Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
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The Philadelphia Story (1940) is an intelligent, sophisticated, classic romantic comedy-farce (part screwball) of love and marriage, human growth and class distinctions. Its screenplay is a witty, sparkling, and bright adaptation of Philip Barry's Broadway hit play. (The play opened in late March 1939 and ran for a full year with more than 400 performances and a nationwide tour). [Barry's inspiration for the lead female character was derived from real-life Philadelphian WASP heiress Hope Montgomery Scott (1905-1995).] Barry, who is uncredited as the screenwriter in the film, wrote the part specifically for the talents of Katharine Hepburn who played the hit role in the theatre. [Note: Hepburn's suggested title for the play was The Answer to This Malden's Prayer.]

After several commercial failures and labeled "box office poison" in 1938 by Photoplay Magazine, Hepburn struck out on her own by bringing the property to MGM after buying the film rights to the play. With producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (for MGM), she was able to handpick the cast's co-stars (James Stewart and Cary Grant), screenwriter (Donald Ogden Stewart, who later won the Academy Award), and director (George Cukor). Cukor had already made four films with Hepburn:

  • A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Hepburn's first film
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Sylvia Scarlett (1936)
  • Holiday (1938)

Hepburn's astute strategy revived her failing popularity and film career in the role of an arrogant heiress (the public's perception of her at the time) who is humbled, and the film became a major box-office success. Promotional posters advertised the 'battle of the sexes' film as: "Broadway's Howling Year-Long Comedy Hit of the Snooty Society Beauty Who Slipped and Fell - IN LOVE."

[Note: MGM's High Society (1956) was a softer musical re-make of the film (with a Cole Porter musical score), a much inferior product starring Bing Crosby as Dexter, Frank Sinatra as Mike, and Grace Kelly in her last film as Tracy.]

The film earned six major Academy Award nominations including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jimmy Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor (his sole career Best Actor Oscar) for his role as Macauley Connor - a tabloid reporter for 'Spy' Magazine. [Note: It was thought to be a consolation prize for his loss a year earlier for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Stewart's win deprived Henry Fonda a much-deserved Best Actor Award for his work in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).] Hepburn lost the Best Actress Award to Ginger Rogers for her work in Kitty Foyle.

Typical of screwball comedies with an irreverent style and tone, the film emphasizes how the rich upper class have become blinded to the simple joys of life, during a time of upheaval and messy romances surrounding an impending marriage. The theme of the film was expressed by witty journalist James Stewart's sarcastic comment about the caustic allure of the rich: "The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges." The main romantic leads in the film, Hepburn and Grant, who had been successfully paired together in three previous films, Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1936) and Holiday (1938), and in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938), are pitted against each other and court each other in unlikely and tense situations. Film audiences expected to see the two brought together and reconciled - eventually - in the resolution of the conflict.

The setting of the film is among the privileged upper class society in Philadelphia. Hepburn's character, a self-willed young aristocratic heiress (nicknamed 'Red' by her ex-husband), is on the verge of a second marriage. The Philadelphia socialite has divorced her dashing, colorful, pompous, playboyish husband (Cary Grant) and become involved with a chilly, solitary, self-made and dull business tycoon/millionaire (John Howard). The plot thickens and becomes complicated when her irresponsible ex-husband appears on the eve of the wedding, with intentions to keep her shielded from an overly-ambitious, cynical tabloid newshound (James Stewart) - a second male principal who is also vying for Hepburn's love on the day (and night) leading up to the ceremony. By film's end, she is rescued and persuaded to return to her playful and chastened husband. [Note: Ironically, Grant's other film in this same year, His Girl Friday (1940), had a similar plot about him trying to win back his ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from her very soon-to-be-wed fiancee.]

Plot Synopsis


The famous comedic opening scene - or prologue - is a marvelous, expressive one that plays without dialogue at all. It immediately cues the audience into the personalities, interactions, and relationships of the main characters.

C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), with an angry expression on his face, slams the front door of a super-wealthy estate and carries his suitcases to a car parked in front. A moment later, his future ex-wife, a wealthy and spoiled but high-spirited socialite, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) with the petname of "Red", dressed in her nightgown, follows him out the door - she holds his bag of golf clubs and a wooden pipe holder. She smashes the holder to the ground, and then with a cold, imperious look removes one of the clubs from the bag and throws the entire bag at him. Then while he watches, she gives him a contemptuous and haughty smile and adds insult to injury. She deliberately breaks the club over her knee and tosses the two pieces at him, and then marches back toward the front door. He is infuriated and enraged - with an accompanying snare drum beat, he follows her back to the house and cocks his fist to hit her, but then hesitates - he cannot quite bring himself to strike her. Instead, in a classic image, he palms her face and pushes her down to the floor (out of the frame) through the doorway.


The Philadelphia Chronicle reports wedding news of Tracy's marriage to a second husband:

SOCIAL WORLD AWAITS WEDDING SATURDAY. Philadelphia society looks forward to the wedding Saturday of Mrs. Tracy Lord Haven, former wife of C. K. Dexter Haven, and Mr. George Kittredge. The Ceremony will take place at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Seth Lord, the bride's parents.

Tracy's matronly and formal mother Margaret Lord (Mary Nash) is involved with the preparations in progress a little over twenty four hours before the big-scale wedding and reception. Tracy is revealed to be the slightly snobby, arrogant and spoiled heiress daughter of extremely-wealthy parents. She is stretched out on the sofa, having trouble spelling the word omelet as she writes down identifications for still-more gift packages that must be acknowledged. Her mother prompts: "O - m - m - e - l - e - t," but Tracy admits: "I thought there was another 'l'." Tracy's younger, twinkly-eyed, teenage sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) holds up a glittering gift in front of herself and becomes judgmental, offending her mother greatly:

Dinah: This stinks.
Margaret: Don't say 'stinks,' darling. If absolutely necessary, 'smells' - but only if absolutely necessary.

Her father Seth Lord's (John Halliday) chronic, indiscreet womanizing broke up her own parent's marriage "with his interest in the arts." In fact, Seth Lord's interests included "the art of putting up a hundred thousand dollars to display the shapely legs..." She is cut off by her mother who doesn't want to speak about the embarrassing affair in front of Dinah. Tracy and Margaret both agree that their first choice of husbands was unfortunate:

Tracy: If you just face the facts squarely as I did.
Margaret: We both might face the fact that neither of us have proved to be a very great success as a wife.
Tracy: We just picked the wrong first husbands, that's all.

To keep her "self-respect," Tracy divorced her first husband because he was irresponsible and drank excessively: "Let's forget about the past. We both deserve some happiness now." Tracy feels lucky to be re-marrying an up-and-coming, self-made millionaire/executive named George Kittredge: "Isn't George an angel?...Is he handsome or is he not?" But loyal Dinah still prefers C. K. over stuff-shirted George:

Dinah: I like Dexter.
Tracy: Really. Why don't you postpone the wedding?
Dinah: How?
Tracy: Get smallpox.
Margaret: Now don't put the idea in her head.

Dinah persists, thinking that Tracy directs too much hostility toward Dexter:

Dinah: She's so mean about Dexter.
Margaret: He was rather mean to her, my dear.
Dinah: Did he really sock her?
Margaret: Please, Dinah.
Dinah: Did he really?
Margaret: Darling. You go out and wait in the car.
Dinah: The papers were full of 'innundo.'
Margaret: Of what?
Dinah: Of 'innundo.' 'Cruelty and drunkenness,' it said.

Dinah also thinks that Tracy is pretty mean for not inviting her own father to the wedding: "She's sort of, well you know, hard, isn't she?" Dinah's mother corrects her thinking about Tracy's inflexibility:

Margaret: Certainly not. Tracy sets exceptionally high standards for herself, that's all. And other people aren't always quite apt to live up to them.
Dinah: But don't you think it's stinking not at least to want father?
Margaret: Yes, darling. Between ourselves, I think it's good and stinking.

In the next scene, a black limousine drives into the stable area of the Lord estate carrying Dinah and Tracy in the back seat. Tracy opens a concealed compartment in the back of the limousine - a close-up shot reveals that it holds a collection of perfume bottles - she removes a bottle of "Complete Surrender" that she calls "Uncle Willie's favorite." She pours the entire bottle into her handkerchief and then sneaks up on her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) who is engrossed in devotedly reading the latest edition of the insalubrious SPY Magazine. The irresistible perfume smell, wafting from the handkerchief that she waves behind him, attracts his attention. Dinah immensely enjoys the publication: "I love it. It's got pictures of everything."

Tracy's stand-offish, stuffy but stolid fiancee, George Kittredge (John Howard) appears in the background of the threesome and then approaches with a self-important air - he is wearing neat, brand-new and "awful"-looking riding clothes. She harshly reprimands him: "You look like something right out of a shop window." To dirty him up a bit, she playfully knocks him down onto the ground. After picking himself up, he hurriedly flips through the magazine's pages for gossipy news of their marriage: "Well I thought maybe you, you being one of the oldest families in Philadelphia and me getting fairly important myself, it's luck of course..." But Tracy is appalled by a scandal, tabloid sheet that would report on a couple's private affairs - she tosses the paper into the dirt: "Of all the filthy ideas - coming into a private house with a camera."

The next scene introduces employees in the New York editorial offices of Dime and Spy Incorporated (publishers of Spy Magazine) [is this a disguised Time and Life Inc.?], headed by self-confident editor and publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell). Serious writer/reporter Macauley "Mike" Connor (James Stewart), and photographer Elizabeth "Liz" Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) talk together as they walk through two sets of doors on the way to Kidd's office on the Thursday before the Lord's wedding planned for Saturday:

I'm not gonna do it, Liz. I'm gonna tell Sidney Kidd very plainly and simply I'm a writer. I'm not a society snoop. I'm gonna tell him just that...Let Kidd fire me! Start writin' short stories again - that's what I should be doin' anyway. I'm gonna tell him just that.

Connor, who considers himself a serious writer of short stories, is angered when Kidd assigns both of them to what he considers a degrading scandal sheet assignment. In Kidd's bare-walled office, a more practical Liz coaxes Mike into accepting the assignment, realizing that if he doesn't, he will lose his job and be unable to pay his bills:

Kidd: Your assignment will be Spy's most sensational achievement - Tracy Lord. Big game hunting in Africa, fox hunting in Pennsylvania. Married on impulse and divorced in a rage. And always unapproachable by the press. 'The Unapproachable Miss Lord.' 'The Philadelphia Story'...(quote) 'A Wedding Day Inside Mainline Society.'
Mike: Or: 'What the Kitchen Maid Saw Through the Keyhole.' (unquote)...(quote) 'No hunter of buckshot in the rear is Cagey Crafty Connor.' (unquote) (closed paragraph)
Liz: Closed job, closed bank account. But Mr. Kidd, how can you possibly get inside the Lord estate, let alone the house?
Mike: Now we're not gonna do it, Liz, dawgonnit, it's degrading. It's undignified.
Liz: And so is an empty stomach. How do we get in?

Socially prominent ex-husband Dexter Haven is summoned into Kidd's office by the manipulative "Machiavellian" publisher:

Sidney Kidd: I understand we understand each other.
Dexter: (laconically) Quite.

[Kidd has blackmailed Dexter into placing as guests the two journalists, a reporter and a photographer, in the Lord mansion in return for withholding a potentially-damaging, scandalous and malicious story about Mr. Seth Lord, Tracy's father.] Dexter is introduced as an employee of the Buenos Aires office of the magazine. Tracy's brother Junius, employed in the American Embassy in Argentina, is an "old friend" of Dexter's. Dexter plans to introduce Mike and Liz as "intimate friends of Junius," Tracy's absent brother, and arrange for them to stay at the Lord estate during Tracy's wedding so they can get an exclusive inside story. Normally, Dexter detests publicity generated by tabloids, but he is willing to seek revenge against his ex-wife by having the details of her marriage reported in the rag. Kidd instructs that they will be picked up the following day (Friday) in North Philadelphia and taken to the Lord estate to spend the eve of the wedding there. Connor senses revenge in Haven's "screwy" motives: "Why are you doing all this unless you...Oh! oh, you want to get even with your ex-bride, huh?"

After Dexter, Liz, and Mike arrive (this is Dexter's first return to the mansion since his divorce), they are ushered into one of the estate's many rooms - the south parlor. Liz immediately explores the adjoining parlor room where Mike follows:

Liz: What's this room? I forgot my compass.
Mike: Well, this would be south-southwest parlor-by-living-room.

There, she takes snapshots of "knick-knacks, gimcracks, signed photographs. Wouldn't you know, you'd have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this?" Critical and possessing a contemptuous, disdainful attitude toward the idle rich, Connor is amused by the many wedding gifts: "Looks like they run a hock shop on the side," and by the phone extensions: "Look, how do ya like this? Living room. Sitting room. Terrace. Pool. Stables." He randomly places a crank call to one of the extensions, reaching Mrs. Lord in a room where she is sorting through wedding gifts with her daughter. He surprises her with his upper-class room-service order:

This is the Bridal Suite. Would you send up a couple of caviar sandwiches and a bottle of beer?...This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered to the seventh sun of the seventh sun.

Off-camera, a playful whistling sound (from Dexter) prefaces Dinah calling out to him: "Dexter! Dexter, you've come back!" Tracy exchanges a worried look with her mother. They can't imagine that Dexter has shown up to attend her wedding after spending two years in South America. Although Dinah and Mrs. Lord supportively mingle around Dexter (and join hands with him), Tracy is separated from him in the frame - and outraged by her ex-husband's presence: "You can go right back where you came from!" Dexter offers his services to represent Junius as "best man," but Tracy thinks otherwise: "I'm afraid that George might prefer to have his best man sober...You haven't switched from liquor to dope by any chance, have you, Dexter?"

Dexter informs them of the 'so-called' "great friends" (that Junius sent from South America) who plan to stay for the night - Macauley Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie. Tracy immediately suspects that they are photographers being smuggled in - she is intuitively knowledgeable about Dexter's employment by Kidd at SPY Magazine. As they verbally quarrel and spar with each other, he is forced to confess his dishonest scheme to Tracy's "withering glance." Dexter describes how Kidd had blackmailed him into bringing the two magazine employees into the estate to cover the wedding. (Otherwise, the unscrupulous editor of Spy could uncover some titillating dirt about Tracy's father Seth and his affair with a showgirl - Tina Mara.):

Tracy: I thought you were low, but I never thought you'd sink to...Who the heck do they think they are, barging in on peaceful people?
Dexter: Now, shush, shush, they'll think you don't want them.
Tracy: I want them out and you too.
Dexter: Yes, yes your Majesty, but first, could I interest you in some small blackmail?
Tracy: No!
Dexter (as he removes an article from his coat pocket): Well, it's an article, complete with snapshots, details, and insinuations. And it's ready for publication in SPY and it's about your father and that dancer in New York.
Tracy (grabbing the article): (loudly) About father and Tina Mara?
Dexter: Now quiet, Dinah...
Tracy: But they can't. Well they can't, even if it's true. Where did you get these?
Dexter: From Sidney Kidd. The editor and publisher...
Tracy: He's got to be stopped.
Dexter: Well he is, temporarily. That is, if you'll allow those two to turn in a story on your wedding. And when Kidd says a story, he means a story!
Tracy: I'm gonna be sick.
Dexter: Yes, dear. 'An Intimate Day with a Society Bride.'
Tracy: I am sick.
Dexter: Well, it's tough, but that's the way it seems to be.
Tracy: So I'm to be examined, undressed, and generally humiliated at fifteen cents a copy. And you, you ---. You're loving it.
Dexter: Am I, Red?

Forced to provide an inside scoop on the wedding, Dexter will thereby prevent Spy Magazine's editor from publishing an expose about the womanizing reputation of Tracy's father, his ex-in-law. Tracy tells Dinah and Mrs. Lord the truth about the 'friends' who will be allowed to stay: "They aren't anybody's friends, but we're to pretend they are...Don't ask me, there's a good reason and it's my wedding, so please!" Dinah shrewdly guesses the connection between the reporters and the scandal about her father: "I'll bet it's on account of father and that dancer in New York." Tracy abhors the lack of privacy - and proposed press coverage: "Watching every little mannerism, jotting down notes on how we sit, stand, talk, and even move...And all in that horrible, snide, corkscrew English. Well, if we have to submit to it to save father's face, which (she covers Dinah's ears) incidentally doesn't deserve it, I'm for giving them a picture of home life that will stand their hair on end." Tracy proposes putting on a "home life" show for the uninvited guests that will confirm their preconceptions, but Tracy's mother disagrees - she wants to give only a good impression of the affected rich: "No. Tracy, we must just be ourselves. Very much ourselves."

As part of the deal, Connor and Liz are not informed that Tracy, Dinah, and Mrs. Lord know about their true identities and what they are really there for. Dexter gives a brief description of the two reporters: "The girl's quite nice. He writes short stories, very down-to-earth."

In the parlor, Mike (with his research cards) begins questioning Dexter about Tracy's fiancee, George Kittredge. Dexter answers with sarcasm:

Mike: Age 32...General Manager, Quaker State Coal, controlling interest in the company owned by Seth Lord - that's the girl's father, huh?
Dexter: Uh, huh.
Liz: What a coincidence.
Mike: How did he meet her?
Dexter: Heaven brought them together, I imagine.

Mike has pre-conceived notions about Tracy - he believes her to be a "young, rich, rapacious American female":

Mike: Now about this girl. Tracy Samantha Lord...Oh, what's her leading characteristic.
Dexter: She has a horror of men who wear their hats in the house. [Mike is wearing his hat in the house.] (Dexter leaves the room.)
Liz: Leading characteristics to be filled in later.
Mike: I can fill them in right now. The young, rich, rapacious American female. (There's) no other country where she exists.
Liz: And would I change places with Tracy Samantha Lord for all her wealth and beauty? Oh boy, just ask me!

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