By the late 1930s and early 1940s women had significantly gained many rights and furthered social equality. Even today though, some ways of thinking expect women to be obedient and subservient to their parents and to their husbands. During World War II, women started working more outside of the home and gained a significant amount of respect as they earned their spot in the workplace. By the time of the shooting of The Philadelphia Story though, most women were expected to be very obedient to their parents (especially their father) and husband.
In this film, Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a fiery and independent woman. She divorced C. K. Dexter Haven and is engaged to George Kittredge very soon into the film. Although an absent character at first, her father Seth Lord had been known to have philandered around and Tracy blames him for all the problems that surround the plot. After all, C. K. Dexter Haven lures the reporters in order to keep them away from reporting Seth’s affairs. She tries to resist him by not inviting him to the wedding, but alas, he shows up anyway. There is an identity fiasco in which the family gets Seth’s brother Willie to play as Seth, but when the real Seth shows up, he asserts his authority as the head of the house.
Besides Tracy Lord and her inconvenient pinch of a situation, Macaulay Connor also finds himself resisting and clashing with authority. Early in the film he confronts Sidney Kidd, his boss at the newspaper office. He feels that Kidd has not been giving him a chance at a decent story, and Connor rails at him for underestimating him. His partner in crime, and romantic interest, Elizabeth Imbrie watches in horror as she assumes the worst will happen and that they’ll be homeless, on the streets, and begging for food. Luckily, this is where C. K. Dexter Haven comes in and offers to sneak them into the wedding of Tracy Lord and George Kittredge. Later in the film, a very drunk Connor and C. K. Dexter Haven plot to send Kidd a story that would ruin his reputation. They plan to use it as blackmail to get Kidd to lay off of the Lords. However, at the very end of the movie, Kidd forgoes all deals with these characters and shows up at the wedding anyway to get the big scoop.
Tracy finds herself to be worshiped as a statue or a Goddess by George Kittredge and C. K. Dexter Haven. Her father Seth Lord even tells her, “You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. And without that you might just as well be made of bronze.” On the other hand, Macaulay Connor sees her as a human being made of flesh and blood. This finally warms her heart and for a drunk night, seems to fall in love with Connor and his romantic words. And to think this was on the eve of her wedding! There are certain expectations of a bride-to-be and drunk philandering with another man right before your wedding does not seem to be one of them. If we consider George to be “higher in power” than her by the standards of the 1930s, it would seem normal to think he would be upset that she subverted his authority as her groom-to-be.
Another time that his authority is challenged is when C. K. Dexter Haven presents Tracy Lord with a model ship of the boat they rode on for their honeymoon appropriately named the “True Love.” From Kittredge’s point of view, that is not only inappropriate, but very subversive and manipulative. There are certain memories and emotions that can easily stir up given the right stimulus, and the audience knows that C. K. Dexter Haven hit the spot. We already know how manipulative C. K. Dexter Haven can be though if we look back at the dealings with Sidney Kidd.
Tracy Lord was always an independent character, but she truly becomes her own authority by the end of the film. After realizing what kind of person George Kittredge really is (not to say he is a bad human being, but he just does not fit with her), Tracy calls off the wedding. After that, she even rejects Macaulay Connor’s offer of marriage. After all, Elizabeth Imbrie and Macaulay Connor have been dancing around the proposition of marriage for years, but she was waiting on him to make up his mind about the whole deal. If one was in the room, it would certainly be an awkward situation. By the end though, Tracy chooses to accept her shortcomings and chooses to marry C. K Dexter Haven again. At this point, she stops resisting any sort of authority because she rises up to C. K. Dexter Haven’s level. Instead of him being above her, they step onto equal footing. Ironically, one can see that Tracy Lord has “stepped down from her pedestal” and not exactly rising up. Seth Lord comments right before she leaves for the procession, “[You] look like a queen. Like a goddess.” Tracy Lord comments in response that she feels, “Like a human. Like a human being.” She finally seems to earn Seth Lord’s acceptance and Tracy does not have to resist any sort of authority any more.
Tracy Lord is not exactly the prototypical example of a woman in the 1930s, but we have to remember that she is a part of the rich upper class. Furthermore, we have to account that the original play was actually specifically written for Katharine Hepburn in order to improve her lack of positive popularity at the time. The film adaptation worked brilliantly, and after trying to resist and bump heads with all sorts of authority, Katharine Hepburn made it back onto the positive limelight as Tracy Lord, former wife of C. K. Dexter Haven, then fiancee of George Kittredge, and then finally wife of C. K. Dexter Haven once more.
– Jhonny Garcia