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Film / The Philadelphia Story

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Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe.

"I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer."
C.K. Dexter Haaaaaaaaaaven

A classic, witty romantic Screwball Comedy adapted from Philip Barry's hit Broadway play of the year before, The Philadelphia Story (1940) was directed by George Cukor and stars three of the biggest stars of the era: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Upper-class socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn, reprising her stage role) is getting married to independently wealthy man and aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard), but her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), looking for a little revenge, sneaks in a couple of reporters — a writer (Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) — to do an exclusive story for Spy magazine. Love Triangle confusion ensues among the stars and supporting characters.

A box-office hit, the film was also a great critical success, receiving six Academy Award nominations. James Stewart's performance as Macaulay "Mike" Connor earned him the Best Actor award, for the first and only time in his career. David Ogden Stewart also took home an Oscar for his screenplay.

Later remade as the 1956 musical film High Society, starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra in the Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart roles.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Margaret Lord refers to Mike as "Mr. O'Connor" at one point.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Tracy walks in during Dinah's elaborate greeting to Mike and Liz and can be seen cracking up at it.
  • Adam Westing: Casting Katharine Hepburn as a Rich Bitch who, in her first scene, gets knocked on her ass by Cary Grant was probably quite amusing to audiences in 1940, a time when the tabloids called Hepburn "Katharine of Arrogance" for her prickly, tomboyish public image.
  • Adapted Out: The original play featured a character named Sandy, who is Tracy's brother and the reason for Mike and Liz to come to the wedding. This character was deleted for the movie in order to beef up the character of Mike. There are several references in the film to a brother of Tracy's, but his name is Junius.
  • An Aesop: Everyone has moral failings.
    Dexter: We're all only human, you know.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Dexter generally addresses Tracy as "Red".
  • Alcohol Hic: Jimmy Stewart's improvised Alcohol Hic almost got Cary Grant laughing. Which was what Stewart was trying to do, naturally. Lampshaded by Mike's line "I have the hiccups".
  • The Alcoholic: Dexter — much as Seth's philandering is apparently Tracy's fault, Dexter's drinking problem was apparently also Tracy's fault, for not helping him enough with it.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Tracy's attitude towards sex isn't just conservative; there's actually some evidence that she herself doesn't much care for it. The issue is never really addressed, despite the problems it apparently caused in her first marriage and could cause in her second. Although her attitude seems quite opposite this trope when she's drunk.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Tracy is offended that Mike didn't take advantage of her while she was passed out drunk.
  • Artist Disillusionment: In-universe. Mike is bitter because he poured his heart and soul into a book of short stories that netted him $600.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: Dexter doesn't take kindly to being blackmailed by Sidney Kidd.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Dexter watches Tracy sleep in the car and whispers "You look beautiful, Red."
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Tracy with Mike, and even more so with Dexter.
  • Big Fancy House: Mike can't stop snarking about the opulence of the Lord mansion.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: George is revealed to be not as nice as he seems.
  • Blackmail: Sidney Kidd will publish a scandalous article on Tracy's father if she doesn't let Mike and Liz do their story.
    Tracy: I want them out and you too.
    Dexter: Yes, yes, your Majesty, but first, could I interest you in some small blackmail?
  • Blaming the Cuckold: In this one, the cheater is the father of the heroine. He doesn't blame his wife, he infamously blames his daughter for being wilful and frigid and so causing him to look for the attentions of a younger woman. Needless to say, a massive case of Values Dissonance since the movie seems to paint both the father's infidelity and the heroine's willfulness as equally wrong.
  • Break the Haughty: Tracy — the overriding theme of the movie is that Tracy won't be happy until she stops being so high-and-mighty.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Subverted. Tracy thinks she's justifiably angry with her father for fooling around with a younger woman. Seth tells Tracy that his affairs are none of her business, then turns the tables and blames her for driving him away.
  • Can't Hold Her Liquor: Tracy really should not drink champagne.
  • The Chikan: Uncle Willie has zero chill, as Liz finds out to her dismay.
  • Composite Character: Dexter combines elements of two characters from the original play: himself, and Tracy's brother Sandy.
  • Contrived Clumsiness: Tracy breaks Liz's camera (she's been told that Liz is a magazine photographer).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dexter. Liz gets some good ones in too.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Tracy's gradual defrosting is the main plot. George rather wants her to stay frosty.
    George: Well, you're like some marvelous, distant ... well, queen, I guess.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Mike is trying to convince Kittridge that nothing happened between him and Tracy:
    Mike: After which I deposited Tracy on her bed in her room, and promptly returned down here to you two - which doubtless you'll remember.
    Dexter: Doubtless, without a doubt!
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Mike and Tracy. Next morning we learn from Mike, that nothing has happened.
  • Dirty Old Man: Uncle Willy, constantly pinching women on the bottom and hitting on Liz.
  • Disposable FiancĂ©: George.
  • Domestic Abuse: The papers insinuate that this was one of the causes of Tracy and Dexter's breakup. Only Dinah seems to give the rumors any credence.
    Dinah: Well, the papers were full of inundo.
    Margaret: Of what?
    Dinah: Of inundo. "Cruelty and drunkenness", it said.
    • Dexter is plainly shown knocking Tracy down in the opening scene. It's played for laughs, as are the other abuse references.
  • Drinking on Duty : Mike is supposed to be writing an article about the wedding. He gets drunk with the bride.
  • Drunken Song:
    • "Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaaaaaaaven!"
    • And "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
  • Evil Brit: Sidney Kidd (We don't know if the character's meant to be British, but he definitely has the accent.)
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The bulk of the action takes place over a 24-hour period, except for some establishing scenes from the day before and a prologue set two years earlier.
  • Facepalm of Doom: A particularly pissed-off C. K. Dexter does this to Tracy after she breaks one of his golf clubs in front of him. She falls to the ground but she's not hurt.
  • Fish out of Water: Mike and Liz, commoners hanging out with the ultra-rich. George too, to a lesser extent.
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: The librarian is a Quaker, using "plain speech," which Mike MISTAKES for Flowery Elizabethan English.
  • Follow That Car: Mike drunkenly tells a joke of the taxicab variety. There is no car.
  • Foreshadowing: Dexter reminds Tracy that she, once, "got drunk on champagne and climbed out on the roof, and stood there, naked, with [her] arms out to the moon, wailing like a banshee". It seems champagne is bad for her. Then, we see her get drunk on champagne, with Mike.
  • Freudian Trio: Tracy's three suitors, George, Mike, and Dexter. Seen from that perspective, the film's ending should hardly come as a surprise.
  • Full-Name Basis: In one drunken scene, Mike addresses Dexter exclusively by his full name. Probably because he really likes saying it.
  • Funny Background Event: While Dexter answers the door to Liz, Mike is still rambling in the background.
  • Girl Friday: Liz to Mike.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: It's from The Hays Code era. In particular, Tracy uses the word "golly" a lot.
  • Green-Eyed Monster:
    • George, who automatically assumes the worst when he sees Tracy in another man's arms.
    • Hilariously averted with Dexter, who apparently couldn't care less.
    • Liz would "scratch [the] eyes out" of any girl who came between her and Mike, but she manages to be philosophical about his fling with Tracy. It can't hurt that when Tracy turns down Mike's proposal, she gives Liz's feelings for him as one of her reasons.
    • Tracy's parents also point out that her outrage over Seth's philandering sounds a lot like jealousy. Which is odd, considering she's Seth's daughter.
  • Hair of the Dog: Mike would "sell his grandmother" for an alcoholic beverage the morning after the party.
  • Hangover Sensitivity: Several characters.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Mike offers one to Tracy after their drunken antics cause George to dump her.
  • Hot And Cold: Tracy veers between affection and anger.
  • Humble Pie: Tracy is intolerant of others' moral failings, particularly her ex-husband's alcoholism and her father's perceived infidelity. Then, on the eve of her wedding, she gets drunk on champagne and makes out with another man. The next morning, her attitude is penitent.
  • Informed Flaw: Quite a few, including Tracy's intolerance, Mike's cynicism, and Dexter's drunkenness. Mostly justified, considering the bulk of the plot takes place during one day, and to be fair to Dexter, by the time the story starts, he's firmly on the wagon.
  • Insistent Terminology: When Dinah says something stinks, her mother insists she call it "smells" instead note  (part of the Gosh Darn It to Heck! tone of the movie).
  • In Vino Veritas:
    • Tracy's realizations about herself and the men in her life come as a result of getting drunk. Alcohol also allows the softer side of Mike's personality to come out.
    • Subverted to the extent that Tracy and Mike's drunken kiss is not taken as evidence of their true feelings for each other.
  • Incoming Ham: Dinah when she first meets Mike and Liz. She enters the room dressed in a party dress and sparkly jewellery with a massive bow in her hair. She does so with an attempted ballet twirl as well.
  • Ironic Echo: "The truth is you'll never be a first-class human being until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty."
  • Jacob and Esau: It's subtle, but Dinah seems more like her mother, while Tracy clearly takes after her father.
  • Jerkass: Invoked Trope. Mike is a sensitive poet who puts up a Jerkass front to "save his skin".
  • Kissing Under the Influence: (of champagne) Mike and Tracy.
  • Little Miss Snarker: Dinah especially in her first scene. Later in the movie, she quips that she knows something is about to happen because she's being sent away.
  • Love Confessor: Sort of happens between Liz and Sandy in the play. In the movie, the scene is rewritten to have Dexter assume that Liz is in love with Mike without asking explicitly.
  • Love Epiphany: Subverted.
    Mike: It - it can't be anything like love, can it?
    Tracy: No, it mustn't be! It can't be!
    Mike: Would it be inconvenient?
    Tracy: Terribly!
  • Love Triangle: or Love Pentagram, with Tracy and her three suitors, as well as Liz's affection for Mike.
  • Maybe Ever After: The status of Mike and Liz's relationship at the end of the movie is ambiguous.
  • Meaningful Echo: "My, she was yare!"
    • "With the rich and mighty, always a little patience."
  • Mouthy Kid: Dinah.
  • Nice, Mean, and In-Between: played with in regard to the three suitors. At first, George is nice, Dexter is mean, and Mike is inbetween. By the end, George is revealed in his true Bitch in Sheep's Clothing colors, becoming the main mean guy. Mike is the decent nice guy, and Dexter falls in between.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Playwright Philip Barry based the character of Tracy on Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a Main Line Philadelphia socialite famous for throwing lavish parties at her family's 800-acre farm estate in Radnor.
    • The magazine publisher Sidney Kidd is a parody of Henry Luce, publisher of the magazines Time and Life. The film version adds some digs at the backward syntax that Luce's publications were famous for.
    Kidd: Closed were the portals of snobbish fox hunting. No hunter of foxes is Spy magazine.
  • Not What It Looks Like: A drunken, affectionate Mike cradling a sleepy, amorous Tracy in his arms is kind of bad, but not as bad as George assumes it is.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Dinah's lament early on in the film.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Dinah says her full name is Diana but everyone calls her Dinah.
  • Paparazzi: Mike and Liz.
  • Phrase Catcher: Tracy gets the word "goddess" attached to her a lot, thanks mostly to Dexter. Other characters show a fondness for "queen".
    Mike: When a girl is like Tracy, she's one in a million! She's sort of like a...She's sort of like a...
    Dexter: A goddess?
    Mike: No, no, no, you said that word this afternoon, no. No, she's sort of like a queen. A radiant, glorious queen. And you can't treat her like other women.
  • Prophetic Name: Parson Parsons.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dexter gives Tracy one mid-way through the film. This is followed shortly by one from her father.
  • Revenge: Mike (incorrectly) assumes this is Dexter's reason for cooperating with Sidney Kidd.
    Mike: So you want to get even with your ex-bride, huh?
  • Rich Bitch: Tracy, though she's somewhat toned-down and does improve over time.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: A mild example, but it's hinted that the Lords aren't too smart about certain things. It's made somewhat clearer in the original play.
    Tracy: Mother, how do you spell "omelet"?
    Margaret: "O-M-M-E-L-E-T."
    Tracy: (erasing what she has written) Thought there was another "l".
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Tracy actually has two rich suitors (Dexter and George) and one poor one (Mike). The film subverts our expectations somewhat by having Tracy marry one of the rich ones. After all, if money doesn't matter...
    Mike: Well, I made a funny discovery. That in spite of the fact that somebody's up from the bottom, he can still be quite a heel. And even though somebody else is born to the purple, he can still be a very nice guy.
  • Romantic Comedy: Sometimes referred to as a Screwball Comedy, though it's more a successor to the genre.
  • Romantic False Lead: Such is the star power of Jimmy Stewart that he is a credible romantic rival to Cary Grant. The guy that plays Kittredge, on the other hand, is an obvious Romantic False Lead.
  • Running Gag:
    • During the luncheon scene: "Another place, Edward."
    • Margaret Lord never can seem to remember who Mike is, first forgetting his name, then mistakenly calling him "Mr. O'Connor", and finally confusing him with one of the musicians.
  • Running Gag Stumbles: At the end of the movie, Margaret seems to have forgotten who Mike is again, because she turns to him and cries, "Dr. Parsons!" Mike starts to correct her, then realizes that Dr. Parsons is actually the pastor, and he is standing right behind Mike.
  • Self-Made Man: George, who made his money in coal mining.
  • Shipper on Deck: Dinah much prefers Dexter to George as a brother-in-law, and she's not shy about mentioning it.
    • Late in the movie, she tries to get Tracy to marry Mike, not because she likes him, but because she believes she has to.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Subverted.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: Tracy and Mike.
  • Smug Snake: Seth Lord, though through Values Dissonance the script is clearly on his side.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Holiday (1938). Both films share the same stars (Hepburn and Grant), director (George Cukor), and screenwriter (Donald Ogden Stewart), and both were adaptations of stage plays by Philip Barry.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: Tracy gives Mike and Liz one when pretends not to know they are reporters, and asks them a lot of very personal questions.
    Mike: Look, who's doing the interviewing here???
  • The Teetotaler: Implied about Dexter.
  • Title Drop: It's Sidney Kidd's title for the story he wants Mike and Liz to write.
  • Wake Up Make Up: Well not waking up but Tracy has very good hair and make-up when she emerges after having just been in the pool. Specifically she goes back into the changing room to put her robe on, and then reappears pristine.
  • Wedding Finale: The story ends on the day of Tracy's wedding.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: What Tracy wants (or doesn't want) to know in the lead-up to her wedding.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: The Lords.
  • Why Waste a Wedding?: Though she doesn't marry George, Tracy does get (re)married on her wedding day.
  • Women Are Wiser: Subverted. Tracy sees herself as morally superior to her ex-husband and her father because she doesn't drink or philander. However, they point out that her very self-righteousness is a moral failing that's just as dangerous. Oh, and then she gets drunk and makes out with another guy.
    • Played straight with Liz. When Dexter asks her why she doesn't marry Mike, she answers, "He's still got a lot to learn. I don't want to get in his way for a while."
  • Would Hit a Girl: Dexter, at least once. After Tracy snaps one of his golf clubs in half, he raises his arm to punch her, appears to think better of it, then ends up pushing her down onto the ground. A bit more family-friendly, but still kind of mean.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: The Quaker librarian that Mike talks to asks "What does thee wish?" The grammatically correct form would be "What dost thou wish?", but Quakers tend to use "thee" as both a subject and object pronoun, so it makes sense in context.
  • You Didn't Ask: Liz's reason for not telling Mike about her previous marriage.
    Mike: Well, you're the darndest girl.
    Liz: (primly) I think I'm sweet.