Thematically Speaking | The Philadelphia Story
Thematically Speaking is a new feature from the establishment known to a select few and private circles as the Donnybrook Writing Academy. The privileged Fritz Godard will examine three films of varying thematic relevance over the course of a month. Leaving no frame undigested and no performance unexamined, Lord Godard will bring new depth to cinematic favourites and exposure to a neglected cannon of motion pictures.
Introducing Thematically Speaking, with Lord Fritz Godard of the Sorbonne.
What better way to christen the inaugural Thematically Speaking column at the storied Donnybrook Writing Academy than with a group of films with the same level of prestige? Set for examination are Preston Sturges’ 1942 screwball comedy “The Palm Beach Story”, followed by Yasujiro Ozu’s nirvana-inducing “Tokyo Monogatari” (“Tokyo Story”). However, let first me turn the eye of a cineast to the sophisticated romantic comedy of yesteryear, the classic, “The Philadelphia Story.”
“The prettiest thing in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
- Macaulay Conner
Besides being the new mantra of The Donnybrook Writing Academy, it is a fine example of dialogue in this script. George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” is far from the screwball “Bringing Up Baby,” and it doesn’t have anything close to the meditative Bruce Springsteen song that appears in the cities other great film more than fifty years later. It can be argued to be the film that saved Katharine Hepburn from remaining box office poison; her role in this film earned her place back in the movie-star pantheon.
The film begins with the provoked spousal abuse at the hands of Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven, and right off the bat this film looks to be a dated examination of a woman’s roll in the marriage in the pre-war family. Tracy Lords (Katharine Hepburn) is immediately seen as the villain for suggesting her mother condemn their philandering patriarch and for leaving her drunk and domestically violent husband for a social climber George Kittridge.
Miss Hepburn is portrayed in a negative light, but people would be remiss in neglecting the grander theme of her motive be taken as nothing more than suppressed feminism. Tracy Lord’s opinions aren’t as noble as her bra-burning granddaughters of the sixties; instead her motivations are rooted in the unobtainable standards she holds herself to. She’s not taking a stand against injustice, but standing firm while demanding perfection. Hepburn’s Tracy is set up for a drastic emotional fall from the second Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven pushes the leading lady across the threshold of their estate.
After falling back over the once sacred marriage threshold, Tracy is exposed as a hard heart to crack. Living in her ivory tower of perfection, she has a retort to every accusation thrown at her. The entire pool sequence is the soul of the script. The scene picks at the emotional core of Tracy, revealing a character more complex than the social page makes her out to be, and less sterile than her interactions with her fiancé have been. The scene kicks it up to eleven when Cary Grant crashes a moment between Tracy and Jimmy Stewart’s author-turned-gossip columnist, Macaulay Conner. He proceeds with an in-depth laser precision psychological interpretation of Tracy. By the time they realize Conner has left, C.K. perfectly refocuses his criticism to Tracy’s husband to be the political aspiring George Kittredge.
It’s risky to write a script, or a play, where the main villain is a hard-working coal miner turned public servant and the hero is a well-to-do aristocrat who makes yachts as a hobby. Yet the Donald Ogden Stewart script from the Philip Barry play does just that. When Kittridge arrives on the scene, C.K. takes his graceful exit by giving the couple a wedding gift. The model of the True Love, the yacht C.K. and Tracy took on a coastal tour honeymoon, appears to make the goddess nostalgic for a split second before she sends it drifting toward the middle of the pool–which paves the way for George Kittridge’s big monologue, which happens to praise Tracy for everything that C.K. told her made her awful. The sequence is perfectly written, perfectly directed and plays perfectly on point.