Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
On August 22, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story. A recent conversation about watching old movies on PBS in the pre-cable era got me thinking about this film, which I first saw on PBS with my late grandmother … in the pre-cable era. With that memory, I thought I’d repost my review of it here. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
We live in a world of preconceived notions, and our lifestyle has put us there. As a society, we are so accustomed to taking in as much information in as little time as possible (so that we can move on quickly to the next thing), we sometimes forget to take the time to fully understand things. Sound-bite news feeds, on-screen crawls, and sidebar articles can offer just enough information to get us by at the water cooler the next day, and because of our short attention spans, we sometimes find it easy to make generalizations about people because its quick and easy, despite any inaccuracy.
Which of the following sounds familiar to you (either based on your own thoughts or on the comments you’ve heard from others)? All models are dumb. All geniuses are geeks. All writers drink. All rich people are snobs. The list could go on and it could get far worse. George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story looks at the preconceived notions of a variety of personalities, dismantles those notions, and does so with humor, charm, and romance.
The Philadelphia Story opens with a short scene that wonderfully plays like an old silent picture. A handsome and affluent man storms out of his large house with luggage in hand. Nipping at his heels is a beautiful and affluent woman who pulls a golf club from the man’s bag and spitefully snaps it in half over her knee (golf club shafts were made of wood back then, kids). The man cocks his fist, but rather than hit her, he palms her face like a basketball and pushes her to the ground. End Scene. Cukor’s efficiency here is fantastic. In less than a minute, and with no dialogue, we know (or we can safely assume) that these two characters are wealthy, spiteful, and soon to be divorced. It’s instant conflict.
Fast-forward two years, and we learn that the woman was Tracy Lord (Hepburn), a publicity-shy Philadelphia blueblood, and the face-palmer was her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), also of old Philadelphia money. Tracy is set to marry George Kitteredge (Howard), a man not of blue blood, but of blue collar, who earned, not inherited, his wealth, and who has high social and political aspirations.
Enter Macauley “Mike” Connor (Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Hussey), reporter and photographer (respectively) for Spy Magazine, who will attend the Lord-Kitteredge nuptials under the guise of being friends of Tracy’s brother, who is traveling abroad and cannot attend. While there, Mike and Liz will covertly cover the wedding for the magazine. Dexter has arranged this fraud, seemingly for revenge, but things, as you know, are rarely as they seem, and this situation is no exception. (By the way, Dexter plans to stick around for the wedding as well. His thought process is that even though they are divorced, Tracy is still his wife until she is remarried, and he has every right to see it happen.
When Tracy scolds Dexter for inviting strangers into her home, he reveals their identities (but he doesn’t tell Mike and Liz that Tracy knows), and he explains to Tracy that the magazine story of her wedding is the price she must pay to bury another story about an affair between her still-married father and some dancer. Blaming both her father and Dexter for the pinch that she’s in, Tracy allows the charade to continue, but takes the opportunity to crank up her snobbery level ten-fold, with the help of her kid-sister Dinah (Weidler) and their mother, Margaret (Mary Nash). Mike and Liz, commoners in an uncommon situation, find themselves overwhelmed by, and contemptuous of, the affluence of those around them. Still, they have no choice but to carry out their assignment.
Preconception runs rampant throughout this film. Tracy looks down on Mike not because of his socioeconomic status, but because of his job. She views him as nothing more than a snoop who refuses to let private lives remain private, until she learns that Mike has published a book of poetry. She then tags him as an intellectual snob, but ultimately realizes that his poetry comes not from his mind, but from his heart.
Mike pegs Tracy for being a high society* snob, until he gets to know her better, too. In fact, he discovers what a fascinating person she truly is. Throughout the film, she is at odds with nearly everyone: Dexter, for their previous marriage and his connection to Spy; her father, for his philandering ways; her mother, for tolerating her father’s lifestyle; Mike, for his disdain of society and his intellectualism; and Liz, for her normalcy. Tracy even harbors a little resentment for Dinah, her kid sister, because Dinah still believes that Dexter is the only man for Tracy.
But even though she was born into wealth, Tracy has a headstrong and independent will (classic Hepburn character trademarks). She is the center of everyone’s universe, yet she resents that everyone puts her on a pedestal. She yearns for a true, “normal” love, yet she prepares to marry a man largely because of what he is, not who he is. Some would call her hypocritical, but in the hands of Hepburn, Tracy is sympathetically misguided – the poor little rich girl at odds with the most important person in her life … herself.
Also interesting is C.K. Dexter Haven. While everyone is busy being angry at someone else, Dexter remains somewhat neutral. He might be admired, envied, or despised, and he might instigate problems between others, but his motives, and the core of his character, are pure, and that purity is fueled by his love for Tracy – a love that never died, even if their marriage did. He has not invited Mike and Liz so that Spy can publish the dish on Tracy’s wedding; that’s nothing but a cover story. Dexter wants to spare Tracy and her family from the public embarrassment that her father is causing with his wandering libido, and Dexter’s deal with the magazine was the only way to do that.
Also, he has no real concern that Mike (who has fallen in love with Tracy, or at least thinks he has) or George are threats; he doesn’t have to. Let’s face it: he’s C.K. Dexter Haven, and he knows it. He is only concerned about Tracy and her happiness, and he sincerely believes that her happiness is with him. So, while his actions show that her happiness could be with someone else, his confidence in his own idea of the truth lets him get her without taking her. He embraces the “If you love something, set it free…” mantra, but he never tips his hand as such.
The Philadelphia Story is one of those rich movies (not in dollars, but in depth) with a greater message comprised of smaller messages, none of which is preachy or heavy-handed. It covers tabloid journalism’s quest to do whatever it takes to get a story, it addresses the divide between the social classes, and it touches on divorce, adultery, and sexism (all of which still ring true today). But the overall puzzle that is made up of these pieces is one of handling preconception. Not all models are dumb, nor are all geniuses geeks, nor are even worse preconceptions involving race, gender, or religion true. It also shows that not all rich people are snobs, not all intellectuals are snobs, and a person’s lot in life doesn’t define who that person is.
With a sharp script, tight direction, and excellent performances from a roster of Golden Age all-stars, The Philadelphia Story gets that message across with plenty of laughs, in a story that spans all of two days. By the end of the film, feelings are hurt, fences are mended, jokes are made at nearly everyone’s expense, and not everybody wins.
But in the end, Tracy finally, and happily, marries … and it’s all caught on camera for Spy Magazine.
*Kudos to you if you understand this reference. What, you thought I would just give it to you here?