The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“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.”

So says C.K. Dexter Haven, ex-husband of the pretentious and beautiful Tracy Lord.  She has thrown him out and banned him from her mansion estate, and has recently engaged herself to George Kittredge.  In Kittredge, she sees everything that Haven was not.  Unlike Haven, who was born into the social elite, Kittredge was a self-made member of the upper-classes, not subject to the vices of the pampered life (a life that she, herself, has lived).  A woman of her privilege demands the absolute best in everything she consumes: her wine, her clothes, her horses, and her men.  Haven couldn’t live up to the task; he was an alcoholic with no respect for the things she wanted.  Perhaps Kittredge will.

So say all the newspapers and gossip magazines that are counting down the days until her wedding.  She is the premier socialite in her community, and her love life has been as well documented as any.  Haven knows this, and hatches a discreet plan.  He convinces the editor of Spy magazine to put his best team to task in covering the wedding—a wedding that Tracy has insisted be private.  Using a questionable story about her father’s suspected infidelities as blackmail, the Spy team forces Tracy’s hand.  Before she knows it, she is bombarded with a father to whom she has become disillusioned, an ex-husband whom she has banished forever, and a hard-nosed newspaper team consisting of a working class gossip writer named Mike Connor and a photographer named Liz Imbrie.  So begins the hi-jinks, hilarity, and high-level dialogue of what many consider to be the finest screwball comedy ever made.

I would agree with the claim that The Philadelphia Story is the finest of all screwball comedies, if not for the fact that it might not actually be a screwball comedy in the purest sense.  There is an air of seriousness in the film that can’t be found in other screwball comedies of the era, placing it more in the realm of true romantic comedy.  But, there are certainly strains of screwball, from the script to the occasional slapstick element; in this case, a slapstick element played out subtly in drunken scenes of revelation.  The actors themselves were staples of the screwball genre, and I think a lot of people expected a little more of the typical elements of the genre when they went to see the movie because of the actors in the billing.

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Katharine Hepburn in the starring role is perhaps the most significant of these actors.  Her “typecasting” (a phenomenon which I argue in my two-part series on acting is not as bad as some people claim it to be) in the screwball niche had contributed slowly to her becoming labeled “box office poison.”  She saw this script—the rights to which she had obtained as a gift from Howard Hughes—as a potential antidote to her “poisonous” reputation.  She had long been considered an actress who blocked, in some unknown way, box office growth, despite her obvious talent.  Box office failures aside, she had still netted to nominations from the Academy for her roles in Alice Adams and Morning Glory; she had won the Oscar for the latter.  In order to propel this movie to success, Hepburn wanted two stars of Hollywood who had already mastered both the dramatic and the comic, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, to play the roles of Dexter Haven and Mike Connor.

Her desire to team up with these stars was not realized.  She was, instead, given two other stars, who were no, at the time, as established as Hollywood royalty.  These men were Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Now, today, we hear that Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart were in the same movie and we are amazed and excited.  For a competent film-connoisseur, just hearing those three names in the same billing is the closest we come to being a crazed fan dressed up as Tony Stark at ComicCon in Denver hearing that Disney just purchased Sony’s film rights to Spiderman and plans on incorporating him into phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, in 1940, these were two primarily typecast comedic actors and one up-and-coming “everyman” actor who’s greatest successes had been in Frank Capra’s feel-good movies.  Stewart’s most dramatic role to that point had been the titular character of the previous year’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonand most of that film was comedy.  While hindsight is 20-20 and we can now say that he probably had the best performance of the year that year, there was no way he was going to rise above the mammoth personality of Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind or the theatrical prowess of Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (and even they lost to Robert Donat’s now-forgotten performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips…all due respect to Donat).

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While the Gable/Tracy pairing never worked out (history is eternally grateful for “other commitments”), Hepburn was able to secure the services of two of her favorite behind-the-scenes personalities: George Cukor as director and Donald Ogden Stewart, an expert at adapting plays (The Philadelphia Story had been a stage production the year previous, a production in which Hepburn had also starred).  Cukor and D. Stewart would work closely with Hepburn to make this film a success.

The success of the film, despite all the talent involved, hinged ultimately on Hepburn.  And she delivered.  Being the owner of the script, and being committed to the idea that she could resurrect her failing film career, she was, in her own way, the auteur of The Philadelphia Story.  She was the one who had been associated with the story for the longest, having played Lord on the stage before playing her on the screen.  She was the one who sought out the two Stewarts, Cukor, and Grant.  And the movie, despite the great supporting cast, was focused on her character.  Tracy Lord is The Philadelphia Story.  How can you tell?

Well, first of all, she has most of the lines.  Second of all, the three main players besides her are three men competing for her heart.  But most of all, she is the one with the most substance.  She changes the most during the course of this picture.  The Philadelphia Story is one of screwball’s famous comedies of “remarriage”: a sub-genre that was introduced by the philosopher Stanley Cavell in his book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage.  According to Cavell, the comedy of remarriage was the crowning achievement of American cinema because it introduced a relationship of mutual love, not just one based on society.  One of the common occurrences in “remarriage” comedies is the phenomenon of “comeuppance”, where one or both of the characters learn a lesson the hard way.  The reason why this is Hepburn’s film is because she is the one who gets the brunt of the story’s comeuppance.

She gets hers only when she learns what mutual love and respect is all about.  This is what Cavell was getting at in his examination of the remarriage comedies.  Her divorce from Grant’s Dexter at first seems justified—he was an alcoholic, after all—but as the movie goes on we learn more and more about her role in the whole thing.  She, in her own way, encouraged his drinking because of her own ridiculous demands, and every time he failed to live up to her expectations, his drinking just got worse.  Now, a simple story would be to document how Grant learned his lessons, repented, and lived a new, better life.  But, the hardest changes a human has to make in life are the less-visible ones; it’s not the behaviors, so much as the person himself (or herself) that is the hardest to change.  It’s much easier to start donating more money to charity than it is to be truly compassionate.  It’s much easier to stop getting in fights than it is to be truly patient.  It’s much easier to congratulate others more often than it is to become truly humble.  What the comedy of remarriage does is it shows characters who not only change behaviors, but characters who change the very aspect of their nature that kept them from the ultimate goal: a relationship of mutual love.

This is where we return to the line from the movie that I quoted at the very beginning of this review: “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.”  Some less-enlightened people (who claim to be enlightened) will criticize The Philadelphia Story as being sexist because it seems to blame the wife for the husband’s mistakes and one scene in the movie even seems to condone adultery.  This line likely does not help to un-convince the haters since Haven seems to differentiate between a “woman” and a “human being.”  However, someone with half a brain can see what he is getting at.  This is one of the truly great lines of the movie, a line that stands as a testament to the quality that screenplays of the 1930s and ’40s had.  Writers didn’t just write conversations to propel a plot or set up a joke, they thought about the words they were using and realized the literary value a movie could carry.

In this line, Haven is not differentiating between women and “real” humans, he is differentiating between two different meanings of the term “first class.”  It is the adjective, not the noun, that is being played with.  To be first class can be to be upper-class.  It can also mean “good”, like a first class person is a good person.  Katharine Hepburn’s character, brought up in the first class, was confusing what it meant to be a good person with what it meant to be acceptable to the social elite.  She was a socialite who saw herself as an exception to all rules.  By movie’s end, she has to learn that humans, regardless of social standing, are fallible.  And, perhaps, the person whose fallibility she must learn to accept above all is her own.

The movie plays out like a fun little love triangle (or square), but a mature film viewer can see in the motifs and themes of the script that there is only one couple of true consequence: C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord.  The other two love interests—Kittredge, the fiance, and Connor, the innocent working newspaper man—are foils that help Tracy along her path to redemption.  Haven’s redemption is already mostly finalized at the start of the movie: his drinking has ceased and he’s restructured his life.  His own redemption will only be finalized with the forgiveness of his ex-wife.

While the other two men, particularly Stewart’s Connor, are not as romantically legitimate as the first viewing may imply, they are by no means unimportant.  As a matter of fact, Stewart can be justifiably recognized as the most important actor in the film: he’s the glue that connects all the bricks.  His actions and his attitudes toward’s Tracy and her elitist lifestyle, as well as his unexpected infatuation with her by movie’s end, are the catalysts for the change that is occurring in characters all around him.  Easily the most important scene in the movie is the scene when he and Hepburn, tipsy and wet from a dive in the pool, flirt back and forth to no avail.  It is in his conversation with Tracy that her most important line is uttered: “The time to make up your mind about people…is never.”

She says this to Stewart, almost like a mother reprimanding her child, in order to tell him that he shouldn’t have rushed to judgment about her character.  He learns his lesson, but she learns her too.  Maybe she made up her mind a little too early herself…about her ex-husband, a man who, as far as we know, is as classy as they come.  This scene shows the two superstars in their true element: both Stewart and Hepburn went on to win the Best Lead acting awards at the Academy Awards that year.

Other than the drunken scene with Stewart, another scene of significance is the scene where Tracy confronts her father in regards to his betrayal, a point that had been alluded to during the course of the movie and finally addressed in fullness.  This scene is the most troublesome, as her father defends himself with such emotion that he seems to be preaching.  Surely the moral of the movie cannot be one where adultery is justified?  It’s not the moral.  The idea, even here, is that characters are imperfect.  Just because her father feels this way doesn’t mean he’s right.  Here, the film is not trying to tell you who’s right and who’s wrong, instead, it’s trying to tell you that Tracy should love her father anyway, no matter how confused he is.  There is no approval of his actions, despite the convincing nature of his words.  There is only, again, a search for an unadulterated mutual love.

This movie is brilliant, funny, jolly, and attractive, full of star power and great pace.  There is also great depth in the dialogue—obviously, this is a movie taken from off the stage.  The characters act as foils to one another, bringing out characteristics in each that are necessary to fully appreciate the action on screen.  As they interact, we see them change.  James Stewart’s character learns to relinquish his grasp on social stereotypes.  Katharine Hepburn’s character learns to be more accepting, and love without judgment.  Of all the characters, Cary Grant’s goes through the smallest change, at least on screen.

It’s a common practice in every High School English class when you start analyzing a story to ask yourself how the characters change from beginning to end.  It is a rare occurrence when such change is seen in so many key players.  The way they change gives special flavor to the comedy all around.  This is great comedy; the comedy seems to guide the characters, not the other way around.  It is natural, it is poetic, it is hilarious.  This is great film: an entertaining slice of cake, an intimate look into the lives of others, whose fiction brings so much flavor to our reality.

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6 thoughts on “The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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