The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Directed by George Cukor

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Philadelphia Story is one of those movies I have a hard time writing about because I don’t know what to say.  It’s a fine movie, there are some nice performances by very famous actors, and it’s occasionally funny.  That being said it’s just a romantic comedy, right?

What I will say is that I absolutely adore James Stewart, and there is one moment in particular that demands to be rewatched.  It’s not a big moment, in fact it’s quite mundane, but it involves a few hiccups and two actors running with the unscripted moment.  It’s a scene that Cary Grant would reference nearly half a century later when he presented James Stewart with an honorary Oscar.

James Stewart is the most likable character in the film, and there’s something so darn sincere about the characters he plays (outside of maybe Vertigo).  Stewart plays a reporter named Macaulay, assigned to cover the wedding of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) to a “man of the people,” George Kittredge (John Howard).  Macaulay is accompanied by a photographer, Liz (Ruth Hussey) and Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy’s ex-husband.

It’s an ensemble cast, and their reasoning for coming together is bizarre.  Macauley, Liz and Dexter all work at Spy Magazine, and the Tracy-George wedding demands to be covered.  Dexter uses his “in” with the family (Tracy’s mother and sister still love him) to get Macauley and Liz access to the ceremony.  From there it seems unimportant that Dexter stick around, particularly since he blackmails Tracy into letting the reporter and photographer stay.

There is a lot of mistaken identity going on, but the emphasis is on the various love triangles.  Tracy is set to marry George, but we can recognize immediately that they will never get married.  George is made to be some kind of well-meaning buffoon who can barely climb onto a horse, something life in high society demands you handle capably.

Tracy and Dexter loathe each other, so that’s off the table, but she does develop an interest in Macauley who reciprocates that affection.  They are made to be the central romance, though the photographer Liz is in love with Macauley but trusts that he has a lot to learn before he will love her, or something like that.

Eventually George mistakenly assumes that Tracy and Macauley have had an affair, and, offended by his accusation, Tracy calls off the engagement on the day of the wedding.  Because everyone is ready for someone to get married, Macauley volunteers to marry Tracy, but she declines.  Then Dexter offers to marry her, and she accepts.  Strange.

Again, it’s a fine movie.  It has everything that romantic comedies from the 40s seemed to have.  There are the A list stars, the handsome but foolish male character, the wise-cracking kid, the depiction of high society life, characters who can’t believe what they’re seeing, etc.

A lot of these movies seem to take place in that realm of high society, as if we all aspire to be there ourselves.  It doesn’t matter if the lives of these characters are so far removed from our own because their wealth, it seems, is meant to be respected.  Maybe it’s just that studios think A list stars such as Hepburn, Grant and Stewart must play characters as easy to worship as their own celebrity.  Well, Hepburn had actually come off a series of box office failures, so Philadelphia Story was meant to act as a sort of come back, which it did, but the point still stands.  I think.

I’m making broad assumptions here, and I have little evidence to support this, but this does feel like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, another ensemble film which depicted, satirized and lampooned high society.  That French film, though, did so in a way this one isn’t quite ready to do.  We’re meant to laugh at the characters in Philadelphia Story, but only to a certain extent.  We chuckle at their buffoonery and the repeated instances of mistaken identity (people are often pretending to be someone else), but for the most part, I believe, we are meant to respect who they are as people.  This isn’t the case in The Rules of the Game in which the humor mocked just about everything about the characters we met.  They were all idiots, essentially.

Again, perhaps I’m over-analyzing (or even mis-analyzing) what’s going on here, but I think it represents the differences between American and European points of view.  America was (and is) all about that rags to riches story, particularly before World War II.  Even the poorest of people think they had the same opportunity to strike it rich as someone with a really, really, really hardworking great-grandfather.  To some extent it’s a lie because where you start from does matter, I’m just not sure how much.  The characters in a movie like this one are people I think we’re made to admire because deep down we think we could be them someday and we hope to be them someday.  In The Rules of the Game, however, that high society life is mocked because they are not people we will ever become.  We see them as part of an entirely different class of people.  The differences between us and them are a bridge burned or at least one of those precariously constructed, rotting bridges across which survival is not guaranteed.  The bridge between the high society life of Philadelphia Story and us is a very sturdy, beautiful bridge but which has a thick, crystal clear plane of glass blocking our path somewhere in the middle.  It looks inviting, but it’s impenetrable.

Or am I just rambling too much?

Up Next: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Annihilation (2018), The Paths of Glory (1957)

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