Poor Little Rich Girl
Of six nominations for 1940, only James Stewart and (no-relation) screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart carried off Oscars, but The Philadelphia Story restored nominee Katharine Hepburn to the cinema pedestal she was to occupy until the end. “Restored,” for after the unconventional actress was labeled “box office poison” by an exhibitor and rejected for the part of Scarlet O’Hara, she had stormed back East to star in the Philip Barry, Jr., romantic comedy of that name.
In lieu of salary she had opted for a cut of profits and for movie rights. Returned to California with that ace up her sleeve, she was able to secure George Cukor as director though Louis B. Mayer held his ground on Stewart and Cary Grant instead of her preferred Gable and Tracy.
The film’s type of repartee and innuendo is today replaced by liberated dialogue that says everything and leaves nothing to witty suggestion. And its noncommittal acceptance of, even admiration for, the idle rich, the one percent, is currently a no-no. Fortunes and Scott Fitzgerald’s “the rich are different” are now vilified. Depression-era America, however, still had its illusions, Fred and Ginger danced in fashion and luxury to divert it, and Stewart’s poor working journalist Macaulay “Mike” Connor is converted from cynicism to “the prettiest sight in this pretty world is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges.”
Hepburn’s Tracy Lord wears longer hair and trousers, is old-money snobby beneath a thin veneer, and, “of a special class of American females: married maidens,” symbolically -- and phallically -- breaks hubby’s golf club as he huffs off her lordly family estate. That drinker husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant, getting a then-princely $137,000 for his fourth and final teaming with her), is not so obscenely Main Line rich but does little more than dabble at designing sailboats and would like payback but covers up the love he nevertheless still has for the ex he calls “Red” (hair, certainly not politics).
Two years having passed since his ouster, Tracy is set to marry priggish and even more aloof nouveau riche social climber George Kittredge (John Howard). Her immediate family fluttering around but still liking C. K. too, he shows up ready to toss a monkey wrench into this unsuitable second nuptial and rescue her from herself -- and back to him.
He has colluded in having the high society wedding covered by Spy scandal magazine, whose publisher and editor Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) assigns unwilling Connor to wangle his way into the affair alongside photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Both journalists are skeptical, he about the filthy rich and the level of writing he is reduced to despite previous serious published books, and divorced she about love in general and in particular her assignment partner’s failure to recognize her longing for him.
Thrown together by circumstance, drinking too much, the bride-to-be and the writer fall for one another. They are observed and caught out in what (they insist) is misunderstood as more than it supposedly is. Things come to a head, and firm choices need to be made because the Wedding March is already being played to seated invitees.
Until the absolute last minute, what these decisions will be remains effectively up in the air. Other directions might have been taken by other directors, perhaps equally satisfactory ones, for romantic comedy proverbially marries off everyone available and half-deserving.
How well all is pulled together and comes off, is more glaring when The Philadelphia Story is compared to its fluffy but fangless 1956 musical adaptation, High Society.
(Released by MGM; not rated by MPAA.)