Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Philadelphia Story and Features of Romantic Comedy

The Philadelphia Story, A Romantic Comedy from the Golden Age
The Philadelphia Story
Original Scene Card

Oh, we're going to talk about me again, are we? Goody.  -- Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn)

Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, the daughter of a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in the 1940 film. She's about to embark on a second marriage, this time to George Kittredge (John Howard). 

C.K. Dexter-Haven (Cary Grant), Tracy's ex-husband, unexpectedly shows up at the Lords' home on the eve of Tracy's wedding. He's accompanied by Spy magazine reporters, Macaulay 'Mike' Connor and Elizabeth 'Liz' Imbrie (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) assigned to cover the event. 

An MGM film, it was directed by George Cukor and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It was the only time Stewart would work with Hepburn or Grant.

Joseph Mankiewicz didn't receive writing credit, but he virtually created the character played by Cary Grant out of two more minor male characters in the play (the ex-husband and a brother). He had to negotiate this idea, via Louis B. Mayer. Howard Hughes' approval had to be gained before production could begin. This article contains spoilers. 

Tracy: You're a kind of, um, writer, aren't you, Mr. Connor?
Mike: Sort of.
Tracy: A book?
Mike: Yes .....

Tracy: Dear Papa and Mama aren't letting any reporters in except for little Mr. Grace who does the social news. Can you imagine a grown up man having to sink so low.

The Philadelphia Story is one of the best of the golden age of the romantic comedies, the 1930s and 1940s. True to the Production Code and to romantic comedies in general, the film espouses that there is one true love for us, we can and should be together. 

Philip Barry created Tracy Lord with Hepburn in mind, honed while the play was in the theatre. The character is thought to have been inspired by heiress, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott and her family estate, Ardrossan on Philadelphia's Main Line.

Linda Seton, Hepburn's character in Holiday, was thought to have been inspired by Gertrude Sanford Legendre, a 1920's socialite and big-game hunter who went on to work during World War II for the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. 

Hepburn played Tracy Lord in the Philip Barry play on Broadway in 1939-1940
Pictured here with Shirley Booth, Van Heflin, Joseph Cotten, Vera Allen, Nicholas Joy
Playbill for the Sam S. Shubert Theatre: The Philadelphia Story 1939
Many romantic comedies start where at least one party is not interested in starting a relationship at all. He or she may be opposed to the idea of a relationship with that particular person. Romantic comedies changed as society changed, but the general formula tends to stay the same.

Film scholars and critics don't always agree where one genre starts and ends, what movies belong in what category. A Variety review of the day said that audiences would leave the theater with laughter on their lips and a tear in their eye.  

The Philadelphia Story features the ingredients that make a great romantic
comedy and a favorite of so many.

There is a good dose of the battle of the sexes.

C. K. Dexter Haven: I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives.
You know one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.

Tracy Lord: You haven't switched from liquor to dope by any chance, have you Dexter? 

George Kittredge: A man expects his wife to...
Tracy Lord:
Behave herself. Naturally.
C. K. Dexter Haven: To behave herself naturally. (George gives him a look) Sorry.

Tracy Lord: Dexter, would you mind doing something for me?
C. K. Dexter Haven: Anything. What?
Tracy Lord: Get the heck out of here.

Tracy Lord: You're too good for me, George. You're a hundred times too good. And I'd make you most unhappy, most. That is, I'd do my best to.


The movie includes some qualities of a popular subgenre, the screwball comedy. The Production Code limited much of what could be said and shown 1934- the 1950s. Movie-makers had to be creative to find new and innovative ways of communicating to the audience. 

Cavell says that Riches "are yet another means by which desire is heightened." Luxury is "essentially an expression of eroticism." Though it may seem slightly bewildering that such movies were popular during the Depression, luxury and its trimmings, the gorgeous flowing clothes and jewels, the mansions, lush and beautiful to look at can hold other meanings. 

Mike originally calls Tracy "just another rich, rapacious American female." Then he meets the beautiful Tracy Lord, lives in her home for a while and drunk on champagne, his views are different. He's now ready to forget Liz because he's hopelessly in love with Tracy.

Mike: When a girl is like Tracy, she's one in a million. She's, she's sort of like a, she's sort of like a...
Dexter: A goddess?
Mike: No, no. No, you said that word this afternoon. No. No, she's, she's sort of like a queen. A radiant glorious queen. And you can't treat her like other women.
Dexter: No, I suppose not. But then I imagine Kittredge appreciates all that.
Mike: Kittredge! Kittredge appreciates Kittredge. Ah, that fake man of the people. He isn't even smart.

Suggestive, clever, faster-paced language play can be found in the true screwball comedy.

Dexter: I suppose you'd still be attractive to any man of spirit, though. There's something engaging about it, this goddess business. There's something more challenging to the male than the, uh, more obvious charms.
Tracy: Really?
Dexter: Really. We're very vain, you know - 'This citadel can and shall be taken and I'm the boy to do it.'

Dexter: You look beautiful, Red. Come on in.
Tracy: Why? (She opens her eyes)
Dexter: No particular reason. A drink, maybe?
Tracy: I don't drink.
Dexter: That's right, I forgot.
Tracy: I haven't.

Censors dictated that Hepburn keep her eyes open while being kissed by Cary Grant,
even though the characters were now remarried.
This still photo was shown at the end of the movie.

Another feature often seen in the screwball comedy is poking fun at the rich:  the economic classes. Social satire has been a subject of some of the best comedy we've ever seen. Tracy's suitors in this film come from three classes. Who will she choose?

Mike: The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.

Mike: You've got all the arrogance of your class, haven't you?
Tracy Lord: What have classes to do with it? What do they matter except for the people in them? George comes from the so-called lower class, Dexter, the upper. Well?

Tracy Lord: Mac the night watchman is a prince among men, Uncle Willie is a... pincher. Upper and lower my eye. I'll take the lower, thanks.

If you can't get a drawing room.
Tracy Lord: What does that mean?

My mistake.
Tracy Lord: Decidedly. You're insulting!

In 1985, when Cary Grant presented James Stewart with his Honorary Oscar, he specifically mentioned their filming The Philadelphia Story. 

In 1941, Jimmy Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Philadelphia Story. The film was nominated for six Oscars and won two. The other win was Best Adapted Screenplay for Donald Ogden Stewart.

Screwball comedies tend to have an outwardly scatterbrained female character who is really in charge of the situation, particularly in getting her man. [Popular examples I see include Susan Vance in Bringing up Baby, another Hepburn/Grant film or even Gracie Allen of Burns and Allen.] 

The only thing anywhere close to that in this movie is Elizabeth Imbrie and her relationship with Mike Connor.

Liz: Home after a hard day's blackmailing.... Mike's only chance to ever become a really fine writer is to get fired. (Dexter wonders if Liz wants to marry Mike.) She responds, "He's still got a lot to learn. I don't want to get in his way for a while."
Dexter: Suppose another girl came along in the meantime?
Liz: I'd scratch her eyes out, I guess, that is, unless she was going to marry somebody else the next day. 

The primary actors got together to create a radio version of the film for The Screen Guild Players.

The Philadelphia Story is also a remarriage story or comedy of remarriage, a term coined by philosopher, Stanley Cavell. This often refers to a set of films made during the Hays Code, the 1930s and 1940s. Divorced or divorcing characters could flirt with others then get back together. Cary Grant has been called the King of the remarriage comedies. Sometimes negotiations had to be done scene by scene, word by word to get a film approved. 

In 1946 it was reported that Grant was trying to buy Isabel Dawn's story Slightly Divorced, "a yarn about a divorced couple who have to live in the same house because of the shortage." Dawn was a Broadway actor and playwright.

C. K. Dexter Haven: Sometimes, for your own sake, Red, I think you should've stuck to me longer.
Tracy Lord: I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.
C. K. Dexter Haven: Oh, that's the old redhead. No bitterness, no recrimination, just a good swift left to the jaw.

Dexter: You might say Tracy and I grew up together.
Liz: You might also say you're C.K. Dexter Haven and you were Tracy Lord's first husband.

Dexter: Yes, you might.
Note: In the play, Tracy also says that they Grew up together, which is a pretty good way to sum up the two characters' transformation during the story.

Tracy: Two years ago, you were invited to a wedding in this house and then I did you out of it by eloping to Maryland...which was very bad manners... But I hope to make it up to you by going beautifully through with it now as originally and most beautifully planned.

After Dexter proposes...
Tracy Lord: Oh Dexter you're not doing it just to soften the blow?
C. K. Dexter Haven: No.
Tracy Lord: Nor to save my face?
C. K. Dexter Haven: Oh, it's a nice little face.
Tracy Lord: Oh Dexter, I'll be yare now, I promise to be yare.
C. K. Dexter Haven: Be whatever you like, you're my redhead.

"She was yar" or "She was yare." You now see both spellings.

Popular remarriage comedies include The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, My Favorite Wife, The Lady Eve, That Uncertain Feeling, Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib and The Palm Beach Story

Cavell himself mentions inspiration in the structures of Shakespeare plays such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. With plots, is there much that's especially new out there besides how things are termed, grouped and categorized?

Film festivals have been built around this theme including 1950s & 1960s films such as Two for the Road or Phffft! with Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon. 

There's been something of a baby boomer resurgence nowadays, with scholars' suggesting the movies belong to a Triangle or Triad subgenre. Look at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and That Old Feeling. Meryl Streep may be the present-day queen with Mamma Mia, Hope Springs and It's Complicated.

While it is a comedy of remarriage, the marriage of Tracy's parents doesn't fare as well. Her father (Seth Lord/John Halliday) is having an affair. Their situation is presented as straightforward and realistically as the story, the time and the censors would allow. He refuses to take responsibility for his choices. He has some insight but no apparent plan to change as Tracy and Dexter have changed. 

Seth Lord: What most wives fail to realize is that their husband's philandering has nothing whatever to do with them.
Tracy Lord: Oh? Then what has it to do with?
Seth Lord: A reluctance to go grow old, I think.

No longer 'box office poison,' The Philadelphia Story
was one the top grossing films of 1941

This is the kind of film that stands up well to re-watching, if you watch it multiple times, you get more out of it. Keeping in mind the time it was made, the audiences for whom it was made makes it all the more enjoyable. This was Hepburn's break-out role, back from having been called box-office poison. 

The Philadelphia Story was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1995. 

In his Ten Commandments for Studio Readers used 'to facilitate story selection,' Irving Thalberg [MGM producer] noted "Read at least two newspapers daily. Photoplays sell best which are based on timely topics." The Philadelphia Story was written in the late 1930s.

"Sometimes what has become objectionable behavior can date a film as much as its characters' clothes. Dexter pushes Tracy to the ground, and a modern audience thinks domestic abuse. Connor lights one cigarette after another and we think lung cancer. ... 

"Eventually someone will be watching us. Irving Thalberg once predicted, 'The movies will be the best record of how we once lived.'" 
--  The ABCs of Classic Hollywood by Robert Beverley Ray studies a group of classic films, including Philadelphia Story. Such is part of the value of The National Film Registry. 

"In the opening scene Tracy Lord is throwing her husband, CK Dexter Haven out of the house golf clubs and all. When she breaks one of the clubs over her bended knee she has gone too far. He comes back to push her in the face knocking her right on her backside.

"'Oh, I loved it,' Kate said. 'Just what Tracy -- and I -- needed.' The last time moviegoers had seen her Katharine Hepburn was running off with Cary Grant at the end of Holiday. So she thought this scene would be as much fun for her fans as for those who didn't like her.  'Although I must tell you', she said, 'I truly believed that everybody still adored me, that it was nothing but bad material that made me box-office poison.

"'In some ways, Kate said, 'The opening of this  picture showed that running off with me could be fun and exciting, but that living with me was clearly no holiday. Life imitating art!' she said, laughing hard."
-- Kate Remembered by A. Scott Berg

This movie is often mistaken, because of the title alone, for the 1993 Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington film, Philadelphia.

Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City's Movies (2006) by Irv Slifkin includes many movies that are set in Philadelphia.

Sources not mentioned above:
Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship (The Cultural Lives of Law)

Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage  by Stanley Cavell

Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Critical Essays with an Annotated Bibliography and... By Cheryl Bray Lower, R. Barton Palmer

Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre by Tamar Jeffers McDonald 

Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring [Discussions include "The seemingly paradoxical importance of tears to this form of  comedy," and "the romantic comedy's habitual association with female audience members."]

The Philadelphia Reader edited by Robert Huber, Benjamin Wallace

Someone just told me about the (fictional) book Dating Cary Grant. Old movie fans will recognize the character names, several are from Philadelphia Story. It sounds like a cute story.

Take a look at  MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

Related Links of Interest:

Was Katharine Hepburn Box Office Poison? Or Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Holiday

Bringing Up Cary Grant and the Oscars

My Favorite Wife Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Santa Claus shows up early and the 1962 remake that never was, Something's Got to Give with Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse

A Trophy for James Stewart, Mr Stewart Goes to the Oscars 

15 Songs for Remarrying your first spouse Remarriage to a former spouse

Films inducted into The National Film Registry; what will you nominate?

This is my Contribution to the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Lara at backlots and Vince at Carole & Co.

some images from Wikimedia Commons 


  1. May I throw another genre into the mix? I've always considered "The Philadelphia Story" a comedy-of-manners. Perhaps due to the feeling of being on the outside looking in on the lives of the rich.

    For all the many ways the film is categorized by critics and its fans, you could not be more right about the re-watchability of the script and performances. It always entertains.

    1. Yes, that's a good one. They said from the start that the film was popular for having so many elements both onscreen and behind the scenes. Interesting to read everyone's take on it and yet most people just love it. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hands-down my favourite Katharine Hepburn role - although perhaps that's because it reversed her 'box office poison' position. The Philadelphia Story is so eloquent, sharp and witty - in part I think because the roles came from the stage production I love all the quotes you included, it was a great reminder about why I love it so much.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Interesting how it's similar and different from the play and how the play came about. So many layers to the story. It's a great study for people in the arts, writers, actors, etc. Maybe someone will write a book or make a film of the story of how the movie came to be?

  3. Two things I love most about this film are the witty lines and everyone's wardrobe. Such a gorgeous-looking movie.

  4. I love your breakdown of the rom com criteria. Great way to look at the picture. I hadn't seen that picture of the entire cast of the broadway play. So neat! I also like the review of the trailer! I hope you'll check out my post about WITHOUT LOVE (1945) with Hepburn and Tracy.

  5. Lasting and rewards multiple viewings, and for many people is one of the first classic movies they see or remember vividly. Just seems to represent the best of old Hollywood and the genre, just as that quote by Thalberg predicted. Great reading, thanks

  6. What an interesting review--I like knowing in particular who the roles were originally based on--and how wonderful to get reminders of all of that glorious dialogue. Thank you. I like watching this film because of Hepburn's and Stewart's performances and the great script, but I always feel uneasy about the way she's being lectured by the men around her, as if there could never be a reason a woman would be justified in kicking a man out. I can ignore this when it's handled lightly in a film, but it gets a pretty heavy handed treatment here. I guess I just never bought that Dexter was willing to change as much as she was--but maybe I should give it another chance. Leah

  7. I love this film. Too bad the trio didn't work together again, they were great. I don't understand why Kate needed to keep her eyes open while kissing Cary. She couldn't have pleasure in kissing because it was her ex?
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)


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