Monday, September 2, 2013

The Ancient Greek Motif in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940): Katharine Hepburn as the Modern Goddess

After a brief sojourn into discussing art in some more modern films, I'm returning to the classics for a bit. Today, I'm going to discuss a certain artistic motif that appears in The Philadelphia Story (1940), one of the great classic romantic comedies. In my opinion, The Philadelphia Story has all the hallmarks of a successful classic- sparkling lines of dialogue, a solid plot and most importantly an excellent cast. Led by Katharine Hepburn (who's film career was rescued after this role), the film also stars James Stewart, Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey. All in all, I consider this film to be one of the best all-round movies of all time.
The "modern goddess"
This costume appeared from the stage show
The Philadelphia Story was originally a successful stage play written by John Barry for Kate Hepburn. Not surprisingly, the play which deals with the prenuptial fiascos that occur before a Philadelphian socialite's second marriage, was quickly picked up by the studio and cast with some of the greatest stars of the times. It's a very clever and quick moving romantic comedy with fairly ageless humor. Most importantly, except for an immature (but still excellent) James Stewart, all the actors were at the absolute tip-top of their acting prowess; this was especially true in Hepburn's case who absolutely delivers as the seemingly cold, witty, elegant and surprisingly sensitive Tracy Lord. While a huge fan of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Grace Kelly in the musical remake years late (High Society- Kelly's last film), Hepburn's performance alone always makes The Philadelphia Story a superior to its charming Technicolor remake.
Tracy Lord (Hepburn) look over her beaux
(L-R): George (Howard), C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and Mike (Stewart)
Interestingly enough, The Philadelphia Story was one of the earliest classic films to catch my interest and was was one of the first films to convince me of the raw power of an exceptionally talented star cast. Because of this personal connection, I often re-watch the film because with each viewing you discover different subtleties of the beautiful film. After one watching, I was awed by Cary Grant's superb sense of comedic timing and his perfect deliveries of little witticisms. Or perhaps, I'll enjoy Hepburn's monumental performance. In a recent viewing, my more artistic side noticed a certain thematic motif, reinforced with some subtle imagery that brought me to a whole new level of respect for the George Cukor classic.
George and his beloved, distance "statue"
It's no surprise that the film's motif deals with its main character, the lovely Tracy Lord. Throughout the story, it's made clear that Tracy is viewed as some sort of modern goddess or high priestess. She is beautiful, certainly, but she also has a distinct air of aloofness and coolness. It also becomes clear that she resents this image and remarks about it, even when it comes from her doting snob of a fiance George Kittredge (John Howard) who wants to build her an "ivory tower." When he claims this, he unwittingly reinforced the image that C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) pushes contemptuously upon her. George admires her "purity," in fact, he claims that he adores worshiping her from afar, in his words "like a statue." Or perhaps, more aptly, my dear George, a pagan idol- worshiped and feared from afar- but certainly not understood.
Haven confronts Tracy:
"You can't be a decent human being"
Her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven makes no show in hiding his contempt for her coolness towards others, especially himself. At one point Grant famously utters that Hepburn's "withering glance of the goddess" can do him no harm anymore. He scoffs at her lack of frailty, her inability to be a "decent human being" because she desires to maintain a "divine" image. In fact, it seems the men closest to her share this same disrespect for her so called "image," as even her father scolds Tracy for her lack of sympathy for weakness.

Therefore when a drunken Mike Connor professes his "flesh and blood" love for Tracy, the equally intoxicated Tracy can't help but being literally swept up off her feet when Mike extols her for being "lit from within." The down to earth reporter Mike Connor helps ground Tracy, shake her "goddess" image by becoming a more free and- dare I say it- loving woman, reconciled at last with those she first turned away.
The modern goddess image is supported throughout the entire film, but especially near the beginning where Tracy appears at her hardest to both her family and the audience. It seems that Cukor borrowed heavily from imagery from ancient Greece. It is certainly not a far or even overly creative stretch, but it is an appreciated feature. For instance, partially thanks to the obvious limitations of black and white, Tracy almost always appears dressed in white. The white, a color classically associated with divinity, also strengthens Tracy's image as a "pure" and might "citadel" of strength. I think it's no surprise that when C.K. Dexter Haven reprimands Tracy for her lack of compassion, she is dressed in pure white pool robe, with her hair pulled back. It doesn't take much to envision Tracy as a modern Athena visiting the 1940s.
A publicity still
In addition, the evening gown she wears during the night scene with Mike has certain Greek elements. Certainly, the dress has some Greek design elements with its broad geometric designs. But more than that, the dress closes resembles the chiton, or tunic, of Ancient Greece with it flap appearance and straight folds. It is for sure more of an abstract stretch of the imagination but I do not think it is pure coincidence. 

I think Adrian, the famous Hollywood designer who did the costumes for the film, must have certainly been inspired by the costumes of antiquity that befitted the theme. It is after this scene, if you will recall, that the goddess image crumbles, Tracy becomes more compassionate and her outfit and demeanor becomes considerably more rumpled and certainly less divine!

Even the set didn’t escape the Grecian influences. For instance, if you watch the scene where Tracy introduces herself to the reporters from Spy magazine, you may notice that Tracy wears a charming gingham dress, a lovely period piece evoking airs of pure American innocence but also decidedly not Greek in any sense of the word. But if you observe the backdrop of the scene, you’ll notice that the fireplace contains a very recognizable Greek design: the famous Greek Key design. Coincidence? Considering all the previous evidence: I think not!

Like I mentioned earlier, Tracy’s “divine” image is shaken before the picture concludes and happy endings go (almost) all around. It’s important to note though that it appears that Tracy’s impenetrable attitude is seen as an undesirable one. Certainly by the fictional C. K. Dexter Haven, but also through John Barry the playwright and even the studio which produced the picture. Whether this vehemence against feminine strength represents merely the ideas of a few individuals or simply was a reflection upon the cultural values of the time is up to you to decide.

If I may insert my own opinion, I’ll do so here. First, before you grow overly critical of The Philadelphia Story for propagating such a seemingly sexist image, remember that Kate Hepburn- a strong woman if there ever was one- agreed to do both the film and the play- so there must have been something to it. Secondly, and this is my own personal philosophy, there is something to what is being said. Anyone who attempts to keep a cool aloofness about them, a divine purity attached to their image, does lack important qualities- namely the sympathy for frailty C.K. Dexter Haven mentioned earlier. And that’s a statement true for any gender. Lack of compassion does represent a failing quality in humanity. In The Philadelphia Story, the mighty have certainly fallen by the end- foolish pride is abandoned, a silly marriage is avoided, and most importantly true love is found. But, it’s important for you pro-establishment people to remember, when the mighty fall, it’s not always so bad. Just ask Tracy. 


  1. I just discovered your blog after watching High Society. I like many of the actors and actresses you do, as well as Hitchcock, though most were a bit before my time (but not much) and I appreciate art and movies Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite movies. I hadn't consciously noticed the Greek angle before, though I think the audience may subconsciously pick it up. Even the pool scene reminds me of a Greek temple with its symmetry. Have you seen Holiday with Grant and Hepburn? Not sure if it contains great art beyond the sets, but I think i like it even better than Phil. Story.Great idea to look at art in movies!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and noticed the Grecian elements in the film. Sadly, I somehow missed "Holiday" but I will certainly make an effort to watch it now! The only thing I love better than a Kate Hepburn movie is a Kate Hepburn movie with Cary Grant!!
      Thanks for your input. I hope you follow the blog or at least keep reading other posts and spread the word among your movie-loving friends!


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