Love is love and then some in this snappy, intelligent and soothingly sardonic rom-com that hasn’t aged a day since 1940. Katherine Hepburn bouts any nearby suitor or sinner with punchy dialogue, as James Stewart and Carey Grant try to carve their initials into Hepburn’s statuesque demeanor. She’s a flawed pieced of art, but luckily director George Cukor takes us close enough to find the beauty hidden in her cracks.
We start off with a not-so-slice-of-life look into the failed marriage of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) and C.K. Dexter Haven (Carey Grant). The two don’t speak but clearly feel contempt for each other, magnified when Dexter pushes Tracy to the ground. We then jump two years later, where Tracy is getting married to the more appropriate George Kittredge (John Howard). He’s a mild and decent man, but one whom can never be Tracy’s knight in shining armor, considering how he can’t even get on his own horse.
It’s evident to us that the love isn’t there, that this George fellow on his finest day pales in comparison to Dexter on his drunkest. Tracy, though, is less aware, as she’s never experienced true love as much as faithful devotion, with every person in her life cherishing her beauty and proclaiming her a goddess. Tracy might even be one, considering she holds her friends and acquaintances to strict codes of conduct, commandments so fragile that not even she can stand from breaking.
But Tracy is a socialite, and since a socialite is getting married, that makes it of national news interest. Enter Macualay Connor (Stewart), a reluctant tabloid reporter assigned with covering the Tracy/George affair. Dexter works for the same organization and is tasked with helping Macaulay and his photographer Liz (Ruth Hussey) to get the inside scoop. Tracy and her family concoct a playful ruse, acting outlandishly and assigning relatives fake titles as Macaulay and Liz attempt to cover the mess. But being near Tracy, even under false pretenses, sparks an undeniable attraction to her in each of the men, a booze-filled, multi-love triangle whose sharp edges cut deeper and deeper as the clock ticks closer to Tracy’s wedding day.
It’s a marvelously written film by Donald Ogden Stewart, both for its ample supply of humorous verbal quips and extended monologues that shake characters and audiences to their core. No movie is safe from cliche, but it’s genuinely hard to tell what man Tracy will end up with, if any of them. Her drunken dances with Macaulay feel tender but temporary, her verbal spars with Dexter bruise easy but heal fast. It’s two remarkable performances from Stewart and Grant, whom subvert each other’s masculine portraits, with Stewart now the assailant and aggressor, and Grant the one offering a broad shoulder to cry on.
Grant and Stewart give great performances, which are buoyed by the comedic timing of the gifted female actors by their side, like Hussey as the cool-headed Liz, and Virginia Wielder as Tracy’s sister Dinah, a peppy teenage prankster who sprouts endless laughs off of her mile-long grin. But one can’t deny that “The Philadelphia Story” is Hepburn’s story through and through. Her Tracy is an enigma, a perfect 10 puzzle that never reveals if there’s self-doubt or self-confidence lurking at its core. Tracy finally realizes that she is not a goddess, and that to be flawed is to be human. How convenient for Tracy that the gods made man in their image.