The Philadelphia Story features one of the definitive Katharine Hepburn performances, largely because it so closely aligns with the public’s perception of her at the time. She plays smart but snooty socialite Tracy Lord, whose plan to marry an up-by-his-bootstraps businessman comes undone with the unexpected arrival of her ex-husband (Cary Grant). By 1940, Hepburn had conquered Hollywood but not fully embraced it; it was as if she came down from the mount to make each of her pictures. Elegant yet abrasive, Hepburn seemed to be much like Tracy Lord – as one character observes early on, ‘She’s sort of hard, isn’t she?’ The persona is fitting for a picture that wants to be both a spoof and a defense of aristocratic, upper-class life. Based on Philip Barry’s Broadway play – which also gave way to a much frothier 1956 movie version with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra – The Philadelphia Story is a
comedy with a significant chip on its shoulder. Really, it insists, the rich have feelings, too. Much of the class consciousness comes from the sparks – competitive and then romantic – that fly between Tracy and Mike Connor (James Stewart), a struggling writer who reluctantly agrees to cover the wedding preparations for a gossip rag. A few of their debates grow pedantic, but most of their scenes together twinkle with classic Hollywood repartee. Stewart, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts, also has a riotous drunken scene with Grant, in which the two legends barely manage to keep it together but still never lose the audience. And honestly, how could they? You would be hard-pressed to find two finer stars to play the clowns to Hepburn’s rigid straight man.