An outrageous story of true love turned bad will slink onto screens up and down the land this Valentine’s weekend – seducing and scandalising audiences with its witty and daring depiction of high society, low behaviour, cruel words and torn loyalties. All played out in a thousand shades of glorious, luminous, grey. Smart, sexy and utterly irresistible. Unless you’re joining the sheep-shuffle towards that ghastly E.L. James thing? Uh oh.
We infiltrate the Lord family on the eve of daughter Tracy’s second marriage to self-made man George Kitterage. Kitterage is everything her infuriating ex Dexter was not – low born, ambitious and utterly besotted with his tempestuous fiancée. C. K. Dexter Haven, his alcoholism, his arrogance, and his provoking manner are safely buried in the past. Tracy’s bright future and brand new start is with George (John Howard) – as a roomful of extravagant wedding gifts demonstrates. Though her mother and sister still have a soft spot for husband number one…
The meet cute in this scenario is simultaneously a resentful reunion as Dex (Cary Grant) returns to shepard a reporter and photographer from Spy magazine into the fold. Writer Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) resents his role almost as deeply as he resents odious boss Sidney Kidd, but he is pragmatic enough to value food on the table while his book languishes unread. Photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) is the more curious as to how the other half live and lived
Appalled by Dex’s return, redhead Tracy (Katharine Hepburn) feels her carefully suppressed fiery spirit flare into life. But he talks her down, explaining that Sidney Kidd holds a smutty story about her father and she agrees to welcome the interlopers as friends of her brother. Enlisting the help of younger sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) to ensure her hospitality makes a lasting impression on their guests. And with the holy Hollywood triumvirate of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant assembled, the fun can really begin.
Every bit as biting and insightful at 74 years young, George Cukor’s classic screwball comedy is based upon Phillip Barry’s Broadway play – in which Hepburn had starred – a play which later inspired High Society. In a ballsy move typical of her spirit and drive Hepburn – notorious for her ‘shocking’ habit of wearing slacks and shirts on set – championed its transfer to celluloid, securing the rights and insisting upon retaining the leading role. James Stewart and Cary Grant added to the cast and top line as insurance.
Fittingly her Tracy Lord is a woman out of time too – though quite as staggeringly beautiful as the goddess the men in her life perceive her to be – she is mixed up, rebellious and endearingly flawed. And increasingly determined to be seen as such. A mischievous impulse to investigate Macaulay allows Tracy to see the undercover reporter in a brand new light as he too warms to the privileged heiress. But a dangerous cocktail of spilled secrets, champagne bubbles and cunning plans to unseat Sidney Kidd, soon endangers the prospect of a happy ending for anyone.
I must confess a personal prejudice here: The Philadelphia Story is the reason I fell in love with film. Its combination of impossible glamour, daftness and heart bewitched me. The music and dynamism of the whip smart exchanges were the sole reason I wanted to grow up at all, for a very long time. And that music endures (as does the desire to be Katharine Hepburn when I grow up). Writers Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldorf Salt distilled Barry’s play, Hepburn’s talent, Stewart’s appeal and Grant’s charm into sheer wonder. Franz Waxman’s joy of a score embraces and waltzes the action along.
George Cukor brings an intimacy to the taut rom com canvas which allows the occasionally brutal body blows of honesty to wind Tracy – and the audience – whenever she and her father or she and Dex begin to joust. The physical comedy is subtle and devastatingly timed particularly by Hepburn and Stewart both in drunken high sprints and under the cosh of almighty hangovers on the morning of the wedding. Though the name C. K. Dexter Haven seems unwieldy now, after James Steward has yelled it a time or three it – like The Philadelphia Story – will be unforgettable.
The Philadelphia Story reopens at selected UK cinemas on 13th February
The BFI will continue running a season of 24 Hepburn classics until 19th March