Catch classic love tale The Philadelphia Story this Valentine's Day

Catch classic love tale The Philadelphia Story this Valentine's Day


“I don’t want to be worshipped; I want to be loved,” beseeches the mercurial Tracy Lord in George Cukor’s classic love tale The Philadelphia Story (1940), an outstanding moment in rom-com history.

Tracy Lord was famously played by the inimitable Katherine Hepburn, though it’s possible today’s young generation aren’t always familiar with her name.

Hepburn currently has a retrospective season at the BFI and The Philadelphia Story is being screened for the Valentine’s Day period.

Originally a Broadway hit for Irish-American dramatist Philip Barry, this charming yarn of romantic tangles, loves and losses was a seminal feature.

It was remade in 1956 as High Society (with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby), it influenced screenwriters Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis (among others), as well as the TV comedy series Friends and more recently Lena Dunham’s Girls.

Such creative developments seemed unlikely in 1940, when Hepburn suffered a series of career misfires.

Dismissed as a box-office dud and looked at askance for being “unfeminine” (she wore slacks more than dresses), Hepburn was and still is an enigma.

Strikingly beautiful but strangely androgynous, she was all-at-once soft, acerbic, durable and vulnerable.

Still, she had successfully played Tracy in the stage production of Philadelphia Story and brought all these qualities to the role.

In fact Barry wrote the character of Tracy with Hepburn in mind.

Barry’s profile has slipped somewhat since the 1930/40s but he was once ranked with O’Neil and Steinbeck.

As a playwright he looked back to Sheridan and Wilde, blending comedy-of-manners with social commentary.

His narratives involve idiosyncratic and contradictory characters who have strong opinions and feelings, but aren’t sure why they have them. This, in essence, is Tracy Lord: “Oh, shut up, shut up, keep talking,” she demands, in one feverish exchange.

Hailing from an old-American dynastic family, Tracy is to marry industrialist George Kittredge (John Howard) — old money meeting new.

But on the eve of her wedding Tracy’s brooding doubts are stirred by not one but two other suitors — CK Dexter-Haven (Cary Grant) and Mike Connor (James Stewart).

Connor is a struggling writer indignantly forced to work for a high-end gossip magazine (an early version of Hello); Dexter-Haven happens to be Tracy’s former husband who feels there’s some unfinished business.

Throw in photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), with a crush of her own on Connor, and Cupid’s arrows fly in all directions.

But love interest is complicated by class differences.

Hailing from humble mid-west origins Connor feels inferior in breeding but superior in mind to the Lord household.

“I’m not some society snoop,” he insists. Nevertheless, even the servants think he lowers the tone of the place.

Meanwhile, Dexter-Haven quietly pursues his own agenda, subtly undermining the efforts of other potential beaus. He makes Tracy a wedding gift of a model sailing boat he once designed for her — a hooker named True Love.

Throughout the picture Tracy is a silky portrait of feistiness and flimsiness in conflict, Hepburn never missing a beat.

The film’s sets were designed by the great Dublin-born art director Cedric Gibbons, who’d previously worked on The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Gibbons used the parallel lines of shutters and Venetian blinds to symbolise shifting connections between characters.

This pattern was later developed by Carl Jules Weyl on Casablanca (1942) to indicate the fateful love between Bogart and Bergman, the most affecting screen romance of all.

David Thomson wrote of Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story that no-one could have seemed so imperious while making a fool of herself.

We should be thankful that the movie revived her career. Hepburn won the Oscar, as did Stewart and Hussey.

By today’s sensibilities The Philadelphia Story is somewhat soft on human behaviour but it’s sharp on human feelings and failings. Enjoy!

The Philadelphia Story is at the BFI, IFI and the Manchester Cornerhouse from February 13. 

Katherine Hepburn season continues at the BFI until March 19.