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17 May 2012


The Philadelphia Story (1940) marks the turning point in Hepburn’s film career. She had decided to return home in 1938 after being labeled “box office poison” for a series of failed costume dramas at RKO. After a hurricane swept away her family’s Fenwick home, Hepburn tried to piece her life and career back together. Playwright Philip Barry visited her in Fenwick with a play which he had written for her about a Philadelphia socialite modeled after Hepburn herself.  The play ran for an unprecedented 415 performances. Hepburn’s then boyfriend, Howard Hughes, purchased the rights for her so that she would be able to return to Hollywood and call her own shots. Rather than returning to RKO, Hepburn signed a contract with MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. The Philadelphia Story was the first film in which Hepburn had almost exclusive control over the casting of the film. She was given top billing across Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and her friend George Cukor was chosen to direct. 

The Philadelphia Story is about an aloof American socialite who is about to be remarried. Her fiance is a "man of the people" type of guy who has had to work his way up from the bottom. Things get complicated when her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) appears with some unsettling news. In order to pacify the editor of Spy magazine, the family must allow a reporter (Jimmy Stewart) and camerawoman attend the wedding, or else the magazine will print a shameful article about the father's philandering. The story spans the day and night leading up to the wedding. In this time, Tracy undergoes some serious character growth as she struggles to identify her purpose as a wife, woman, and as a human being. The script is witty and sophisticated, with just the appropriate amount of philosophical digging to get the audience thinking.

The plot of The Philadelphia Story both promotes and contradicts many feminist ideals. Some audiences viewed Tracy’s reformation as a taming, though many film critics debate this point. Although Hepburn’s character is scolded and insulted by the various male characters, they each in one way or another love, admire, or respect her. Tracy's "upper-classness" (Andrew Britton, 1995) is the epitome of Hepburn, but in a way very much unlike her alter ego Jo March. Tracy is an intellectual with very strong opinions about herself and about other people. She is not ambitious like Jo March but she sets very high standards for herself and the people around her. One might observe that Jo March is very like the young Hepburn, the kid behind the star, while Tracy epitomizes that which audiences identify in her star persona – class, intelligence, wit, and high moral standards. Through her role as Tracy, Hepburn came to represent a “special class of the American female,” full of strength and “inner divinity.”

There are three male leads in this film, arguably four if you count the father. Each has a unique relationship with Tracy. She expresses contempt for her father’s philandering, and although he cruelly calls her a “prig and a perennial spinster,” the two are reconciled by the end of the film. Her fiancé in the film worships her but his narrow-minded class and gender prejudices limit him from being truly equal to her. Jimmy Stewart’s character, the journalist Macaulay Connor , falls for Tracy, but only after expressing his own contempt for her class and lifestyle. The impossibility of their being matched is prevented by his snobbishness not hers, and in many ways one could argue that he is as reformed by the end of the film as she is.

Tracy’s relationship with her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, is the most complex. He refuses to be impressed by her “so-called strength” and he leads the pack in trying to reform her, but it is clear that he truly loves her. His arguments for her reformation are not that she should be less of a strong, independent-minded woman, but that she should be more of a compassionate human being: “You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you have learned to have some regard for human frailty.” His appeal is not an attack on her female strength, but more an appeal to her humanity. It is clear that he and Tracy are evenly matched because he does not wish to break her will but only to refine it. The tension between Tracy and Macaulay is based on social and economic class division, but C.K. Dexter Haven argues on the basis of the human vs. either the merely material statue, or the other-worldly, deific goddess. He supports the refined, yet secular, view of mankind which is indicative of his expectations for perfection, regardless of social class. At one point he says "You (Tracy) could marry Mack the night watchman and I'd cheer for you!" 

Tracy's father's objections are the most infuriating because he blames her for his affair with another woman. He also attacks her womanhood when he says, 
"You have a good mind, a pretty face, a disciplined body that does what you tell it to.
You have everything it takes to make a beautiful woman except the one essential: an
understanding heart. And without that you might as well be made of bronze."
Her father's remarks might cut the deepest, but at bottom they are simply a reiteration of what Haven has already said, including the statue motif. The fact that these arguments are framed in a way that limits Tracy's femaleness, they are not read as such by the characters involved. He also practically retracts all that he has said by the end of the film when he denies that Tracy has ever been a disappointment as a daughter, thus voiding his entire arguments against her.

The film concludes on a high note, and Tracy has been able to maintain every ounce of dignity she had a the beginning of the story, which is why it is difficult to view this film as another Taming of the ShrewThe movie was a big hit, winning Hepburn another Academy Award nomination Jimmy Stewart his first Oscar. Hepburn’s career was back on track. From this point forward, Hepburn had a direct hand in the parts she chose to play and in the casting and filming of future projects. Not all of them were as successful as The Philadelphia Story, but Hepburn was able select roles that both stretched her abilities and took advantage of the strength of her increasingly feminist persona.


  1. Nice piece. I like your point about this is not TAMING. I always thought the male characters in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY "handled" Tracy the way they did not to tame her, but because the chip on her shoulder dictated that she be handled that way.

    Look at the Ruth Hussey character, Liz. She was strong and independent, too - in fact, she had more right to take Tracy's attitude because she was working hard on her own in real world, as opposed to Tracy, who had everything handed to her. Yet everyone treated Liz with respect (except Uncle Willy - hehe) because she treated them with respect.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. That is a wonderful reading of Liz, a character I must admit that I tend to overlook. But you are so right - she is respected as a working woman in her own right. I will say that although she is treated well, she is still only an "enabler." By that I mean that she, as a female character, does not have any sort of dominion over the arc of the film plot - she is also helpless to alter her own destiny in relation to Macaulay Connor, or is she? Although she has reasons that motivate her not "scratching Tracy's eyes out," at the end of the film when Connor proposes to Tracy, Liz appears helpless to assert her own agender, though it is saying something for the film that another FEMALE character, Tracy, does that on her behalf. Very Very interesting! Thank you again for you great insight!

  2. Nice, Margaret! I hadn't thought about just how seemingly contradictory this character is, and how if nothing else it's a great battleground for the debate between 'woman as object' in film and a more empowering perspective. Really cool.

    1. Yes, it does give some depth to the reading, doesn't it? Thanks for commenting!

  3. I love everything about this black and white movie!

  4. It's one of my favourite classic films! :)

  5. You don't know what you're talking about. Hepburn didn't have "almost exclusive control over casting of the film." Hepburn wanted Clark Gable to play Dexter Haven, and she wanted Spencer Tracy to play Macaulay Connor. She got neither. Both were busy. True she had sold the rights to the film to MGM for a paltry $250,000 with the proviso that she be cast in the lead and that she have supposed veto over the picks of producer, director, cast and screenwriter. But she was using this film as the vehicle to revive her flagging movie career. She'd been labeled "box office poison" after four box office flops, and was leveraging her ownership to the rights for the film to revive her flagging movie career. She only secured the rights to making the film version of the play because her boyfriend, Howard Hughes, had purchased the rights for her.
    MGM was not about to take a chance on her without two A-list actors to prop up the film. When neither Gable nor Tracy would do the film, Hepburn was told by MGM that whomever played Dexter would only be paid $150,000 max. Cary Grant agreed to do it, but only if he got top billing. Hepburn was in no position to object. Hence, MGM hired Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Grant donated his salary to the British War Relief Fund.
    I loved the film, save for the script's fatal flaw: the creepy father who blames his daughter (Hepburn) for his philandering, arguing (in front of his wife) that he had to search somewhere else for the love he hadn't gotten from his daughter. Incest anyone? Since you say Hepburn had control over the screenwriter, why did she agree to allowing her father's argument to prevail after she'd denounced him as a coward for blaming her for his affair? Her argument that he was a slimebag who wouldn't take responsibility for betraying his wife should have won the day, especially if she was in charge of the script.


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!