Flawed Classics: The Philadelphia Story

“They don’t make movies like they used to,” seems to be a common complaint among adults. “They can’t make movies like they used to,” might be more appropriate. Many people revere films from 1930-1950 as classics, while some smile tolerantly at the outdated cultural artifacts. Sure, anyone could grab a camera and tripod to go shoot a black and white film with long dialogue scenes, but I think if you tried to import classic wit, narratives, and cultural values from the past in a 21st century release without that iconic status, it wouldn’t go over well in politically correct America.

I saw The Philadelphia Story (1940) earlier this year for a seminar on the Romantic Comedy. I laughed at the humorous writing, my heart was warmed by the happily-ever-after ending, and I even experienced a tinge of jealousy at Cary Grant’s voice and suave personality. The film was pleasing to watch, but was also a bit shocking with its treatment of drinking and extramarital affairs.

Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), the daughter of wealthy Philadelphia parents, counts down the hours in preparation for her upcoming wedding to George Kittredge, a newly-made business man, after divorcing C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), her first husband. Only problem, Dexter still manages to hang around the household in preparation for the wedding. Celebrity gossip reporter Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) also manages to score access to the family with some blackmailing. Through a tag-team effort in which Connor, Haven, and Tracy’s father speechify about the virtues of tolerating human frailty, Tracy realizes she has been too high and mighty in her attitude toward men all this time. Things fall through with Kittredge, and the original couple gets remarried at the ceremony instead.

It’s a great message about reconciliation at the ending of the film, but some important things are insinuated in the details. Dexter suggests that Tracy’s status as “a virgin goddess” and her disgust with his drinking problem only drove him further into vice. Her father gives a nice exhortation saying, “You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. Without that, you might as well be made of bronze.” It’s a great line, but flawed in the sense that it follows the suggestion that had Tracy not been such an intolerant daughter, her father would not have been off cavorting with a dancer in New York City. Tracy’s mother goes along with it, and Tracy herself eventually does too.

That scene was very concerning, and I certainly don’t agree with men blaming their moral failings on women. As a 21st century viewer, I consider that a defect to the film, but I also know that it doesn’t do much good to judge the 1940’s retroactively. The feminist outrage machine has much more relevant targets, but I shuddered to imagine the response if this film were reviewed through the gender-polarizing lens of the present day. If Dexter, Kittredge, and Connor were representative of all men, and Tracy of all women, we would be scheduling a public bonfire to eliminate the film from human memory. Even though I don’t agree with those moral values portrayed, I still appreciate the overall message of the film. Tracy happens to be targeted for the purpose of moral instruction, but the message about an understanding heart and a generous attitude toward human frailty applies to all, male and female alike. To say otherwise is like arguing that the virtue of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings only applies to vertically challenged males or the life wisdom acquired by Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice applies exclusively to females. It’s unsophisticated literary taste and simply not true.

Growing up, I always heard how older films and TV shows were safer. There certainly was less objectionable content in I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show, but years later I see that humans were imperfect back then like they are now. The flaws just shift a little over time. The real question is whether we are evolved enough now to examine issues through more than a polarized cultural lens and see the good that does exist.



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