Published July 2, 2008
This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend.) The second film in the series was The Philadelphia Story (1940) by George Cukor, shown on July 1st. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:
Last week, in our discussion of The Shop Around the Corner, I said something that might have been misconstrued by some people who were here then. For those who weren’t, I apologize for going back over old ground, but the explanation of what I meant actually has some relevance for this week’s film. Some people wanted to speculate as to how happy the marriage of Klara Novak and Alfred Kralik in The Shop Around the Corner would turn out to be – just as, the previous week, the same question had come up with regard to the marriage of Ellie Andrews and Peter Warne in It Happened One Night. On both occasions, I tried to rein in that discussion, and last week I did so by observing that marriage is like death. Well, of course marriage is not at all like death, as all those of us who are married know very well. I should have made it clear that I was talking about marriage as a plot device in literature, art or the movies. What I meant was that marriage is to romantic comedy what death is to tragedy: namely, the conventional way of writing “the end” and so giving a shape to the narrative.
This is also what I meant earlier by saying that every romance is an elaborate time-sculpture. What gives it its shape and so marks it as something distinct from real life, which just tends to go on and on, is the ending. And the ending of a romantic comedy is and has to be marriage just as surely as the end of a romantic (or any other kind of) tragedy is and has to be death. To attempt to look beyond that ending, either at how the marriage was likely to work out or at the prospective fate of the soul after death, is in my view to play the ball out of bounds, as it were, and thus to fail to understand the kind of game you are playing. Once you have pursued your romantic lovers into their marriage, you have abolished the ending and so made the transition from romantic comedy to something else, usually soap opera. Soap opera is a very different thing from romantic comedy, with different purposes and different ways of meaning. In particular, it lacks that shape. Like life itself, it just goes on and on until it stops. There is no natural ending which can give it that pleasing form we associate with romantic comedy. I think that this is why the creators of what is perhaps the greatest soap opera ever written, “The Sopranos,” could find no way to end it except with a blackout.
We have to understand the importance of this bright line between what happens before the wedding and what happens after it, a line which romantic comedy had always been unwilling to cross, in order to appreciate what a big deal it was when it was crossed, as it was in tonight’s film, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, and a number of similar movies that came out of Hollywood at about the same time. Among the pictures with essentially the same plot as The Philadelphia Story, I might mention The Awful Truth of 1937, also starring Cary Grant but with Irene Dunne as his wife. Then there was He Married His Wife which, like The Philadelphia Story, dates from 1940 and Lady Be Good, Love Crazy, Bedtime Story, and That Uncertain Feeling – like The Shop Around the Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. All these movies came out in the same year, 1941. Then, in 1942 there was The Night Before the Divorce and Preston Sturges’s wonderful Palm Beach Story. The same theme was still going strong with Hepburn and Tracy in Adam’s Rib of 1949.
In every one of these movies, and many more besides, there was not a simple transition from romantic comedy to marital soap opera. Instead, they ventured into the latter only to reaffirm the values and assumptions of the former. They represent an attempt to bridge the gap between romantic comedy and soap opera by creating a new but short-lived hybrid: a romantic comedy in which the lovers had already been married and divorced and now were to marry again. We are meant to breathe a sigh of relief that the romantic fate that brought them together in the first place turns out not to have been mistaken after all. In nearly every case, too, there must be forgiveness of those who have strayed, briefly, from what by the end is meant to be seen as their truth path, and so we see again and again a reassertion in the face of social changes that seem to deny it of the traditional romantic notion that love – real love, the kind made in heaven – was a one-time only phenomenon.
Such a determined reiteration of exactly the same story-line might make the culture of the time seem to us a bit like the child of divorce who can’t stop dreaming that his parents will one day get back together. As we get closer to the present, we will see this hope begin to fade. The turn to marital soap opera on the one hand or sex farce on the other will begin to crowd out romantic comedy, which will remain only a wistful memory, a lost Eden of innocence which the romances (loosely described) of the post-sexual revolution will allude to without any longer having the ability to believe in. In the 1940s, however, the culture’s reaction to that earlier sexual revolution, the one of the 1920s, seems to have been still at the stage of denial. The cinematic representation of divorce is only an excuse to re-establish the relevance for the post-revolutionary present the traditional outlines of the romantic comedy.
As you would expect, in some of these movies, we have to be immersed in the dispiriting soap opera of divorce, with its endless stream of crises and grievances and recriminations, until the lightning strikes and the film-maker triumphantly proclaims of the seemingly defunct relationship, “It’s alive!” In The Philadelphia Story, however, the whole divorce saga is brilliantly disposed of in a wordless sequence of under two minutes at the very beginning in which Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven is shown leaving the marital home as Katherine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord dumps his golf clubs at his feet, breaking one of them over her knee. He then pursues her back to the threshold and – well, you’ll see. Thereupon, a card comes up which says: “Two years later” and the romantic comedy begins.
At this point, the divorce is just one of the obstacles the lovers have to overcome, as it is in all these pictures, but here there is a further complication to the path of true love – which, as we’re told at one point in a bit of wry self-mockery, gathers no moss – in the form of not one but two additional rivals for Tracy’s affections. One is her fiancé, George Kittredge, played by John Howard, whom she is supposed to marry the next day. The other is Macaulay, “Mike,” Connor, played by James Stewart, who insinuates himself into the Lord household, along with his photographer and some-time girlfriend, Liz Imbrie (played by Ruth Hussey), in order to cover the Lord-Kittredge wedding for Spy magazine. Both Kittredge and Connor are, in different ways, meant to be seen as men of the people, and, for this reason, to be attractive to Tracy’s upper-class social conscience. At the same time, both have something of a chip on their shoulder with respect to the Main Line aristocracy represented by the Lords and the Havens.
This scenario provides two parallel streams of moralizing. In one, Tracy has to be brought to understan
d why her marriage failed – and that it failed because of her own unbending moralism and self-righteousness. In the other, a perhaps similar sort of Puritanical self-righteousness, but of the economic kind, is discredited in those who start off with feelings of resentment against the rich and privileged Lords. “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience,” is one of the two moral saws that is repeated twice in the film. The other is in Dexter’s words to Tracy at the swimming pool: “You will never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you learn to have some regard for human frailty.” She later repeats the line almost word for word to Mike Connor to indicate, first, that she has overcome her own priggish self-righteousness and, second, that she is inviting us, along with Mike, to see the same quality in himself. If she can overcome hers, then presumably she will shame him into overcoming his.
In the discussion, I hope we can explore a little further the question of what these two lines of moralizing have to do with each other and how they are related to the overall purpose of the movie which, as we have seen, is to re-assert the claims of traditional romance in the face of a social change which must have been in some degree traumatic. By the 1930s, divorce was for the first time becoming available to the middle classes who, if they weren’t taking up the opportunity in the sort of numbers they were in the post-war period, could not but have been uneasily aware of its presence as an ever-less shameful plan B when a marriage encountered problems. At the time of The Philadelphia Story, however, there would probably have been a residual expectation that divorce was something you would find among the upper classes – who were, of course, also those to whom romance traditionally happened. For the middle classes of 1940, to aspire to one was to aspire to the other.
Cukor’s movie is among other things an apologia for the moneyed classes and a critique of those who, like Clark Gable in It Happened One Night or James Stewart here, start off as mouthpieces for the truculent proletariat, resentful of the advantages enjoyed by their betters, but end by realizing that “somebody up from the bottom can still be quite a heel, and somebody else can be born to the purple and still be a nice guy.” Those are Mike Connor’s words about the contrast between the boorish Kittredge and the aristocratic C.K. Dexter Haven. He’s obviously come a long way from the amusing moment early in the film when he intoned into the phone to Tracy’s mother Margaret, the mistress of the Lord household, played by Mary Nash: “This is the voice of doom. Your days are numbered.” She hangs up and says, in a matter-of-fact tone, “One of the servants has been at the sherry again.”
It was brave to make a joke, in the 1930s and 40s, of such resentment of the rich by the poor and the Marxist inspired belief that the days of the former were numbered. The destiny of the haute bourgeoisie for revolutionary destruction was as much an article of faith to some in the audience of the period as the fated meeting of lovers who were meant by the heavens for each other was to others. But Philip Barry’s play – the rights to which had been bought by Howard Hughes as a present to Katherine Hepburn, so that no one else could play in the movie the role she had originated on Broadway – was “reactionary” in more ways than one. It was intended as a rebuke not only to economic and to sexual puritanism, but also to feminism which regarded the liberalization of divorce laws as its own issue. Another line I want to call your attention to comes near the beginning when Tracy attempts to buck her mother up by saying that divorcing her philandering husband, Tracy’s own father, is the only thing a woman could do if she wanted to keep her self-respect. “Yes, dear,” says her mother. “Now I have my self-respect and no husband.”
At this point in our cultural odyssey, long before Gloria Steinem and that business of the fish needing an ironic bicycle, this would still have been seen, presumably, as a poor trade-off for most if not all of the women in the audience – and not only because they didn’t have the sort of independence that Margaret Lord could have taken for granted. It was just because her suffering would have been only emotional and not economic that her words carried the weight they did and her view of marriage as something to be preserved at almost any price became the corollary of the film’s reassertion of the romantic ideal. Of course, in the end, she didn’t have to pay much of a price at all. Her husband, played by John Halliday, assures her that nothing happened between him and the dancer. Nor does Tracy herself have to pay much of a price for taking Dexter back again, as we are given to understand that he has given up drinking.
All the difficulties of the soap opera miraculously resolve themselves as we are ushered back into the reconstructed romance and reassured that the structure is as sound as ever. There had always been something of the miraculous and improbable about romance. That was the nature of its appeal in Shakespeare and Jane Austen as much as in It Happened One Night or The Shop Around the Corner. It was through the improbabilities in these films that that blessed sense of benign fatality that we love about romance was conveyed. But you could argue that once the miracle took place among the familiar and depressing details of all-too-real, real-life marital conflict, its days were numbered – as, for that matter, those of the Lord family and their kind turned out to be after all. But there is a kind of beauty in their dying, as I hope you will agree once you have seen The Philadelphia Story.