Op-Ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (#44)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judging whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
I think of The Philadelphia Story (1940) as the perfect example of a star vehicle. It exists to highlight the talents of Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and it is not ashamed of that fact. The plot is flimsy and doesn’t hold up to further scrutiny and the film seems to lose its way whenever the focus isn’t on the antics of the lead actors. Perhaps more troublingly, the story imparts questionable ideas about morality to the audience. However, none of those faults can fully diminish its entertainment value. I don’t think of it as a masterpiece because of its rushed, unsatisfying ending and the nasty streak of misogyny that runs through it, but this is easily one of the best films I have reviewed for this site. I laughed throughout, admired the beauty of the actors and the costumes, and took delight in the electric chemistry between Stewart and Hepburn.
The film concerns Philadelphian socialite and tabloid fixture Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) who has been divorced from her alcoholic ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) for two years and plans to wed the self-made but dispassionate George Kittredge (John Howard). Haven arranges to have disgruntled reporter Mike Connor (James Stewart) and his co-worker Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) cover the wedding under the guise of being his close friends. Lord figures out this deception quickly and chooses to present herself so that the articles covering her will be positive. Her aggression when it comes to her relationships with men proves to be derived from her father Seth (John Halliday) having public affairs that have hurt her mother and brought shame upon the family. She begins falling in love with the goofy Connor, but Imbrie harbors an attraction to him and the passion is clearly still alive between Lord and Haven. She comes to regret some of her past actions and is humbled as the men around her inform her of the pain she has caused and ultimately calls off her wedding to Kittredge and remarries Haven.
Lord is very similar to Hepburn in many ways, so you could argue that Hepburn was essentially playing herself. To some degree, all movie stars are playing themselves or the star persona that they present to the world; but Hepburn took this a step further. She came from a wealthy, upper class background, had a high opinion of herself and held progressive political views. Additionally, she had an infamous habit of getting involved with self destructive men who required a lot of care and understanding. Most of these traits carried over into the roles that she played and Hepburn never denied the fact that her personality was a big part of her acting style. She once said, “I think I’m always the same. I had a very definite personality, and I liked material that showed that personality.” Despite her lack of range, she could be very effective when given a role that was tailored to her specific talents. But all of the little tics that she loved to employ, such as keeping tears in her eyes and shaking her head throughout emotional scenes, could leave you wanting to wring her neck. She could also give herself over to the saccharine elements of a script too often and could be accused of being repetitive in her use of her mannerisms. Luckily, The Philadelphia Story presents her in a different light for several reasons.
This is a feminist film, but Hepburn had to give in to some of the desires of audiences who hated her for being a strong, independent woman. She had already played roles where she was a tough, hoity toity lady who was softened and ever so slightly humiliated by a rough-hewn man who would turn her into a traditional woman. The Philadelphia Story was important in that it ensured this formula would be repeated in many romantic films that she made over the following decades. She is literally pushed to the ground by her soon to be ex-husband at the beginning of the film and we are meant to cheer as she is cut down to size. Never mind the fact that her ex-husband is an alcoholic who may have been equally responsible for the breakdown of their marriage; she is a bad woman for not going along with his desires and turning into the docile wife that he wants.
One scene with her father is just bizarre. Usually films from this era that try to make excuses for men cheating put all the blame on the wives and claim that they weren’t doing enough to satisfy their husbands. The Philadelphia Story doesn’t take this approach as the mother is drawn as a sad, old lady who has no life without her husband. She excitedly takes him back when he deigns to return to her and thinks of her daughter as unreasonable for holding a grudge. We are meant to look positively upon her mother for putting up with her husband’s behavior and give him a pass because “Men will be men.” Lord is just an uppity little girl who doesn’t know her place. Doesn’t she know that children, especially daughters, should be seen but not heard? We are supposed to balk as she acts resentful towards a man who has caused her to feel so much pain.
He proceeds to lecture her about the fact that her behavior led him to have an affair and if she just acted like a doormat, he would give up on all his vices. He looks like he’s walking on air and practically pats his wife on the head as though she is a pet. He eventually tells her “What most wives fail to realize is that their husband’s philandering has nothing whatever to do with them.” The condescension in this statement is horrid and I couldn’t stand that he acts like he deserves to be a moral arbiter when he has done something unconscionable. I understand that people have affairs and often return to their wives and families, but I assume that those people feel guilty for what they have done and profusely apologize to the people who care about them. He acts as though everybody should feel sorry for him and it is their fault for not understanding that men just need to have sex with young dancers every once in a while.
When Lord questions him, he argues that he had the affair in order to feel young again and then makes the confusing claim that having the perfect daughter would help to eliminate his need to sleep with women who are not his wife. He states “The best mainstay a man can have as he gets along in years is a daughter. The right kind of daughter. I think a devoted young girl gives man the illusion that youth is still his. Without her, he might be inclined to go out in search of his youth. But with a girl of his own, full of warmth for him, full of foolish, uncritical, unquestioning affection-“ He is cut off by one of Lord’s protestations, but he has already suggested that it is her fault that he had affairs. He also implies women should never question the behavior of the men in their lives. This is all chilling stuff but we are meant to cheer as Lord gets her comeuppance because the most powerful man in her life is able to reduce her to tears.
Lord is tough enough to question him. But of course, he proceeds to insult her after she rightfully accuses him of being a coward for not taking responsibility for his own mistakes. He labels her a “perennial spinster” and seems to think that it is better to be a philandering asshole or a crying wife who tolerates her husband’s awful behavior than an independent woman who isn’t going to accept his weak excuses. 1940’s films often used some pretty wacky logic to explain why different standards were applied to women and men but The Philadelphia Story takes it to a whole other level.
My other, far less serious, quibble with this film is that the ending comes across as rushed and far too neat. In a perfect world, Lord would have decided not to seriously commit to Connor and he wouldn’t have ended up with the human equivalent of a consolation prize. I know that the final scene is meant to seem spontaneous and radical, but I don’t think that it quite works. We feel far more affection for Lord and Connor as a pairing, while Lord and Haven end up feeling like childhood friends who should not be together because they are far too similar. When Connor and Imbrie get together, it is unbelievable as he hasn’t even shown a glimmer of attraction to her. That makes it difficult to accept the fact that we’re meant to think that they’re made for one another. Luckily, the ending wasn’t totally disastrous and it did not sully the fact that I mostly had a great time for the past two hours.
Now that I have gone through all of the little flaws that I could identify, I can get to all of the good things. I touched on the character of Lord and how Hepburn’s personality was incorporated into the role but I focused on the negative aspects of the decision to do that. The writers were largely responsible for tacking sexist commentary onto the script for this film but Hepburn herself is bringing true star power. She seems to glow in every scene and not merely because she was lit to the heavens. You can see how excited she is to let loose and play a hard-headed intellectual who uses a playful argument with a man as a form of flirtation, as opposed to giggling and playing coy. She’s a real hoot when she’s acting snobby and looking down on the middle class Connor, while being quietly surprised by his quick retorts and ability to match her in wit and perspicacity. She attempts to repress her expressions of shock as he moves from accusing her of being arrogant to telling her that she’s wonderful. She seems to understand the rhythm in which this dialogue needs to be delivered and while her style of speech is certainly heightened, I never felt like Lord was inhuman.
This is one of those films in which Hepburn becomes vulnerable but retains the spark that makes her a self sufficient, nervy Brahmin even as she cries. For once, you can see her fighting against the tears instead of being teary throughout. This felt true to Lord’s nature and the sadness is more wrenching when it shines through because you feel the pain that she has been trying to hide from everybody else. She feels intense pressure to properly represent her family and stop people from mocking her mother, but she also wants to be a free spirit who is not tied down. Her mean put downs are used to distance her from the people around her and she knows that people expect her to act in a certain way.
She lets her guard down around Connor but it is not love at first sight and she sees that he is different from all the other men she has known. Hepburn finds a way to show us that Lord is attracted to Connor without giving him the googly eyes or leaning in for a kiss within five minutes of meeting him. We can intuit that men within her own class have mostly used her to secure their own social position and, like her father, have been irritated by the fact that she has her own opinions and desires. Connor is using her but he is open about it and his transparency is so unexpected that she can’t help but feel some kinship towards him.
Stewart is also a dreamboat, as he plays up some of Connor’s less admirable qualities without ever losing the eccentric spirit that makes him so refreshing. He’s one of the more endearing male leads in the films that I have reviewed so far because he can be ornery and ill tempered. He’s not detestable like Gaston from Gigi (1958), who marries a child prostitute, but he also has far more depth than Oliver from Love Story (1970) and Stewart isn’t just there to be a matinee idol. Don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty sexy, but we don’t have to sit through a gratuitous scene in which the camera leers at his chest or his bared calves. He seems to be having fun as he mocks the cut glass accent of a librarian or loses of all his inhibitions as he gets drunk. He pushes back against Hepburn more than her frequent on screen partner, Spencer Tracy, and this creates more sparks. He doesn’t just play the genial, bumbling fool who is overawed by the forceful, self righteous Hepburn and there is the feeling that Hepburn and Stewart actually raised their game when they understood that they were working with somebody with the potential to blow them off the screen.
The performances and the dialogue are the stars of the show, but George Cukor deserves a lot of credit for the pacing and his ability to hold back on the mush. He and Hepburn were great pals and he was able to tap into both her athletic qualities and her strong willed nature, especially in films that focused on the workplace. Hepburn isn’t as stiff or wooden as she would be under the direction of Jack Conway, and Cukor makes her look ravishing. He also offers us close ups when she’s spitting out a particularly amusing jape but he doesn’t cede the spotlight to her to the detriment of other elements of the film. She’s a diva who works well with others and Cukor revels in the fact that she is wearing the most extravagant costumes and posing like she’s appearing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. He may have been the one who prevented from shamelessly trying to jerk tears out of this bewildered viewer but he doesn’t cut away when Hepburn is coldly regarding Connor. It takes some time for her to defrost and Cukor never gives us some on the nose romantic moment where the sun suddenly rises and everybody is covered in dappled light which represents their newly sunny disposition. He was known for his dominance in the woman’s picture and for proficiency in dealing with legendary stars. I would contend that this is one of the films that has rightly bolstered his reputation over the years.
If it wasn’t clear already, I adored The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn is a goddess, Stewart understands Connor’s purpose in the story, and Cukor masterfully pulls everything together. It doesn’t have the perfect ending that would have been the cherry on top of a delicious ice cream sundae but goodness gracious, Connor and Lord make a bewitching couple. They have a slow moving courtship that is built upon mutual respect and Hepburn and Stewart both work wonders with the rapid fire dialogue. This deserved to be on the list because it is very much a romantic love story and it succeeds on most fronts in telling the story of a boy and girl falling in love with all of the necessary flourishes. Sometimes stars earn their massive pay checks, and this was one of those times.