Friday, May 14, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

It’s been mentioned here before how totally Hepburn becomes her character, Linda, in 1938’s Holiday, another Philip Barry play co-starring Cary Grant and directed by George Cukor, and how there’s nary a trace of Kate the iron-willed individualist that audiences have come to know. I was floored by how wonderfully vulnerable she was, yet with a nascent strength brought out by Cary Grant’s Johnny Case character. That film is a dry run for The Philadelphia Story, as all the main players are present: Hepburn, Grant, writer Barry, and director Cukor. Alright, so there’s precedent to The Philadelphia Story; everyone works well together…

Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is widely considered her comeback role, after being branded “Box Office Poison” during the 1930s. As insane as that is to comprehend today; I find it more difficult to explain why I like Kate’s performance so much. Yes, it’s on the short-list of Hepburn’s career-defining performances and it’s a part the actress played on stage before bringing the play to MGM, so she had ample time to hone the Tracy character. In writing this assessment of Hepburn’s performance, I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to separate her role from the film itself, as The Philadelphia Story is truly an ensemble cast, and while Hepburn is undoubtedly at its center, her role can’t be easily described, at least by this blogger.

Kate’s Tracy is the focal point of The Philadelphia Story. It is her reactions to everyone else’s views of her that makes the story. She’s a symbol of strength yet possesses a hidden vulnerability that no one sees; she’s a vision of perfection and put on a pedestal. More than once she is referred to as a “Goddess.” Tracy holds those she loves to impossibly-high standards and when someone in her life doesn’t measure up—whether it is her ex-husband (C.K. Dexter Haven) or her own father—she casts them aside. Tracy's refusing to forgive Dexter's past weakness for alcohol was what caused their breakup, and her father's dalliance with a dancer is another point of contention leading to yet another strained relationship. And though her scene with her father misses the mark—Seth’s reasoning for his philandering is beyond belief---Hepburn and John Halliday sell the concept--at least on one’s first viewing of TPS, with conviction. It is this Goddess appellation and how she deals with it that is the center of The Philadelphia Story. Tracy has to forgive her father and her ex-husband in order to rid herself of the unwanted "perfection personified" label. That in itself is just one more aspect of this brilliant movie. She is conflicted, yet those who figure prominently in her life: husband, father, and even James Stewart’s Macauley “Mike” Connor—know this about her.

Katharine Hepburn is amazing here. While she's on the cusp of becoming her well-known onscreen personality, TPS captures her at this tremendous moment in her career. She inhabits her character so completely that I’m only vaguely reminded that she’s acting. Only her trademark accent gives her away. I’m never sure where the actress ends and the person begins but if Hepburn adheres to Jimmy Stewart’s remarks about acting: “You play yourself in deference to the character:--then that works marvelously. It also helps Hepburn and the rest of the cast that they have that wonderful Philip Barry dialogue to carry the story; and unlike the majority of plays turned into films, The Philadelphia Story never comes off as stagy—credit director George Cukor, who was and remains the master of this concept.

Trying to describe to someone about what's great about Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is best remedied by watching the movie. Remember that the film is not a comedy or a straightforward drama but something fascinatingly in between. Like all great art, The Philadelphia Story defies easy categorization and is endlessly interesting. Every time I see it, there’s yet another aspect of it I discover, another layer to be enjoyed. “Constant, unfolding joy” is the term that comes to mind and Hepburn’s performance, while tremendous on its own merits, works best when viewed as part of the entire film. Hepburn’s is the most unselfish performance in the most unselfish film ever made.


  1. Keep talking. Keep talking.
    I've been watching clips of this film on youtube
    Katharine Hepburn is spectacular

  2. In spite of being a masterpiece, the movie always struck me as a bit sexist. Would C.K. Dexter Haven have forgiven his wife's weakness for alcohol or his mother's philandering with a male dancer (whatever the pretext)? And who declared that not being a drunkard or a womaniser are "impossibly-high standards"? Drunkards and womanisers, I guess.
    To me, these are actually pretty low standards — it simply means being a normal sound person.
    By the same token, they might as well forgive her for being so perfect!
    I'm very far from being "perfection personified", but I wouldn't put up gladly with an intemperate husband or approve of a philandering father either (unless they were bounced into such activities by some superior power).

  3. Youtube have recently deleted TPS.
    What a shame. The comments section alone was top.

  4. Maybe I felt quite like you, Stella, when I saw Rosalind Russel in „She Wouldn't Say Yes“ (1945): Russel plays a very smart and brilliant psychiatrist there, so I was proud of her at first. Then she suddenly bumps into a man, who spontaneously crushes on her. And although she seems to dislike him, he follows her constantly and therefore I hated him. But finally he convinces her, that she was just repressing and denying her emotions and then – oh darn! – she gives in. - Happy end? Well, I was after the scalp of that producer and when I looked 'him' up, SHE was just Virgina van Upp, who had written the screenplay herself. When I saw this film again, I didn't find Russel's lover as obtrusive as the first time. Actually he woos rather discreet. Nevertheless this isn't quite my film, because I rather have a smart and brilliant psychiatrist.

    As to our Philadelphia Story: In fact I don't like the excuses of Tracy's father, but – as her mother says – this is a matter between her parents. Dexter himself seems not to be an alcoholic – he's one of the rare sober persons in this film – so I think he's really clean now. If he was right, that Tracy was almost immaculate – maybe she should prefer celibacy? Real angels won't find happiness in any marriage! But no, Tracy and Dexter are just one of those couples, who punish each other. Years ago I had learned, not to interfere those relation-ships – unless I don't want to get into trouble myself. That's just the philosophy I prefer, while watching Tracy and Dexter. And I find them quite stimulating.

    How about „Too Many Husbands“ (1940)? She (Jean Arthur) feels neglected by her first, as by her second husband. Suddenly her first husband turns out to be still alive and she begins to like having two husbands – both struggling to keep her. Just the right stuff to discuss moral and women's items ...

  5. >Tracy has to forgive her father and her ex-husband in order to rid herself of the unwanted perfection personified label.<

    That's hugely interesting, Dexter!* A few women become nuns, in order to avoid imperfection of marriage. In other words: They choose "the unwanted perfection personified label".

    Jesus reminds not to adjust to the world. But he didn't mean marriage was bad - he just said that being not married was better.

    Well, I'm not a nun, but find all these questions very enlightening. You're doing a good job, Dexter.* - Thank you very much!

    There's even more on Stella's blog: We're discussing Genesis 2:18 and that was started right here ...

    * I'm not speaking to Cary Grant, but to our blogger.

  6. Dear CK Dexter Haven: I was over the moon when I saw your blogger name on my blog. The reason being is that C.K. is my FAVORITE movie role of all time. I have seen the Philadelphia Story countless times and I still haven't seen it enough. As a Jungian I see the film as the story about animus and anima. Tracy's father was looking for her to be an ideal anima(feminine) figure---he was looking for her to be an Aphrodite figure. He needed Aphrodite to give his life some energy, libido and spark. Tracy attempted to be an Athena woman( a goddess of the mind and intellect. Athena was born out of her father's head) as a way of being the ideal daughter who would win her father's love. When that didn't work Tracy in turn wanted a perfect,strong, and stable animus figure husband and C.K. was instead a wounded artist---and this reminded her of her own wounding. She is both drawn to and repulsed by the Dionysian spirit in herself and others. She is as harsh on herself as she is C.K. when she has had too much to drink. However it is when she discovers that she is capable of losing control(via drink) that she then loses interest in the ideal, strong, and self-made man and sees how yar C.K. really is.

    All I have to do is hear the opening music from the Philadelphia Story and I feel like I have entered a dream. And as you might guess, it is C.K. who hold most of my attention in this film. It, in my mind, is Cary Grant at his finest.

    I am delighted to meet you and I LOVE this post. And thank you so much for the very kind and thoughtful comment you left over at my place.

  7. But Tracy was absolutely *Apollonian* in the first half! Becoming a drunk herself, she finally fails as an Apollonian and this may have made her Dionysian.

    Let me add this, as an enthusiastic 'Apollonian'. Well, actually I'm a Minervian, to be exact.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.