For you beginners out there – pay attention – Cary Grant has opened his playbook. The Philadelphia Story provides yet another chapter for all of us trying to temper our heart’s palpations in pursuit of the joy and the pain, while making getting the girl look easy.
But Philadelphia Socialite Tracy Lord, played by Katherine Hepburn, is in no easy mark. The ex-wife of CK Dexter Haven (Grant), her mother explains Tracy’s unyielding nature. “She sets exceptionally high standards for herself, and other people aren't always apt to live up to them.
In this case, Margaret refers to Tracy’s father who has not been invited to her wedding to George Kittredge, a stuffy, opportunistic businessman.
Of course, Tracy’s rigidity is no surprise to Grant. Jettisoning him because of his drinking, the film opens with Tracy tossing Dexter’s golf bag at the exiting Grant and busting the driver over her knee.
Cary Grant responds in only the way he could. Raising his fist to her, he recoils and iconically palms her face and pushes her to the ground. Revenge then seems entirely plausible as Grant is enlisted to sneak Spy Magazine reporter McCauley Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and his photographer Liz onto the estate to detail the private affair.
We should know better. Nonetheless, Dexter’s cover story is that he’s being blackmailed so Spy does not run a salacious piece on Tracy’s father. We should still know better.
Even so, Dexter quickly reveals the reason for his appearance with his two “friends” the day before the wedding. “The story on your father will be held, if you'll allow those two to turn in a story on your wedding.”
Conner, the failed novelist, reluctantly goes along with the charade. “Liz, dawggonnit, it's degrading. It's undignified.”
“So is an empty stomach,” she reasons him into complicity.
Connor also carries all the disdain a serious writer would in service of the privileged class. Directed to the south parlor, he gives a dismissive rundown of the Lord acreage. “Living room. Sitting room. Terrace. Pool. Stables. They have a stable so they can talk to the horses without letting them in the house.”
It’s not long before Connor lets the upper crust have it too as he requires research material. “I suppose you don’t know where the library is,” he condescends to Dexter.
“Roughly,” Dexter self-deprecates with purpose. “My grandfather built it.”
Tracy manages to get the best of him too when she learns Connor’s father taught English History. “Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper. Where did he teach”, she queries to his gasp. “I mean your father.”
But Connor is not lacking and admiration arises in both when he finds Tracy at the library reading his book. “These stories are beautiful. They're almost poetry,” she fawns over his work.
He reassures her. “Well, don't kid yourself - they are,” says Connor, and whatever Dexter’s motives are, he may have an equal. But we know better and Dexter sticks to his game plan.
Regardless of Connor’s inroads, the master goes on the offensive and shakes loose Tracy’s foundation. “You'll never be a first-class human being until you've learned to have regard for human frailty. It's a pity your own foot can't slip a little sometime, but your sense of inner divinity wouldn't allow that. This goddess must remain intact,” Grant sermonizes.
She mostly shrugs it off until George unknowingly falls prey to Dexter’s set up. “You're like some marvelous, distant queen. So cool and fine, there's a beautiful purity about you like a statue,” George opines in sowing the seeds of his undoing.
Tracy’s dad then piles on and completely unsettles the socialite. Describing her as an “unaffectionate statue made of Bronze,” she’s driven to drink.
Unhinged with a healthy dose of champagne, Tracy appears to give Jimmy Stewart the inside track at the pre-wedding regalia, while Dexter stays away and let’s stir.
Exchanging admirations throughout the moonlight, Connor and Tracy emerge among innuendo and song the next morning.
With no recollection and desperate that her purity is intact, she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from George. But when appearance amounts to only two kisses and moonlight swim, according to Connor, George believes they should let bygones be bygones.
“I was guilty. Straight off. That is, until I was proved innocent,” Tracy spells George’s doom.
“It’s downright un-American,” Dexter rubs it in.
One down, one to go but Connor stands no chance of events that Cary Grant so delicately put in motion. Ready to stand in for the jilted George and the baffled Conner, Dexter reels Tracy in for good by again appearing to keep his distance. "Dexter, are you sure,” she pines.
“Not in the least. But I'll risk it,” Dexter seals the deal and gives us all a lesson in restraint.
But we know better. Sorry, this can’t be taught.