Conveniently re-released at the BFI in time for this year’s Valentine’s day weekend, George Cukor’s 1940 romcom The Philadelphia Story (playing as part of the BFI’s Katharine Hepburn retrospective) is an undeniably sophisticated affair. This is a film that squeezes in not just the legendary Katharine Hepburn, but two other Hollywood icons in the shape of Cary Grant and James Stewart, all in a comedy that mixes class conflict, champagne and competing suitors in the palatial surroundings of a Philadelphia family estate. In the Oxford Dictionary next to the definition of “‘classy” there is probably a screenshot of this film. And if not, there should be.
The plot is a classic “one woman, many suitors” setup, the action taking place on one of those opulent studio sets that just screams “Golden Era”. Adapted from Philip Barry’s play by Donald Ogden Stewart, the hilarity and hijinks center around a society wedding in an upper crust Philadelphia manor that ends up being threatened by scandal. Years after she divorced her charming-but-unreliable millionaire husband Dexter (Grant), the smart but sharp-tongued heiress Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is all set to wed the dull but politically-assured George. Tracy just wants to have a quiet ceremony and get on with things, but Dexter invites himself to the wedding and brings journalists Macauley and Liz (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) along, their manipulative editor having blackmailed them into snooping for a scoop. Pratfalls, midnight canoodling, and deft wordplay ensue, as Mac finds himself drawn to Tracy despite his “working joe” principles, and Dexter and Tracy verbally fence to deny their obviously repressed attraction.
George Cukor was on familiar turf with this film in a way, having already directed the oGrant/Hepburn duo in other comedies: Holiday in 1938 and Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. With nary a pause in the fast-paced action, the various flawed characters stumble about getting the wrong end of the stick, getting sozzled, or just getting riled up and having at each other in fast-paced verbal catfights. Director and stars make it all look effortless: It is the easiest thing to just sit back and enjoy the film for the comedy and glamour (barring the odd few gags that have now become politically incorrect), perhaps all the more so given that much of the onscreen goings-on involve a lot of good-looking people sitting around and knocking back cocktails.
Grant and Hepburn are particularly great when it comes to the to and fro, as their character’s sharp-tongued tussles are tinged with still-burning desire and regret, which makes Dexter’s claims that he’s just there to say goodbye ring hollow despite all the swagger. Beyond the heat between Grant and Hepburn, the film shares out the one-liners and key character revelations pretty equally between the leads, and they all stand out as distinctively complex, imperfect humans. None seem quite the same after we’ve seen them on screen for two hours: Tracy comes off as imperious at first but after a few she’s a far more risqué figure, Mac finds his cynicism about the rich melting in the face of Tracy’s wit and energy, and Dexter’s caddish reputation and behavior just mask the fact that he is still in love with Tracy. Even George isn’t portrayed as a simple villain, even if he does kind of exist in the film to look like a clown next to the way-cooler Stewart and Grant.
Valentine’s Day treat aside, this film can be also be seen as part of star Katherine Hepburn’s long journey to break out of the boundaries placed on female actors at the time. Both in front of and behind the camera, Hepburn remained something of a female trailblazer, as film writer Hannah McGill (she wrote the BFI’s catalog notes for the film) puts it: “Without Katharine Hepburn it’s likely classical Hollywood would have seen far fewer autonomous, intelligent, self-determining female characters.”
Hepburn was determined to avoid shrinking violet roles when it came to films and she was an ambitious and outspoken figure; but these choices resulted in periods of unpopularity for her to the point where The Philadelphia Story was actually something of a career-saver after years of being marginalized as box office poison. Across films such as Bringing up Baby (where she was teamed again with Grant in a zany role), A Woman Rebels (where she plays a Suffragette) and Quality Street (where Hepburn satirizes the girly image Hollywood wanted of her), Hepburn can be seen showing great range and exercising a degree of control over her career so that any success would be on her terms, playing women who were far more assured and complex than might be expected for the times.
The Philadelphia Story runs at the BFI Southbank from 13-26 February 2015.