“The Philadelphia Story” Lacks Cheesy Steak Sandwiches

The Philadelphia Story Starring Cary Grant and James Stewart

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.

The Philadelphia Story Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant

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.

Interested in reading about more Cary Grant movies? Check out our article about the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock movie Suspicion starring Cary Grant

  • Stephen Reginald

    Excellent post. I agree with the notion that you should view older films in their proper context; it isn’t fair to judge them with a 21rst-century mindset.

    http://classicmovieman.blogspot.com/

  • ken marecek

    the Philadelphia story. just not a good movie period.

  • Richard Scheuer

    One of the best Cary Grant movies made. He is the best Hollywood every produced.

  • Jim

    It was an okay movie, but the remake, High Society, with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong was to die for. And Cole Porter’s compositions remain memorable. Add in VistaVision, Technicolor, and an almost High Fidelity, three channel soundtrack and you have quite a movie! Still waiting for it to come out in Blu-ray.

  • Rick Hirsch

    One of the all time great romantic comedies in the same vane as “It Happened one Night”. An incredible cast, great comedy, and a sparkling script. 5 stars!

  • N8

    One of the Best movies. Obviously, anyone with sensing acting can see this was the best one over the remakes. Frank Sinatra and Bing are not actors at all! AFI puts this movie as one of the best as well. This movie needs to be watched at least three times to catch some of the lines you missed the time before. Very intelligent, brilliantly acted. Three oft he best actors from AFI as well. It can’t be done better, ever. Who is better than Grant, Jimmy and Hepburn? No one, not possible.

  • Kevin Lewis

    Dexter was not seeking revenge and did not interfere with the remarriage of his former wife. He remained close to the Lord family and was bargaining with Spy Magazine. Spy would not publish an expose on Seth Lord’s affair with a dancer if a story on the wedding was arranged.

  • Neil Blount

    I’m just not a Hepburn fan, she reminds me of an old maid school teacher.

  • Jim

    TO N8:

    If Bing was not ALSO an actor, how do you account for his two academy awards and nomination for a third (The Country Girl)?
    Frank Sinatra also won one and may have been nominated for another (not that familiar with his acting career).

  • James Sedares

    I love both The Philadelphia Story and its remake High Society. The plots are the same, but they are entirely different movies. Kate Hepburn is a Hollywood icon for a reason, but I can definitely see why Grace Kelly is fought over by three men.

  • Sadie

    The Philadelphia Story is a wonderful movie. Hepburn was lovely and all three leading roles were played to perfection. One of my all time favorites.

  • George Matusek

    For me, the two best performances come from James Stewart and Ruth Hussey. Stewart, however, was forced to utter some mawkish gibberish about semi-divine illumination emanating from Tracy Lord’s fingertips — part of the film’s merchandising plan to restore K. Hepburn’s status as a bankable star rather than “boxoffice poison.”

  • Kathy Jensen

    This Courtny Small doesn’t know WHAT he is talking about! C.K. Dexter Haven is black-maiked by his boss, the owner of a “rag” newspaper. He agrees to smuggle in the reporter and photographer to Tracey’s wedding, in exchange for a promise from the “rag” owner that he will not print a scandlous article about Tracey’s father.
    This guy should pay more attention while watching movies if he is going to make public comments!

  • Geri

    Remember the remake? “High Society” Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

  • Geri

    My favorite Cary Grant was “Arsenic and Old Lace”

  • Geri

    Favorite line. Bing Crosby and Ol’ Blue Eyes in High Society.
    Mike (Frank): Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum.
    Dexter (Bing): You must be one of the newer fellows.

  • Geri

    Final comment. Allegedly, Fred Astaire was told after his first audition that he couldn’t sing, couldn’t act and could dance a little. Amazing how his movies got so popular.
    Astaire later insisted that the report had actually read: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances”. Got this one from Wiki, although had heard about the other one. Up to the people to decide.

  • L Hill

    Fabulous movie – can watch it over and over – one correction – C.K. Dexter Haven takes Maccaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie to the wedding as guests of the never seen brother in exchange that the magazine does not print a story about Tracey Lords’ father and his supposed girl friend.

  • Brian Greene

    Thanks for a wonderful, timeless movie like “TPS”! :-)

  • Wild Bill

    Mr. Small seems to view this movie not from a modern perspective but from a very personal one. Besides the errors pointed out by other commentators (the blackmail of Grant’s character, the wrecking of the engagement, etc.), he has looked at the dialogue from a skewed stance. There is no evidence that Haven abused Traci Lord while there were married. In fact, alcohol was the basis of their separation, as was indicated in the conversation at the pool. Haven was not perfect, he drank, and Traci Lord, at the time, was not forgiving of his improprieties. It is the basis for her later comeuppance, her perfectionism. But sobriety also brought Haven a certain wisdom. His powers of observation have become exceedingly acute. As a result, he does not have to wreck the wedding, just be there to catch and support Hepburn when the flame out happens.

    This is a great movie and a great comedy. It is on the AFI’s list of 100 Best, as is another Hepburn/Grant film, “Bringing Up Baby”. But “TPS” is subtler than “Baby”, which is a madcap comedy. “TPS” builds the story and characters then lets events occur naturally as they often will people are involved. It is a human movie and one that does not need to be looked at with “modern” eyes as it deftly describes the human condition, albeit with rich and famous, who should always be dealt with “with a little patience”. It should be enjoyed and savored as is. Any critique Mr. Small makes would be better done objectively and with a more thorough understanding of the film.

  • JUanita Curtis

    The Philadelphia Story is a timeless classic. The urbane Cary Grant and the witty Katherine Hepburn were a match in heaven. James Stewart was never better as a romantic leading man.

  • Dawn

    Thank you to those who clarified the point about revenge vs. blackmail – I was just about to do that myself. Accuracy is lacking in a couple of other areas as well, but that was the most obvious and offensive of them. This great movie – and those wonderful ol’ pros in it – deserve better.

  • Dawn

    P.S. – btw, Wild Bill, love your assessment ;)

  • Ben Ricci

    I agree with Courtney Small and Stephen Reginald’s comment. You cannot watch older movies with the mindset of today. I read some negatives from others, but again, they missed the point. The film was very entertaining; the acting was superb, and the screen chemistry between Grant and Hepburn was a rare combustion.

  • J Nicholas

    I whole heartedly agree with this as I am constantly telling people that you must watch classic movies and read classic stories with their own time frame in mind. The greats were written in different times when attitudes to things we regard as PC were very different. Mind you I feel that some people take the whole Politically Correct thing to the extreme and really need to GET A LIFE!

  • Gwenda

    The really interesting point about Hepburn and box office poison is that she appeared in TPS on stage and then acquired the film rights so when Hollywood wanted to produce it they had to use her or couldn’t make the film.

  • Jeff C

    I second what Gwenda said. Not only did kate Hepburn appear in the Broadway stage production but Philip Barry had written the play with her in mind. I’m sure Hollywood would rather have used anyone else in the part but their hands were tied with Hepburn owning the film rights. The fact that the film went on to be a huge success despite the so called poison of Hepburn says more about Hollywood casting than it does about Hepburn although I always wondered how “Bringing Up Baby” could have been rejected by the public. It is one of the great screwball comedies ever made and both Hepburn and Grant are terrific, and the supporting cast too.
    “High Society” on the other hand had some good music in it and Grace Kelly is beautiful and well cast but in my opinion it is decidedly inferior to the original as are most remakes. I think the only justification for remaking it was to do it as a musical and as such they did a good job, but I’ll still take TPS.

  • Christopher Anne Samson

    Wild Bill is right: the issue that resulted in the demise of the marriage was primarily Dexter’s drinking and not physical abuse. To me the reason for Dexter’s quip about wanting to be a writer was that he had so often had to suppress the urge to hit Tracy, not because he had hit her. It is telling that in the opening you see Tracy throws out both Dexter and his golf clubs. When an imperious Tracy deliberately breaks one of his clubs you see an exasperated Dexter struggling to control himself. Finally, with open hand, he simply pushes a very surprised Tracy back into the house and leaves.

    Does the push recall the truly violent image of Cagney grinding the grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke in Public Enemy? In both cases the women are first being abusive of the men, and pushing hard. (Please understand me — this does NOT excuse an escalation to physical violence.) Interestingly, in both cases the women are shown as genuinely surprised by the actions against them.

    While Tracy threw Dexter out, Tracy has her own problems which come out clearly through the course of the story. What you see in her character is now recognized as common behavior patterns for both adult children of alcoholics and girls whose fathers are unfaithful to their mothers. This is a surprisingly modern theme, presented with a deft touch instead of a sledge hammer. Living with Tracy before she came to terms with herself would have been no bed of roses, unless they were of the thorny variety. Not for Tracy, not for anyone around her. Consider the scene where Tracy’s sharp little sister cuts through Tracy’s carefully crafted illusion of cool perfection.

    At heart this movie is not an escapist romance, it is a grown-up romance. Dexter loves Tracy even knowing her flaws. Having, off screen, dealt with some of his own demons he is now ready to be her partner. Tracy has stopped trying to chase the impossibility of a controlled life. You leave with the hopeful feeling that, although their lives will not be untroubled in the future, they will face it together.

    And, yes, I do love the duet ‘Have you heard?’ from High Society. Cole Porter sung by Bing and Sinatra – smoother than twenty year old scotch.

  • frank

    I had to learn to love Hepburn’s work simply because she was not my idea of a sexual fantasy.
    Once I accepted that, she was in a class of her own.