“She’s a rich girl / She don’t try to hide it / Diamonds on the soles of her shoes / He’s a poor boy / Empty as a pocket / Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose” — Paul Simon
In the 1987 single “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” Paul Simon’s lyrics hit a sweet spot for romantic archetypes, that fateful, class-anxious collision between the “rich girl” and “poor boy.” It’s a salacious setup that plays a large part in the American popular imagination, as much so as the classical love triangle. Romantic comedies feed off of these kinds of forbidden trysts, mining them for comedy and pathos. The rich girl gets the poor boy, the underdog wins the triangle. Inevitably, these two schemas cross streams, reaching their nexus in George Cukor’s 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. But Cukor and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart undo the traditional conclusions of the genre, probing into their era’s own conceptions of class and gender. Essentially, they understand the same thing that Simon did — that it’s all about the clothes on your back.
Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), an infamous Philadelphia socialite, is set to marry the newly-wealthy George Kitteridge (John Howard). Magazine publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) wants to cover the secretive wedding, assigning the story to the coupled writer Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Tagging along is their coworker, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who happens to be Lord’s estranged ex-husband, and he stands accused of being an abusive drunk in the tabloids. Haven has a plan to exonerate his previous in-laws from Kidd’s prying eye, even as unexpected sparks begin to fly between Lord and Connor.
For the sake of the love triangle’s structural integrity, Kitteridge and Imbrie will join this discussion later, as they mostly serve as ties of conflict to Lord and Connor in this context. Kitteridge and Imbrie are romantic wallflowers, pawns in the central trio’s chess game that move to the frontlines once the picture’s broader implications come into focus. As for the triangle, it has three central components: the rich girl (Lord), the poor boy (Connor) and the ex-husband (Haven). All three play a singular role in the triangle’s dynamic, doubling as physical typages for the writer and director’s thematic concerns, and this occurs through each character’s costumes, mannerisms and arcs.
Despite the film’s three-pronged approach to character development, the true star of The Philadelphia Story is Hepburn. Her role in the story dates back to the original play, written by Philip Barry. Hepburn and Barry were close friends, even to the point of a rumored affair, and Hepburn herself is widely considered as one of the inspirations for Lord’s character. With her trademark WASP-y intonation, Hepburn fits the role of an uppity socialite like a glove, her tight, chiseled jaw pounding away at rapid-fire witticisms like a jackhammer. In gowns by Adrian, she’s a paragon of high class beauty. Starting with the scene in which she meets Connor and Imbrie, Lord’s gowns are all primarily white, that perennial color of purity and goodness. It plays into the fact that the men she associates with view her as a goddess, worshipping at her altar. Lord is naturally uncomfortable with this, and that discomfort buries itself into Hepburn’s physical performance. Her posture is stiff, her movements and quips snappy in their delivery. She’s putting on a front of confidence when idealized adoration makes her a stranger in her own skin.
Stewart’s Connor is a kindred spirit to Lord in that he lacks confidence, but of an altogether different class. Connor is a cynical, vituperative man, looking down on everyone above or below him. But, at his core, he’s weak and unable to change. Stewart, the go-to good-ol’-boy of the 1930s, packs his tall, slender frame into baggy, dark-colored outfits. He looks like a child wearing his father’s clothes, literally not fitting into the life of a proletarian intellectual that he has so carefully lived. Stewart sulks his shoulders at a smooth, acute angle, burying his fists into his pockets. A cockeyed hat often covers his face, and he can only express himself through fits of anger. He’s an adolescent in an adult’s body, stubbornly refusing to mature.
In contrast to Lord and Connor, Haven is mature and confident. While he was clearly a reckless man in his previous marriage to Lord, he’s settled down. Grant’s screen presence makes him an excellent fit for Haven, as he embodies a natural masculine charm. His suits are tailored near-perfectly, and his style is modest. He carries himself with his shoulders straight and chest forward, yet there’s a levity to his every action. It’s a far cry from his malicious manipulator in His Girl Friday, released in the same year. Haven may want Lord back, deep down in his heart, but he takes everyone’s interests into consideration.
The wedding-set final passage of The Philadelphia Story brings these three characters and their appearances into a broader context, laying their arcs to rest. At this point in the narrative, Lord and Connor share a drunken kiss the night before her wedding, and she and Kittrick part ways. Trying to soothe the wedding guests, Connor proposes that he marry Lord. She refuses, sending him back to Imbrie. In an improvisational moment, Haven feeds lines to Lord, stating that they will remarry. And she accepts his proposal. In an unusual turn of events, the rich girl casts the poor boy aside, and she severs the triangle by following the straight line to her past.
This may seem like a no-brainer, with Lord choosing the mature, confident partner over the childish, irascible one. However, in romantic comedies both new and old, the woman is often written into choosing the more problematic man, the one that needs her in order to grow up. It’s often seen in contemporary films, such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), in which the driven Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) chooses to be with Seth Rogen’s schlubby stoner, Ben Stone. So, in this case, Stewart’s Connor is one in a long line of cinematic man-children, dependent on a woman’s attention in order to mature. Out of the three characters in The Philadelphia Story’s love triangle, he is also the only flat one. Lord’s arc concludes with her self-realization, Haven’s with his maturation, and the two arcs collide with their eventual remarriage. Additionally, Haven is the only male character in the film to disingenuously refer to Lord as a goddess. Instead of offering to worship her, he points out that it’s not who she really is. Less hopefully, Imbrie is left attached to Connor, and his immaturity blinds him to that attachment. In this moment, she’s no longer a sidelined hurdle in the triangle’s way, she’s the unspoken victim of the narrative’s proceedings.
But the most important conclusion here pertains to class — that living a luxurious, privileged life does not equate to happiness. In the case of Kittrick, Lord’s now ex-fiance, he is a textbook example of nouveau-riche hypocrisy. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Lord tells him that he looks like “something right out of a shop window,” poking holes into his rags-to-riches artificiality. Imbrie is also key to this conclusion, in that she’s the only character in the film to want nothing to do with money. She tells Connor that she wouldn’t trade anything for Lord’s wealth. On the other hand, Connor hopes to find happiness in it by marrying Lord, with his persistent ribbings of the wealthy representing a self-deprecating shield against his own misconceptions. Just like in his suits, he won’t fit in. And, above all, Lord isn’t happy. Her expensive gowns control her every move, as if she were a puppet, and, by choosing to change with Haven, she can finally cut their strings.
This moral lesson bears the signature of the aforementioned Stewart, a class-conscious screenwriter if there ever was one. Ten years after the film’s release, he would testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, eventually landing on the Blacklist in 1950. Hepburn was similarly political, narrowly avoiding the Red Scare through her status as one of Hollywood’s most influential women. As a duo, they understood that money couldn’t buy happiness, and that Lord was at an even stronger disadvantage as a woman defined by the men in her life. Being released in 1940, The Philadelphia Story situated itself at a turning point in 20th century history, between the destitution of the Great Depression and the destruction of World War II (along with the following boom). It’s in this moment, one of not knowing where America would end up next, that the film exists, one in which hope is on the horizon for women and the poor — only to be shattered by midcentury conservatism and its attitudes that prevail to this day.
This brings the societal narrative back to Lord. Per the strictures of the Hays Production Code, she cannot fully evolve into the subversive character that she truly is. In the end, she must be married off, preserving that unattainable ideal of the American woman, as well as her own attachment to wealth. Her agency is not valued, only who she’s hitched to. At her heart, Lord is as gleefully anarchic as Hepburn’s own Susan Hayward in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, but the key difference is that Lord instinctually performs the image that others have ascribed to her — a goddess, a queen, a bronze statuette of feminine elegance. She’s trapped in that performance, trapped in the glistening white dress that adorns her. Ultimately, she learns that she must tear that dress off, in an act of her own free will, even if the audience isn’t privy to that moment.
And, perhaps, that moment never occurs. Lord and Haven may finally have their happy ending, with Connor’s immaturity left in Imbrie’s unfortunate hands, but it’s not that simple. Cukor ends the film on a freeze frame in a magazine, with Kidd taking a photograph of the unsuspecting guests at the wedding ceremony. The triangle of lovers stare into the lens, befuddled, even a bit terrified. Is the fragile veneer of this happy ending only an image? Who’s to say that they don’t return to the safety of their wardrobes after the fade to black — Lord with her diamond shoes, Connor with his empty pockets. After all, you are what you wear in a picture. You’re frozen in a moment of time, on display for the entire world to see.
Evan Amaral (@evandamaral) is a student of film, media studies and anthropology at Emory University. His writing can be found at the Emory Wheel, where he is the senior film critic. He also edits the journal Anthropos and works with the Emory Cinematheque.