Good Example OF Creative Writing On The Divorce Comedy OF The Philadelphia Story
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George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the 1940s, receiving six Oscar nominations and winning two (Best Screenplay, Donald Ogden Stewart and Best Actor, James Stewart) (Oscars.org, 2014). The tale of a divorced couple (played by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) who find themselves reuniting in the face of the wife’s upcoming, highly-publicized second marriage, is a perfect example of the kind of quick-witted smoothness and laidback slapstick indicative of the best comedies of the Golden Age. Director George Cukor, in his handling of the theatrical, fast-paced staging and non-stop reams of quippy dialogue, effectively balances uproarious comedy with treacly romance, while effortlessly exploring the gender dynamics of divorce and the different ways it affects men and women.
The film itself is based on a play written by Donald Ogden Stewart, which has seen productions running as recently as 2005 (Hollywoodreporter.com). In this recent production, Kevin Spacey played Grant’s character, C.K. Dexter Haven, Jennifer Ehle as Tracy Lord, and DW Moffett as Mike (James Stewart’s character); despite this incredible pedigree of actor, comparisons were inevitably made to the original on-screen trio, which further illustrates the sheer impact and long-lasting appeal of the film as the Platonic staging of this particular story. In addition to that, the script is very much of its time, dealing with old-fashioned ideas of divorce, love and remarriage – “The story touches on the differences between the upper class and the working class but not so much that there's any hint of changing the status quo. It's more about affairs of the heart than anything to do with social equality” (Hollywood Reporter). While it is a refreshing example of a strong, independent woman in early film, the outcome of the divorce subplot cements it firmly as an ‘old-fashioned’ kind of movie with fairly conservative values.
The film itself establishes its approach to gender politics right from the start, as Tracy’s sister Dinah (Virginia Welder) saunters around the house while Tracy and her mother Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey) fret about her impending wedding. Spinning a yo-yo up and down as she circles around a fussing Tracy, this scene establishes the quick-witted, fast-paced dialogue of the film with Tracy’s confident barbs at Dinah and Elizabeth. In particular, Tracy and Elizabeth (both divorcees) express a certain melancholy about life after divorce; while they both are glad for their respective decisions, they admit live has gotten harder for them. Even Elizabeth opines, “Now I have my self-respect and no husband.”
The film is not averse to slapstick, however; Cukor punctuates the relatively staid medium and flat-plane shots for close-ups of some of the more particularly comedic moments, such as when Tracy reaches into a secret compartment to grab her persuasive ‘Complete Surrender’ perfume, or when Tracy pokes Uncle Willy’s derriere to surprise him with her arrival. Still others keep the wide shot to emphasize the physical comedy, such as when Tracy tackles her fiancé George and dirties up his equestrian pants.
When Dexter finally enters the picture, Tracy’s disdain for him and her need to assert her independence from him becomes even more exaggerated. Tracy’s somewhat harsh, acerbic coldness is leavened by Dexter’s lightness and affability right from his first entrance. Heralded by off-screen whistling and excited small talk with Dinah off-screen (while Tracy looks on in worry), Cukor quickly establishes the power dynamics; Tracy fears and is intimidated by Dexter’s confidence and kindness, while the other members of the family love him and anxiously await his return to the family. Dexter holds no ill will, while Tracy herself is incredibly hostile - “you don’t think I’ll miss your wedding, do you?” says Dexter calmly, as if he is expected to crash it. Dexter focuses on ingratiating himself to the family, framing him with Dinah and Elizabeth frequently while Tracy is forced to stand on the outside of the proceedings. Dexter even calls out Tracy’s coldness (as she stands above him to take a domineering position): “I used to be afraid of that look – the withering glance of the goddess.” While Tracy is trying to assert herself, she ends up coming across as an ice queen; in this way, Cukor’s film establishes that to be a strong divorcee means having to be harsh and cold, something that makes you unpleasant to be around.
The arrival of journalist Mike Connor (Stewart) into the mix allows the film to become more about male bonding over who gets to treat Tracy right, and offers the unique Golden Age-era slapstick of the ‘happy drunk.’ In the scene where a drunk Mike confronts Dexter at Tracy’s home, he circles predatorily around Dexter, hiccupping and making bold declarations. As they sit down at the table, Cukor reminds the audience that Mike is drunk by framing a champagne bottle next to Mike in the foreground of his close-ups. Apart from that, however the two men are equated in a balanced two-shot, making the scene about navigating their affections for Tracy.
When a drunk, passed-out Tracy arrives in a car, the two men make their moves to woo Tracy – when Dexter gets into the car to talk to her passed-out face, Cukor switches to low lighting and a balanced close up of the two of their faces, leaning against the backs of the seats as if to simulate the pillow talk they had as a married couple: “You look beautiful, Red.” However, when Mike takes off with her and they get even drunker, Cukor gives his scene a bit more energy; fading in to a shot of the radio, champagne bottle and two glasses next to a shimmering pond, Cukor then slowly pans up to see Tracy and Mike dancing along the edge. As they continue to cavort, Mike sits down in a wheeled chaise, Tracy picks it up and wheels Mike along, spinning him before cutting to a medium two-shot, slowly pushing in as Mike urges her not to marry George. These two approaches offer contrasting visions of male security and safety for Tracy; with Dexter, there is the security of memory, as they would relive the nights they already spent together, while with Mike there is the promise of youthful free-wheeling and fun.
Between its quaint gender politics, quick-witted sense of fun, and impeccable performances from all three leads, The Philadelphia Story proves itself to be a warm-hearted and deeply old-fashioned romantic comedy of the best tradition of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film’s themes thoroughly explore the ways in which society judges and looks down on women who deign to divorce their husbands. Tracy, in particular, is seen somewhat as a forceful blowhard and a cold, dismissive harpy, even by Dinah and Elizabeth, who sigh at her perceived impossible standards for dating: “your sister has very definite opinions about things.” The two, just like the audience, seem to know that Tracy is destined to get back together with her ex-husband Dexter (Grant), who will, as is the convention with the films of this era, most certainly straighten out her feminine failings.
Hollywood Reporter. “’The Philadelphia Story’ (Theater Review).” The Hollywood Reporter.
July 12, 2005.
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