We see a man coming out of a large mansion, carrying a suitcase. A woman follows him, carrying a bag of golf clubs. She throws the bag on the ground before breaking one of the golf clubs in half on her knee. This is recently divorced couple C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Samantha Lord. Dexter walks up to Tracy, puts his hand on her face, and pushes her to the ground before walking away. Tracy holds her neck and grimaces, watching him go, as a title card appears which reads, “Two Years Later.” A newspaper article is projected, with a photograph of Tracy and a headline that reads, “Social World Awaits Wedding Saturday.” The camera zooms in on the article, which states that Tracy is to be married to George Kittredge, at her parents’ home. At the Lords’ house, Tracy’s younger sister calls for her, before finding her older sister lying on the couch in the living room. Mrs. Lord, the girls’ mother, is looking at a pad of paper and thinking about the upcoming wedding that is to be thrown at their house. As Tracy does a crossword puzzle on the couch, she asks her mother how to spell “omelet.” Looking at the place cards for the wedding reception, Tracy eyes her younger sister Dinah and says, “These cards have been changed again.” Dinah swings a yo-yo around and suggests that perhaps a ghost changed them, “the ghost of bridegroom number 1.” Mrs. Lord asks Dinah not to talk about Dexter as though he were dead as Tracy comes across a wedding gift from a friend of her father’s. Mr. Lord, we learn here, cheated on Tracy’s mother, a betrayal which is equated with his interest in the arts. Tracy and her mother commiserate about their inability to keep their husbands.
Mrs. Lord becomes a bit sad about her daughter's divorce, but Tracy tries to cheer her up, saying, “Let’s forget about the past. We both deserve some happiness now, especially you.” As Tracy talks about how much she admires her new husband-to-be, Dinah chimes in, saying that she liked Dexter better. When Tracy begins to wonder why her fiancé George is uncharacteristically late, Dinah informs her that he’s waiting for them at the stables, which causes Tracy to storm out of the room. After her sister has left, Dinah complains to her mother about the fact that Tracy is so mean about Dexter, but Mrs. Lord reminds Dinah that Dexter was mean to Tracy in their marriage. “Did he really sock her?” asks Dinah, which Mrs. Lord refuses to answer. Dinah continues, telling her mother that the newspaper was full of innuendo (which she comically pronounces “inundo”) about Dexter’s drunkenness and violence. As Mrs. Lord walks away, Dinah questions her about why Tracy hasn’t invited their father to the wedding. “She’s sort of…hard isn’t she?” Dinah says, but Mrs. Lord maintains that her older daughter simply “sets exceptionally high standards for herself, that’s all.” Dinah accepts this, but still maintains that it’s “stinking” of Tracy not to have invited Mr. Lord, and Mrs. Lord cannot help but agree.
We see a car pulling up to the stables and Dinah and Tracy hop out. Tracy takes out a bottle of perfume and tells Dinah, “This is Uncle Willie’s favorite: Complete Surrender.” She then pours some perfume on a handkerchief and walks over to Uncle Willie, waving the handkerchief near him. He becomes momentarily incensed by the perfume, lowering his Spy Magazine, before realizing that it’s only his nieces. As Tracy makes fun of her uncle’s magazine, he pinches her abruptly and warns her not to “play with fire, particularly on the eve of [her] wedding.” Just then, Tracy’s fiancé, George, comes walking towards them. Playfully, Tracy makes fun of George’s riding clothes, before pushing him to the ground and dirtying them. George laughs at Tracy’s spontaneity, and when he sees Dinah carrying the Spy Magazine, reaches for it and looks for an article about their wedding. Tracy is appalled, grabbing the magazine and reading from an article that explores the interior of a congressman’s home. “Of all the filthy ideas, coming into a private house with a camera!” she grunts, throwing the magazine on the ground. George is surprised by Tracy’s response and asks how she would feel if he ever decided to go into politics and he needed to do publicity. “Not in my home!” she laughs, but George corrects her: “our home.” Tracy smiles at him and jumps on her horse. George struggles to climb onto his horse, until Dinah gives him some tips. Once on top of his horse, George struggles to control it, and his performance is met by disapproval from Uncle Willie and Dinah.
The scene shifts and we see the office door of an editor named Sidney Kidd for a publication called Dime and Spy. A reporter, Mike Connor, comes into the office, followed by a photographer, Liz Imbrie. Mike tells Liz that he needs to confront Sidney Kidd and tell him that he’s a serious writer and not a “society snoop.” Mike grows more and more agitated as they continue down the hall, insisting to Liz that he wouldn’t mind being fired, because it would mean he could go back to his first love, writing short stories. Dexter walks behind them, eavesdropping on their conversation. As they enter Sidney Kidd’s office, Mike informs the editor that he feels he is being treated unfairly. Kidd looks up from his office and asks Mike and Liz if they hate him. Mike informs his boss that he doesn’t hate him but doesn’t like him very much, while Liz simply says, “I can’t afford to hate anyone, I’m a photographer.” Kidd outlines the story of Tracy Lord, which he wants Mike and Liz to cover. He describes her as being a wealthy girl who “married on impulse and divorced in a rage, and [who is] always unapproachable by the press.” Mike rolls his eyes, as Kidd decides that the article should be called “The Philadelphia Story.”
While Mike is completely opposed to doing the story, Liz sees the practical side of things and doesn’t want to lose her job, so asks Kidd how they are meant to infiltrate the Lords’ house. “We’re not gonna do it Liz! It’s degrading, it’s undignified!” Mike howls, but Liz fires back, “So is an empty stomach,” and repeats her question to Kidd. In response, Kidd lets in Dexter, Tracy’s ex-husband, whom Kidd seems to be blackmailing. Kidd introduces Dexter as an employee of the Buenos Aires office of Dime and Spy. When Mike turns to Dexter and asks him if Tracy knows him, Dexter jokes, “You might say me and Ms. Lord grew up together.” Just then, Liz identifies Dexter as Tracy’s ex-husband, remembering him because she was charged with photographing their honeymoon, but hers was the only camera that Dexter didn’t smash. Kidd gets them back on track, urging Dexter to bring Mike and Liz into the Lords’ home as soon as possible. Dexter has agreed to introduce Mike and Liz as good friends of Tracy’s brother, Junius. Junius has been employed by the American embassy in Argentina, and will not be present at the wedding. Mike cannot seem to understand why Dexter is working on this project, but posits that perhaps he wants to get even with Tracy. Dexter says nothing, but tells Kidd that he is going to have the journalists picked up the next day and leaves the room abruptly.
The following day, Dexter drives Mike and Liz to the Lord estate. A butler, Edward, answers the door, shocked to see Dexter, and Dexter asks if Tracy is home. When Edward tells Dexter that Tracy and her mother are at the swimming pool, Dexter says he will go around himself and surprise them. He tells Edward that Mike and Liz are friends and need to be shown to the south parlor. In the parlor, Liz takes photos as Mike sits down at a piano nearby and plunks out a tune. When Liz goes to explore an adjoining parlor, Mike follows her. “Wouldn’t you know you’d have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this!” Liz says, snapping photos. In yet another part of the house, Mike examines the silver for the wedding, joking that the Lords “run a hawk shop on the side.” When he picks up something off the table, a stern looking butler stares at him and Mike walks back into the parlor. He approaches Liz and wants to figure out more about why Dexter is working on the case. Mike outlines what they know about Dexter: “He plays polo, he designs sailboats, very upper-class!” Liz jokes that Kittredge, Tracy’s new fiancé, is a “man of the people.”
Mike looks at a telephone with lines that go throughout the estate. Despite Liz’s discouragement, Mike makes a call. We see Tracy and Mrs. Lord preparing for the wedding elsewhere in the estate as Mike’s call comes through. Mrs. Lord answers the phone, and Mike jokes that he’s in the bridal suite and would like “a couple of caviar sandwiches and a bottle of beer.” Mrs. Lord is confused as Mike continues, announcing himself as “the voice of Doom” and telling her that her days are numbered. Mrs. Lord hangs up the phone, confused, and tells Tracy that one of the servants has been drinking. Before she can go to investigate, they are interrupted by the arrival of Dexter. Tracy cannot believe it and looks at her mother anxiously, just as Dexter comes in. Mrs. Lord tries to warn Dexter not to confront Tracy, but Tracy walks towards him, saying, “You can go right back where you came from!” It is clear that Mrs. Lord and Dinah love Dexter, but Tracy remains cold and sarcastic towards him. When Dexter offers to be George’s best man at the wedding, standing in for Tracy’s brother Junius, Tracy says, “I'm afraid that George might prefer to have his best man sober.” Dexter then tells Mrs. Lord, Dinah, and Tracy that Junius sent two friends, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, who are waiting in the house.
Tracy and Mrs. Lord are surprised to hear about the unexpected guests, and Dexter sits Mrs. Lord down to tell her about Liz and Mike. “They expect to stay here over the wedding? I think that’s very queer indeed,” says Mrs. Lord. Tracy insists that it’s not only queer, but paranoid, accusing Dexter of lying to them, and interrogating him about why he went to South America after the divorce. She even goes so far as to guessing that he went to work for Spy Magazine, and guessing that “Junius’ friends” are photographers. Tracy goes to call Junius, but Dexter agrees to confess and she hangs up. When he confesses nothing, Tracy storms out of the room and he follows. Dinah wants to go too, but Mrs. Lord urges her to stay behind.
From the start, the movie establishes itself as not only about marriage, but perhaps more importantly about class. Tracy Lord belongs to one of the oldest families in Philadelphia, and with this status comes a great deal of privilege and authority. When we first meet her, she is sprawled out on a couch doing a crossword puzzle as her younger, precocious sister Dinah eyes an expensive looking wedding gift before deciding it “stinks.” The Lord sisters are smart and spunky, but they are also somewhat corrupted by their inordinate amount of money and leisure. Tracy, in particular, is difficult to please—in short, she is a snob—who even her own mother says has nearly impossible standards that she needs the people in her life to meet. Privilege has hardened Tracy, to the point that she cannot even invite her own father to her wedding, a father whom even her mother (who divorced him) thinks is a bit harsh. In this way, the film wastes no time in showing the viewer that it is concerned with the upper classes, the way they live, work (or more precisely, don’t), and marry.
Tracy’s new fiancé, George, is a man of means, but he is distinguished from Tracy and her family by the fact that his money is rather newly acquired. The Lords’ money is old and established, but George is a business man, and as such has a certain “nouveau riche” reputation. This subtle difference in the nature of Tracy and George’s class positions is revealed in different ways. First, when George enters, he is wearing new clothes, and Tracy teases him for looking like he just walked out of a shop. The newness of George’s riding clothes, Tracy suggests, makes it seem as though he has no history with horseback riding, which would suggest that he is not “old money.” Similarly, when they mount their horses, Tracy jumps atop hers with the ease of a lifelong rider, while George struggles to climb up. George’s awkwardness in the setting of older established American wealth turn him into something of a joke to his more genteel in-laws.
The force to unravel and expose the snobbery of the Lord household is the press, and specifically Dime and Spy, the publication that Tracy Lord most despises. At the office of the manipulative publisher and editor, Sidney Kidd, we see that the journalist tasked with covering the story of Tracy Lord is something of a snob himself. While not a classist snob, Mike Connor fancies himself a serious writer and looks down at the disgraceful work he has to do as a writer for a tabloid. The work of a tabloid journalist is, in his eyes, beneath him, and he would rather quit the paper and be a short story writer than have to infiltrate the premises of rich society people like the Lords. His sarcastic assistant, Liz, is more indifferent to the assignment, but Mike rolls his eyes and dreads having to follow the story of something so innocuous as a rich debutante’s second marriage. To him, the assignment is insulting to his sense of dignity as a writer. Curiously enough, this is one thing that he and his subject, Tracy Lord, might agree on.
Mike and Liz eventually agree to take on the story, and they become the film’s sarcastic yet curious protagonists, wandering through the lavish Lord mansion with simultaneous disgust and a piqued curiosity about the family’s ornate lifestyle. After being dropped into the rarefied and eccentric world of the landed gentry, the viewer is brought into the confidence of two scrappy and skeptical journalists who are going undercover to get the real scoop on some Lord family gossip. The introduction of Mike, a self-righteous, witty, and irreverent writer, and Liz, his pragmatic but equally sardonic photographer, adds suspense and fun to the story, as the viewer is invited to view the Lord estate at once from within and without. We are privy to the concerns of the Lords themselves, as well as to the concerns of the journalists charged with exposing them. Liz and Mike’s relationship to each other and to the Lord estate is playfully cavalier, and they have no qualms about making fun of the family’s excesses.
The tone of the film is playful and quick from the first minute. The iconic opening sequence, in which we see Dexter storming out of the Lord mansion after what seems like a particularly turbulent fight with Tracy, is cartoonish and slapstick, a comedic montage without dialogue and filled with the adolescent antics of a furious fighting couple. We see Dexter leaving the mansion once and for all, followed by Tracy, who theatrically breaks one of his golf clubs over her knee. The end of the sequence is punctuated by Dexter walking right up to Tracy and pushing her face down so that she falls to the ground. The action is astonishing in its suddenness, but the way that it is shot makes it seem more slapstick than cruel. Thus, director George Cukor foreshadows that the film will be filled with fights and conflicts, injustices and pushes, but that it will all be done with a lightly comic touch, and that the characters are all up to their respective entanglements.