Review: ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940) | Pop Culture Crossing

            The Philadelphia Story is an engaging, dramatic movie surrounding the life of Tracy Lord, a socialite from one of Philadelphia’s venerable families. The film features memorable characters, outstanding dialogue, great cinematography, and a dramatic yet humorous tale you will enjoy and want to share with your friends.

            The story, based on Philip Barry’s play, portrays the final hours leading up to Tracy’s marriage to George Kittredge, a man who was not born into wealth, but has risen the ranks in one of Pennsylvania’s coal companies. However, the plans for the wedding are complicated when Sidney Kidd, the editor of Spy magazine sends a reporter, Macaulay Connor, and Elizabeth Imbrie, a photojournalist, to provide a juicy story from inside the Lord’s residence. Because the Lords are a high-profile family that eschews the prying fourth estate, Macaulay and Elizabeth attempt to assume undercover identities and are aided by Tracy’s ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, who may or may not still be in love with Tracy. As is expected, drama and humor ensues as a complex story unfolds.

            Dexter’s unannounced arrival at the Lord residence naturally irritates and distracts Tracy from focusing on her upcoming wedding. Luckily for the Lords, Tracy, her younger sister, Dinah, and Tracy’s mother are very astute and quickly realize that Macaulay and Elizabeth are not acquaintances of Tracy’s brother, Junius, as they claimed, but are tabloid reporters sent to infiltrate their house and the wedding, which appropriately is set to take place on the Lord’s estate. Dexter confesses and explains that he is being exploited by Spy’s Kidd in a blackmail operation against Tracy’s philandering father. If Dexter, who worked for Spy’s Buenos Aires bureau, fails to comply with Spy’s assignment, then the magazine with publish a take-down piece targeting Tracy’s father, Seth.

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

            Meanwhile, Macaulay and Elizabeth are not enthralled with their assignment. Macaulay, an intellectual writer who prefers authoring books to tabloid articles, is wary of the Lords and their opulence. Elizabeth, on the other hand, does not like the assignment, but is an obedient employee who, unlike Macaulay, does not voice her disapproval.

            The film’s pace is very brisk and develops rapidly, due in part to the intricacies of the narrative. Because of these factors, viewers will want to give their full attention when viewing this movie. If not, you may miss important story beats. As the story develops, Tracy learns that Macaulay is an author and becomes enthralled with his book of poetry and proverbs. This sparks a flirtatious relationship between the two, which eventually develops into a full-fledged love triangle containing Tracy, Kittredge, Dexter, and Macaulay. Tracy’s new emotional state is compounded by the fact that her wedding to Kittredge is fast-approaching.

            The Philadelphia Story’s narrative, though complex, is very engaging, entertaining, and brilliant. Its tone is also fairly dramatic, though it is peppered with smart dialogue and humorous components. Throughout the serpentine nature of the story and Tracy’s love triangle, several very pertinent lessons are clearly communicated through vis-à-vis the story’s multifaceted characters. A sequence of several scenes in the second act features interactions between Dexter and Tracy, Kittredge and Tracy, and Seth and Tracy. All of these exchanges have important messages that challenge Tracy’s current perspective and impact the further development of the film.

            Tracy was raised in wealth and is quite spoiled and acts like a goddess. Dexter notes that she has always had others rescue her from her problems. She has never had to work on her own to fix the problems she has caused. As such, Dexter charges her with being a classic narcissist who is exceptionally judgmental of others’ mistakes while she herself struggles to maintain the veneer of protection that, in her eyes, has made her act and think as though she’s perfect.

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

            The way in which Tracy acts is also a contributing factor to her unhappiness. People on the outside subsequently treat her like a diva and she acts like a goddess. Dexter notes that suitors see this, the pursuit of a goddess, as an engaging challenge that results in infatuation, not love. Dexter goes even further and asserts that Tracy will never be a first-class woman until she learns to accept human frailty and weakness.

            After this shocking conversation, Tracy has an exchange with Kittredge. Tracy has now learned of Dexter’s perspective and view of her. As a result, she is more aware of Kittredge’s perspective. During their conversation, it becomes apparent that Kittredge does in fact think that Tracy is a goddess and that he has put her on a pedestal and intends on keeping her there. Tracy becomes concerned that Kittredge has fallen in love with her aura and not Tracy the human being.

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

            Shortly after her talk with Kittredge, Seth, Tracy’s father, has a stern discussion with her. This exchange takes place shortly before the evening party on the eve of the wedding. In this interchange, Seth curtly explains to Tracy that she possesses everything needed to be a lovely woman, except for the most vital element: an understanding heart. This complements Dexter’s previous statement and juxtaposes Kittredge’s view. 

            The barrage of these three conversations opens Tracy’s eyes to how others view her. More importantly, they challenge Tracy’s outlook of her relationship with Kittredge. Because she receives these strong criticisms from Dexter and her father and her eyes are now open to Kittredge’s underlying perception, the love triangle element is amplified. Tracy realizes that she herself does not want to be venerated, but wants to be loved for who she is, a human woman. The culmination of these elements result in a very witty, entertaining third act.

            The performances by the entire cast is terrific. Regarding the principals, Cary Grant’s C. K. Dexter Haven is very calm, collected, and sensitive. Viewers learn a lot about Dexter’s past, including his former marriage to Tracy. Grant communicates the emotions felt by Dexter in a very convincing manner.

            Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord is skillfully acted. Tracy’s developmental arc is impressive and notable. This speaks to both the writing and Hepburn’s convincing portrayal of the character. James Stewart and Ruth Hussey’s Macaulay Conner and Elizabeth Imbrie are also very well acted. The sharp wit of the characters and their expert delivery of memorable one-liners is a joy to watch.

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

            John Howard’s George Kittredge is also compelling. Howard does a great job of showing that Kittredge was not born into wealth, but grew into it professionally, and, as a result, is not as well-versed in upper-class matters like the Lords. This character element and Howard’s acting make Kittredge a realistic character.

            The supporting cast is as equally astute in their performances as the main characters. Roland Young as the perverted and aptly-named Uncle Willie is well done, though Willie is my least favorite character. Young, however, does a solid job in communicating Willie’s disapproval of the Lord-Kittredge wedding.

            John Halliday and Mary Nash as Seth and Margaret Lord, respectively, provide great performances. It is clear that Margaret is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the estate and Nash does a great job in her role. Halliday’s Seth Lord is a philanderer. Though he makes a strange and interesting case for his deeds, he still loves his family despite his actions.

            Lastly, Virginia Weidler’s Dinah Lord, Tracy’s sister, is one of the most enjoyable characters to watch. Dinah likes Dexter and is not thrilled with Tracy’s relationship with Kittredge. Although young, she is very self-aware, perceptive, and connects the dots better than some of the adult characters in the film. This keen awareness coupled with her dramatic antics adds to Dinah’s charm. She reminds me of Mara Wilson’s Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street in terms of how both characters are wise beyond their years. Weidler’s depiction of Dinah is spot-on and one of the highlights of the movie.

            The Philadelphia Story’s production design and cinematography are also very well done and worth noting. The set pieces, particularly in the Lord’s estate, are well designed and quite detailed. The cinematographic shots complement the characters and the sets. The shots around the estate are tight enough and composed in such a way that you really feel like you are a fly on the wall watching the drama unfold. This adds to the immersive tone of the movie. It should also be noted that the musical elements accurately reflect emotions. From tubas to flowing strings and snare drums, the music is a nice addition to the film. Music is not present throughout the entirety of the film, but is effective when utilized.

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

Image Courtesy of Loew’s Incorporated

            George Cukor’s direction of The Philadelphia Story is nothing but masterful. He is able to seamlessly translate a very complex story into a very cohesive, enjoyable film. The final product is evidence of Cukor’s excellent management of the sets and production design, cinematography, and a clear ability to bring about impeccable performances from all of the actors in telling this touching story. Additionally, the film received the following Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role for James Stewart and Best Writing, Screenplay.

            I have seen The Philadelphia Story numerous times and always seem to learn something different each time I watch it. This is a sign of robust story-telling and direction. This movie is a fantastic go-to movie if you are looking for a complex-yet-touching romantic drama accented with light comedy.

Back Matter:[1]

Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Loew’s Incorporated

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart (Screen Play); Philip Barry (Based on the Play by); Waldo Salt (Contributing Writer)

Director of Photography: Joseph Ruttenberg

Editor: Frank Sullivan

Music: Franz Waxman (Musical Score)

Orchestrator: Leo Arnaud; Leonid Raab

Costume Designer: Adrian (Gowns); Eugene Joseff (Costume Jeweller)

Production Designer: Edwin B. Willis (Set Decorations); Keith Weeks (Production Manager)

Budget: N/A

Release Date: December 26, 1940

Cinematographic Process: Spherical           

Laboratory: N/A

Copyright Holder: Loew’s Incorporated

Cast: Cary Grant; Katharine Hepburn; James Stewart; Ruth Hussey; John Howard; Roland Young; John Halliday; Mary Nash; Virginia Weidler; Henry Daniell; Lionel Pape; Rex Evans

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Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hour and 52 minutes (112 mins.)