Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Hearth Fires and Holocausts: The Philadelphia Story (1940)


"You're like some marvelous, distant, well, queen, I guess. You're so cool and fine and always so much your own. There's a kind of beautiful purity about you, Tracy, like, like a statue. Oh, it's grand, Tracy. It's what everybody feels about you. It's what I first worshipped you for from afar." 

The Philadelphia Story. Ah, The Philadelphia Story. I've been putting off reviewing this film because I don't know how good a job my mere words can do in explaining what this film means to me. For starters, I walked out of the theater dizzy with love for Katharine Hepburn for the very first time. Secondly, I have yet to hear more brilliant, utterly moving and downright poetic dialogue in my life. Thirdly, it was then when I was first introduced to the genius of Philip Barry. Fourthly, it only came to fruition thanks to an enormous and beautiful act of love from the part of Howard Hughes, one hardly ever appreciated in film history. And last, but sure as hell not least, the memories I have associated with watching this movie - alone, with my mother, with my best friends - is something money can't buy. 

Let's begin where we must: The Philadelphia Story, the play, was written by Philip Barry in 1939, with Katharine Hepburn herself in mind. Hepburn was then being called "box office poison" incessantly by the newspapers, so going back to the stage would be a wise career move for her. She saw the play as thrilling material, and since there wasn't much money to invest in its mise-en-scène, she waived her salary for 10% of the profit. Half the costs were also covered by her former flame, movie producer and aviation gazillionaire Howard Hughes. He already carried the "former" status then, I'm afraid, but his blind generosity, friendship and kindness towards Katharine did not stop with the relationship's end. The play was a success, and it was Kate's first hit since being labeled box office poison. It was virtually the first time her acting made any great amount of money since 1935, with Alice Adams. With this victory, she immediately envisioned an opportunity to get back on her feet on the silver screen. With a film adaptation, she would have a way back into the moviegoers' hearts and possibly a chance to fulfill her dream: To work with Spencer Tracy. 
In order to get the play to the MGM Studios however, she would have to convince - financially speaking - both Barry to hand over the rights for a play he wrote and made a hit, and also the big bosses at MGM that the poison they so dreaded could finally make a significant amount of green ones for them. As for Barry, it was Hughes who, again, backed his ex-girlfriend. An undisclosed amount of money - but said to be astronomical - did the trick. She then took the wheel, cleverly arranging with Louis B. Mayer to have it produced and have it her way: she was to have the final word on director, cast, producer and screenwriter. For a director, no surprise, she picked her best friend George Cukor. It was the extraordinary Donald Ogden Stewart of "Kitty Foyle" (1940) who wrote the adapted screenplay. Joseph L. Mankiewicz produced. As for cast, Hepburn was categorical: Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Unfortunately, both were unavailable. She wound up never working with Gable, but she, evidently, did so with Tracy. Cary Grant agreed to play C. K. Dexter Haven for US$ 137,000 which he donated in his entirety to war effort funds. Hepburn was handed US$ 100,000 to get "whoever she could" and came back with Jimmy Stewart. The dream cast was ready. 

'Philly', as I like to call it, was the story of Tracy Lord - stubborn and headstrong socialite, who protected her privacy fiercely, but at the same time attracted lots of much-appreciated attention. As she is about to get married for the second time, she is surprised with a visit from her first husband, who brings her the news that a local magazine owner is ready to blackmail her for a full coverage of her wedding. It should be a rather unpleasant situation as it is, but when the journalist sent to write such coverage wakes up the butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart beat a little faster, things get a tad complicated. In addition, she finds out she hasn't yet completely forgotten her ex-husband, and she involuntarily ends up embarking in a love triangle in the night before her wedding, with the added complication that neither of the two men involved is her husband-to-be. 

The movie carries on charmingly, as each of the three men present to her the reasons for their undying love, each one making her heart heavier. The strong personality of Tracy's character is evidenced in this process, makes for the most interesting part of the flick and gives it a depth one doesn't usually see in romantic comedies. It could be argued that this is a movie that relies heavily on acting and screenwriting, rather than a complex and elaborate plot. Probably true, seeing as the entire flick takes place is about three days and the most fascinating part of it is most definitely the richness of character-writing and the beautifully delivered lines. 

My favorite movie monologue of all time is delivered by Jimmy Stewart, who won the Academy Award for 'Philly', about halfway through the flick. I know it by heart: "There's a magnificence in you, Tracy. A magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in the way you talk, the way you stand there and the way you walk. You are lit from within, Tracy. You've got fires banked down in you, hearth fires and holocausts. You are the golden girl, Tracy. Full of life, warmth and delight." The speech is also bordered by delicious dialogue before and after it. 

The film was further adapted into a musical version, High Society, in 1956. Despite it not being a bad flick in total, Grace Kelly's Tracy is almost cringe-worthy next to that of Hepburn's, and Frank Sinatra's acting (and I say that with love, Frankie) is nowhere near Jimmy Stewart's. Needless to say that Bing Crosby's honorable effort also looks faded next to Cary Grant. The songs, however, are lovely; and it is still a sweet film to watch. Just don't expect the poetic, deep passion injected into every second of 'Philly'. 

There's no question that Tracy Lord - Kate's Tracy, mind you - is my favorite movie character ever. I see very much of myself in her, and she is simply a delight for me to watch. Not to call her perfect, I would've chosen the other fella if I were her. To find out which one she did choose, you're gonna have to watch the movie yourself. And trust me, it'll be no sacrifice.

Five stars out of five. Actually, make that fifty. 


  1. A lovely, heartfelt post. THe first time I've watched The Philadelphia Story I didn't quite enjoy it, since it was dubbed, and the dubbing itself was horrible. Now, I could see the brilliance of every detail, and, if it isn't one of my favorite movies ever, it's almost there.

  2. I love everything about this black and white movie! It's brilliant! x