In the very first scene of The Philadelphia Story, we see wealthy socialite CK Dexter Haven (Grant) packing his bags into his trunk angrily. His wife Tracy Lord (Hepburn) follows him out, carrying his golf clubs. She rips out his driver and breaks it over her knee. In retaliation, he puts his hand on her face and shoves her right back through the doorway. It’s shocking, but the chemistry and comic timing of Grant and Hepburn are so good that it comes off funny instead of violent. And it wonderfully sets the tone for the relationship of the divorced couple as well as the movie based around them.
Two years later, Lord is preparing to marry an ambitious businessman (John Howard) even though not everyone’s sure it’s such a good match. Haven has his doubts about it, so he hires two journalists to cover the event — and hopefully ruin the wedding. Just to make things even more awkward, he arrives as a third unannounced guest. What follows is a carefully structured unraveling of the nuptials and everyone’s relationships, so that by the end of the movie even though some things are completely destroyed you have the feeling that everything’s been set right.
This isn’t an easy thing to do. So many things could have gone wrong here. Lord is a severe woman who could have easily come off as cold and mean if not for the wonderfully manic energy, warmth and vulnerability Hepburn brings to the role. Grant plays ‘old money’ down to a T, and even though he spends most of the movie sniping with Hepburn he comes across as affable and smooth. Stewart is the biggest risk here, as one of the hired journalists. I’ve only seen him in noble, nice-guy roles and here he plays someone who can only be described as a jaded asshole. Totally different dressing, but he wears it well.
All of the characters have deep flaws that aren’t only exposed for all to see, but dissected in detail. Hepburn’s socialite Lord gets the worst of it, and it’s no small feat that she comes away as well-regarded as she does. Despite the sniping and constant jockeying for social position, there’s a clear love that shines through between the characters, and I’d like to think this is because of the easy camaraderie between the principal actors. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart apparently never needed another take of their scenes, despite ad-libbing quite a bit. That’s even more impressive to think about when you watch the middle of the film, the alcohol-soaked party and after-party in which the flinty shells everyone’s wearing starts to dissolve. The revelation of character and the easy, organic comedy that’s given equal measure is truly a sight to behold.
The energy ramps down towards the end, once Lord has learned her lesson and the villain (as much as there is one) is dispatched. People start pairing off happily, and I have to say this is the weakest part of the movie. Lord’s character arc is strongest here, and it wraps up well enough, but there’s not much left for the other characters to suggest they’ve made the movements they need to take towards the film’s resolution. So a lot of the emotional notes ring false right when they’re supposed to be truest, which is a bit of a let-down considering how great things were chugging along before.
Even still, Lord’s arc is a really good one. In order to love someone properly, you must be aware of and accepting of their flaws. She wasn’t even aware of how harsh she could be until it was brought to her attention (granted, in a really terrible way by her absentee father) and she learned how to face the consequences of a terrible mistake she never actually made. Having someone leading her by the hand to show her a bit of grace was the very thing she needed to learn how to be graceful herself.
I tend to have a hot-and-cold relationship with the screwball comedies of old; sometimes the frenzied energy just leaves me behind and I simply can’t connect with anything on the screen. The Philadelphia Story is certainly quick, but it slows down to breathe when it needs to and some of the best scenes are when two people take a break to really get to know each other’s point of view. Everyone involved really knows what they’re about, and for the most part it gives the movie a breezy, effortless energy that carries it through quite well. Any fan of Hepburn, Grant or Stewart should definitely give this a look.