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.”
C.K. Dexter Haven’s appeal is not an attack on Tracy’s 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 Shrew. The 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.