The Philadelphia Story opens with the divorce of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) from C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Set over the course of a weekend two years later, the rest of the film tells of how Tracy comes to call off her wedding to George Kittredge (John Howard) and remarry Dexter. In the film’s final moments, Tracy receives a marriage proposal from Mike Connor (James Stewart), with whom she has had a brief flirtation, though she turns him down – in part because of Mike’s relationship with his colleague Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Nervously addressing the gathered wedding congregation, Tracy looks to Dexter for advice; he obliges by feeding her lines that amount to a second marriage proposal, and she accepts. Mike and Liz are corralled in as best man and matron of honour, and Dexter and Tracy are re-wed; ‘The End’.
In Beyond Genre Deborah Thomas makes the point that “so-called happy endings […] are rarely happy for everyone, especially where romance is concerned” (2000: 21). One measure of this, as Thomas points out, is the romantic comedy convention of ‘unsuitable’ partners – potential romantic mates whom we are encouraged consider incorrect matches for the film’s protagonists, and whom we fully expect not to form part of the final couple (ibid: 20). In The Philadelphia Story, however, we are invited to measure the relative merits of the three potential relationships Tracy could form with her three suitors. Paradoxically (though entirely conventionally), it is Tracy’s fiancé, George, who is coded as ‘unsuitable’ – in large part due to star casting. For a time, the two remaining men – Dexter and Mike – seem equally capable of winning Tracy. Stanley Cavell has argued that both of these men “are honorable and likeable enough for their happiness at the end to make us happy” (ibid: 135). Yet I would maintain that Dexter is a far less attractive candidate for her affections than Mike.
Never once is Dexter on the back-foot with Tracy: he is forever calm, seeming almost to possess “some mysterious power to control events” (Cavell, 1981: 137). He arrives at the Lords’ house with at least half a plan and, while he may improvise in accordance with changing circumstances (Mike’s knowledge of Kidd’s indiscretions, Tracy’s late-night swim), appears to execute it throughout with calm authority. This sense of control is further heightened by the fact that, having been a serious drinker, Dexter has by now given up alcohol; thus rid of the only “weakness” we learn he has, he is able to maintain a perpetual self-composure and detached amusement which other characters lack – in particular Mike and Tracy, whose inhibitions are crucially lowered by champagne. One result of this is that Dexter is able to conduct himself always as though he is Tracy’s superior.
Mike and Tracy, by contrast, encounter one another on a level of comparative equality – the faults of both (his inverted class snobbery, her unthinking “patronising”) permitted to become the subject of debate. In contrast to Dexter, who never veers from an attitude towards Tracy that appears unshakably predetermined, Mike goes through changes with her, experiencing attraction and repulsion, tenderness and anger – the pair continually shifting their estimations of one another. Whereas in the Tracy/Dexter relationship the characteristic remarriage trope of the “acquisition in time of self-knowledge” (Cavell, 1981: 56) is entirely one-sided, Tracy and Mike move back and forth, their interactions becoming a mutual process of learning and discovery – she realising that “I can’t make you out at all now”, he finding her a “blank, unholy surprise”, both coming to see that the other “[puts] the toughness on to save [their] skin”; put simply, they have that which Cavell so values: a conversation.
Although Tracy and Dexter’s shared past may bring them back together, the fact of this past also seems to have locked Dexter into a single view of Tracy in a way that Mike, as the new man on the scene, is able to avoid. As well as this, while Cavell says of remarriage couples that “what this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together” (ibid: 113), it is striking that in The Philadelphia Story it is not Dexter, but Mike, with whom Tracy spends the most time – and certainly the most time alone (in the library, strolling the grounds, at the party, on the Lord’s veranda, in the pool). The total screen time Mike and Tracy share comes to approximately 39 minutes, compared to Dexter and Tracy’s 17; the time they spend alone, meanwhile, is around 16 minutes for Mike and Tracy, compared with Dexter and Tracy’s 9. Furthermore, as with the screwball couple in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but unlike Dexter/Tracy, the time Mike and Tracy share is largely fun. The pair’s drunken play with the wheelchair-cum-deckchair and midnight swim, for instance, have the air of precisely the kind of innocent regression – “the wish to be children again or perhaps to be children together” (Cavell, 1981: 60) – so important to the creation of the screwball couple. Cavell may emphasise that Tracy and Dexter have “grown up together” (ibid: 136), but it is only with Mike that we see Tracy enjoy hints of the anarchic pleasures of a second childhood.
I should make clear that I am not suggesting that Mike and Tracy could satisfyingly form the film’s final couple according to the terms the film establishes: quite apart from the qualified but never quite absent class tensions between them, there is also Liz to think of. What I am suggesting is that, were they to, the marriage we would be free to imagine for them could surely only be of a far more democratic sort than any we can conceive of for Tracy and Dexter.
Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Thomas, Deborah. Beyond Genre: Melodrama, Comedy and Romance in Hollywood Films. Dumfrieshire: Cameron and Hollis, 2000.