Lit from within

Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story"

Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story"


I’ve never thought of Jimmy Stewart as much of a seducer. I guess that’s because he was never a sex symbol, and I don’t suspect he ever wanted to be. He was an actor who wanted to be good at conveying whatever the character called for. And in one of my favorite scenes in one of my top 10 favorite movies, Stewart pulls off a seduction the only way a real seduction takes place – with the help of a woman who wants to be seduced. In this case, it’s Katharine Hepburn, and the movie is “The Philadelphia Story.”

The words “sex symbol” never really fit Hepburn’s image either. But just like Stewart, Hepburn was terrific at her chosen profession, and when it came time to seduce or be seduced on camera, she could make you believe it. One of the things I love about this scene is how well-matched the characters are and how the seduction is born more out of mutual admiration than lust. It’s also born out of knowing what’s at the core of the other person even though they’ve only known each other for a day.

Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite on the weekend of her wedding to a nouveau riche entrepreneur named George Kittredge (played by John Howard).  The blessed occasion has been crashed by Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven – played by a never-more-charming or calculating Cary Grant. In a valiant yet self-serving effort to save Tracy’s family from a blackmail scheme, Dexter has made a deal with the publisher he works for that he will secure a big story about Tracy’s wedding for Spy magazine. Keep in mind that this was in the olden times when people – even celebrities – valued their privacy and thought the idea of any aspect of their personal lives being splashed all over a magazine was the height of poor taste and low class.

So Dexter has agreed to do the story only because the publisher threatens to run a story about the separation of Tracy’s parents. It seems her father has run off to have an affair with a younger woman. Dexter is also hoping his presence at the Lord home on Tracy’s wedding weekend will gum up the works for Tracy’s impending nuptials.

Jimmy Stewart plays Macaulay “Mike” Connor, the reporter writing the story under the guise of being an old friend of Tracy’s brother, who can’t make it to the wedding because he’s in South America or some such far and away place. He’s joined by photographer Liz Embry, played with sharp wit by Ruth Hussey. Well, thanks to how well Tracy knows her ex-husband, she’s able to figure out before she’s even met Mike and Liz that they’ve never met her brother and are simply there to get the dirt on her wedding. But once Dexter explains the reason for his attempted deception, she backs down and allows them to stay for the festivities.    

At first, Mike assumes Tracy is a spoiled little rich girl with mush for brains, and Tracy assumes Mike is a smug, elitist journalist with nothing but rudeness running through his veins. But they are quickly forced to come to terms with one another when they actually have a conversation. Mike discovers Tracy is in fact spoiled and rich, but she’s also very insightful and discerning. Tracy realizes that underneath Mike’s toughness he’s an eloquent novelist and not such a bad judge of character. More importantly, they discover that they are a lot alike. And after having one too many drinks at the festivities on the night before the wedding, they engage in highly entertaining banter in the backyard of the Lord estate.

I was delighted from the very start of the scene – Mike and Tracy shifting leisurely to the music atop a narrow rock wall. I marveled that they could balance considering how much alcohol they had consumed at the party. But they do and make it look effortless, and you can almost feel their champagne buzz through the screen. But the banter is the thing with this scene – as it is with the whole movie. They go at each other with sometimes playful but always-truthful jabs about class and culture. They reveal the best and worst about each other, while realizing their faults aren’t the end of the world, and they have some rather redeeming characteristics to make up for them. Their repartee is charming, funny and full of the romance that can only come from two people really seeing each other and admiring what they see. Sure, booze and flattery always have a way of ramping up romance as well, but having watched their relationship evolve, you know there is much more at work than just baser instincts between these two cerebral creatures. Director George Cukor was a man who knew how to bring out the best in his actors, but with actors like Hepburn and Stewart, he didn’t have to work that hard.

Unfortunately, I could not locate the entire scene online, but this excerpt from it captures the gist of it. It is only one of many great scenes in the film. I hope this glimpse will encourage you to check out the entire film, easily one of the best and funniest ever made.