deemed insensitive by today’s standards, it was consider harmless humour back in the 1940s.
The key to enjoying The Philadelphia Story is to simply take the film for the romantic comedy it is and nothing more. In many ways the film feels like another take on Shakespeare’s classic play The Taming of the Shrew. The majority of the men in the picture constantly refer to Tracy as Goddess. Her high standards and unforgiving nature are constantly blamed for many of the male issues in the film. Even Tracy’s father alludes to the fact that his being unfaithful to Tracy’s mother is directly linked to her cold demeanor. The interesting thing is that the being placed on a pedestal is the farthest thing from what Tracy wants. She is simply interested in being love not worshipped.
What keeps the romantic element so engaging is that you are never sure who Tracy will choose until the very end. The Philadelphia Story is able to sustain the multiple romances for so long partly due to the work from the three leads. Katharine Hepburn is the driving force that keeps the story moving. Her character is often required to switch modes from sharp tongue socialite to fragile woman looking for lasting comfort. As Dexter, Cary Grant is hilarious at the loveable rogue who will do just about anything to disrupt the big day. He clearly is remorseful for his past errors but is too proud to let it be known to Tracy. While Hepburn and Grant have fantastic chemistry, the real surprise in the film is James Stewart. Macaulay has all the angles covered but is quickly sized up and disarmed mentally by Tracy. Stewart brings the perfect mix of angst towards the uppers social class and heart to the role of Macaulay.
While one could look into the deep social issues lurking behind The Philadelphia Story, it would only take away from the films true intentions. The Philadelphia Story is nothing more than a fun romantic comedy that shows that love is complicated no matter what era you may be in.
Born and raised in Toronto, long time film lover Courtney Small shares his passion for all things cinema through his daily blog Big Thoughts From A Small Mind. Courtney also contributes two monthly features for the Large Association of Movie Blogs as well.