Character Spotlight -Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“Would I trade places with Tracy Lord for all her wealth and beauty? Oh boy, just ask me.” Liz Embrie

Ruth Hussey as Liz Embrie

I feel ya, Liz, but appearances can be deceiving. To the outside observer (or tabloid photographer), Tracy’s life is one of ease and privilege. Tracy is fortunate to be part of Philadelphia’s Main Line society. As played by Katharine Hepburn, she is the typical example of the haughty entitled attitudes inherent to the elite. Born into wealth, she wears it with cool sophistication along with her couture wardrobe.

Despite her engagement to “man of the people” George Kitteridge, she has had little contact with the lower classes and their daily challenges. But Tracy is oblivious to her lack of true cultural experience and really believes she is without prejudice.

Yes, she is beautiful, educated and respected. Yes, men tend to fall at her feet. In fact, even though she is engaged to the self-made Kitteridge, she still manages to attract not only her estranged ex-husband, but the reporter who has been sent to write an expose on her very private wedding. I mean, it’s hardly fair that all three men seem to be in love with her, especially when two of those men are played by Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Choosing between Cary Grant and James Stewart is a tough choice, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Not only that, but her word appears to be law in her female dominated mansion which is lacking the male members of her family. Tracy is the boss and boy, does she exercise that privilege. Her authoritative commands brook no interference.

But Tracy’s smug confidence is about to be challenged by the arrival of her father and ex-husband. Both men challenge her calm self-assurance.

Poor George seems awfully stuffy for a man who worked his way up the ladder.

Unfortunately, though Mr. Lord  may have some valid points to be made about his daughter’s arrogance, he himself has little right to assert them. His affair with a stage dancer is the reason for their family separation. He is also the reason they are being blackmailed by a tabloid editor. Then he makes the fatal mistake of blaming Tracy for his unfaithfulness. His claims that his daughter’s deficiencies contributed to his need to chase youth are insulting. Coming from the true head of the family this is a really low blow and not one that Tracy takes well. She is both angered and hurt by these accusations from the man she no longer respects.

“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. “

For my money, you can’t beat Cary Grant

Dexter, being a long time friend of the family as well as the man who has loved her, has better motive for challenging her. Even though she is engaged to someone else he seems to truly feel as if her moral superiority is as much of a burden to herself as it is those around her. Granted, his alcohol addiction had a large part to play in the demise of their marriage, but her pride and self-righteousness also contributed. Even though they parted on bad terms, he still makes an effort to protect her family name while challenging her to be the warm human woman she’s capable of becoming. You see, despite her advantages, Tracy has become trapped in her own ivory tower of perfection.  While other people view her as a “goddess, citadel or radiant queen”, Dexter knows there is more to her than that. He pushes her to recognize her own character flaws. Indeed, he is the only one to see her as she really is.

“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. “

Between these two male authority figures in her life, Tracy takes some hard knocks to her previously impervious self-esteem. All of this leads her to act precisely as the men in her life have done – by getting drunk and having a fling. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Thankfully, the amiable and poetic Mike Connor is there to catch her when she finally jumps off of her pedestal.

When goddesses show their feet of clay.

“My feet are made of clay. Made of clay, did you know? Good niiiggghhhttt little man! “

However in the cold light of day, once the fun is over, she is forced to face the consequences. Tracy must come to terms with her own human frailty. When confronted by understanding instead of judgment she realizes how valuable humility and mercy can be to the human experience.  And so we end as we began, with some surprising insight from the very down to earth Ms. Liz Embrie…

 “Oh it’s all right Tracy. We all go haywire at times and if we don’t, maybe we ought to. “

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2 Replies to “Character Spotlight -Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story (1940)”

  1. You’ve convinced me to give this film another chance. I’m not a fan, but you’ve raised some excellent points and I’m now wondering if I’ve been too critical of it. When I do see it again, I’ll be back to compare notes. 😉

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