Film Discussion

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

The Philadelphia Story is without a doubt a polished production, with a spring-in-its-step sense of pacing, coasting along magnificently on pure movie star energy with three of the biggest names in Hollywood doing their thing in front of the camera. But it arrived on screens with many of its key players having a lot to prove and the film having some considerable pressure on its shoulders.

Director George Cukor had just gone through the ignominy of being fired by producer David O. Selznick in the early stages of principal photography of Gone with the Wind, while leading lady Katherine Hepburn was trying desperately to overcome the reputation that she was developing for being ‘box office poison’.

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They say third time is the charm, but for Hepburn and Cary Grant it took until their fourth collaboration for the box office to match the great reviews that greeted their three times previously working together. Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday and Bringing up Baby are now regarded highly, particularly Bringing up Baby, but at the time those movies failed to connect with audiences.

Looking back on it, it is hard to imagine a film that relies on the twin talents and charms of Hepburn and Grant ever failing. They are a wonderfully preppy, classy match and the films reflected that. Of the four films they worked on, three were directed by Cukor, while Bringing up Baby was directed by His Girl Friday’s Howard Hawks.

Another recurring presence in some of these movies was the scriptwriter Donald Ogden Stewart and playwright Philip Barry, whose plays were the basis for both Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, and which were adapted for the screen by Ogden Stewart.

The character of Tracy Samantha Lord was one that was literally tailor-made for Hepburn. The role had been crafted for the original stage play on which it was based for Hepburn herself, and while no doubt exaggerated for much of the film’s witty comedy, her upper-class home life, family and estate were of a similar nature to that of Hepburn’s life itself.

Even the character of Tracy, her sense of style, posture, and penchant for wearing more masculine clothing, something that Hepburn pulled off magnificently, had all the hallmarks of Hepburn’s life behind the camera. Watching the scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, where the film producer and aviation pioneer is on a date with Hepburn, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett, to her family home almost feels like less silly versions of scenes that the real Hepburn enacted as Tracy.

Although less screwball than the actress’ previous collaborations with Grant, it’s no less funny, and the addition of James Stewart to proceedings was something that would help The Philadelphia Story ensure a long shelf life as something of an American romantic comedy classic.

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Given that they would become Alfred Hitchcock’s leading men of choice in so many of the thrillers that the ‘Master of Suspense’ brought to the screen, it’s strange to think that this is the only time the definitive leading men of their generation ever shared scenes.

Grant’s debonair nature and Stewart’s likeable ‘aw shucks’ personality were polar-opposites to each other, but they were on-screen personas that they perfected and could subvert magnificently, especially when working with Hitchcock. Along with Hepburn’s classy intelligence, the three made for one hell of a trio on-screen, with each of their famed screen personas creating a wonderful sense of chemistry-driven comedy that is a joy to watch.

There is an element to the film that recalls a well-rehearsed comedic stage play, which is no surprise given its theatrical origins, but Cukor’s direction and staging gives the film a cinematic charge, not least in one of the film’s best scenes, where Stewart’s character Macauley Connor is serenading Tracy with his well-chosen words and it then cuts to the most luminous close up of Hepburn.

Love triangles and questions over who will end up with whom would become frequent cornerstones of many a romantic film and The Philadelphia Story revels in an escalating comedy that asks the audience and the characters whether Hepburn’s character will find love with either Macauley, the wonderfully monikered C.K Dexter Haven (a name that could only have come from a golden-era Hollywood comedy) played by Grant, or the man she is meant to be marrying during the course of the film, George (John Howard).

Class divide hovers over proceedings given that Stewart’s character is an interloping reporter who is a rung down on the class ladder, and who is covering the marriage against his wishes as part of a subplot involving blackmail perpetrated by his editor against Haven. Haven himself and George are squarely from Tracy’s upper-class world, although the film never stops to explore those ideas in a manner that a film of today would.

It’s having way too much fun with the romantic interludes, the wordplay of the characters and Stewart comedically and entertainingly playing scenes drunk. While questions of class structure are important, the frothy nature of The Philadelphia Story means that we’re not demanding it to explore those ideas beyond the laughs to be had at seeing this cast doing their thing so well and asking who will end up with who in the film’s entertainingly comedic soap-operatic dynamics.

In fact, the most subtle and poignant plotline going on in the film is on the periphery of the main action. Macauley is accompanied on his assignment with his photographer partner Liz, played by Ruth Hussey. As Tracy, Dexter, and Macauley get into all manner of comedic scrapes, and their eventual romantic destiny becomes the focus of the action, it’s Liz’s feelings for Macauley that forms a small emotional backbone to the rest of the film, as Macauley falls more and more for Tracy, and Liz finds herself squeezed out of any potential future life with him because she has opted to wait for him to come to his senses and see her for who she is.

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Of course, she is a talented photographer and probably deserves more than some guy who falls in love with a rich heiress while being drunk on the weekend of her wedding, but like Hepburn’s wonderful close up earlier in the film looking as lovely as any movie star of the decade, it’s Ruth Hussey’s face lined with tears as Mike proposes marriage so as to not make Tracy look foolish in front of a congregation as her engagement collapses before walking down the aisle, that hits you with a dollop of emotion that the film has quietly been building too.

In the end, its Dexter who ends up marrying Tracy, and how could characters who have been performed by Hepburn and Grant end up with anyone but each other. The freeze-frame ending manages to both be a funny joke with which to end the film on, as well as the closest it can come to a fairy tale conclusion.

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