If you could have only one piece of information about a movie before watching it, it should be the year it was made: in part, for the historical context; and in part, for the moral context. It is the latter that is essential for The Philadelphia Story (1940), for it presumes much of a moral nature that we no longer accept and may even find repulsive. At the beginning of the movie, Dexter (Cary Grant) and Tracy (Katherine Hepburn) are a married couple who are fed up with each other and in the act of separating. After Tracy breaks one of Dexter’s golf clubs, he pushes her in the face so hard that she falls to the ground. If a man did that to a woman in a modern movie, we would dislike him, but this movie wants us to like Dexter and approve of what he did to Tracy. We are able to get past this scene without too much difficulty, because Tracy is obviously not hurt, and because it is played for laughs.
Later, it turns out that the reason she divorced him was that he was an alcoholic, which was all her fault, and that she was wrong to divorce him for that. This point is made seriously, and so it is harder to get past than the push in the face. Imagine someone getting up in front of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and saying, “I am an alcoholic, and it’s my wife’s fault.” Today, we might blame the alcoholic for drinking too much, or we might say his alcoholism is a disease and thus is no one’s fault, but blaming the wife is outrageous. Furthermore, we might praise a woman who stays with an alcoholic husband and tries to help cure him, but we do not blame her if she leaves him.
When Tracy decides to remarry, Dexter decides that her fiancé, George (John Howard), is not the right man for her to marry. Dexter not only crashes the wedding, but he also arranges for a reporter and a photographer, who work for a tabloid, to cover the wedding, in hopes of causing trouble. Many of us have had the experience of disapproving of the person someone is going to marry, but we know it is none of our business, especially if that someone is an ex-wife. Can you imagine being a woman whose ex-husband crashes her wedding trying to break things up? Today, we would regard a man who would do that as odious, and we would advise the woman to get a restraining order on him.
Tracy’s mother, Margaret (Mary Nash), has separated from her father, Seth (John Halliday), because he was cheating on her, and thus Tracy does not invite him to the wedding. But he shows up anyway. He tells Tracy and his wife that a man’s philandering is not his wife’s concern. Furthermore, he goes on to say that his adultery is all Tracy’s fault (here we go again). He explains that when a man starts getting old, having a sweet, devoted daughter is the mainstay that he needs. But when his daughter does not live up to those expectations, the man just naturally has to go out and get a sweet, devoted young woman to have an affair with. That argument is not merely bizarre, but downright creepy. It is hard to believe that even in 1940, when this movie was made, the audience would have bought that line.
Although the reporter, “Mike” Macaulay (James Stewart), and the photographer, Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey), seem to be romantically involved, Mike nevertheless begins to fancy Tracy. The night before the wedding, they start smooching and go for a swim. It is all supposed to be innocent, and we are supposed to disapprove of George when he refuses to go through with the wedding. The idea is that since Mike and Tracy did not actually have sex, he is making a big fuss over nothing. But I cannot say that I blame him. If I caught my fiancée kissing another man the night before we were to be married, that would put an end to those wedding plans for sure.
Of course, the fact that Tracy is drunk is supposed to excuse her indiscretion. At least her intoxication is an important plot point. But there is way too much drinking in this movie in general. Two-thirds of the movie involves people getting drunk, having a hangover, and then drinking some more as a cure for the hangover. This may be another difference between 1940 and now: we do not think drunk-humor is all that funny anymore.
After George leaves, Mike asks Tracy to marry him. When she rejects him, he goes back to Elizabeth, who does not seem to be disturbed by this at all. Except for George, the men in this movie sure get a lot understanding. Tracy, on the other hand, is depicted as being wrong-headed, and is pretty much told so by Dexter, Mike, and Seth, each in his own way. But Tracy is fine just the way she is, and it is the men who are wrong-headed. She would be better off without the lot of them. Instead, she remarries Dexter. I disapprove of that marriage, but as I noted above, if that is the man she wants to marry, it is none of my business.
In some ways, High Society (1956), a remake of The Philadelphia Story, is an improvement. The scene in which Dexter pushes Tracy in the face so hard it knocks her down is eliminated. It may be that pushing a woman in the face was not thought as funny in 1956 as it was in 1940. More likely, the difference in actors was the deciding factor. To have Bing Crosby push Grace Kelly in the face would have had different connotations than it did for Cary Grant to do that to Katherine Hepburn, who was not well-liked by the public at the time.
The elimination of Dexter’s alcoholism is another big improvement. Because this remake is a musical, the new reason Tracy divorces Dexter is that he composes popular jazz numbers, which are too lowbrow for her taste. She wanted him to be a diplomat or at least a composer of highbrow music. This is more acceptable than the original, because it is absurd to blame a wife for her husband’s alcoholism, and because it brings out the idea that Tracy is a bit of a snob. On the other hand, objecting to the musical compositions of one’s husband has to be the most frivolous reason for a divorce ever given, on or off the screen.
Another improvement is that the musical numbers in this remake take the place of a lot of the excessive drunk-humor that went on in the original. There is still a lot of drinking, but the less of that sort of thing the better. The musical numbers also call for the elimination of a couple of plot points. In the original, Mike had written a book, which Tracy marveled over for its sensitive understanding of human nature, but that is eliminated in the remake. It is just as well. We might believe that Jimmy Stewart could write such a book, but not Frank Sinatra, who plays that role here. Also, there was a counter-blackmail conspiracy between Dexter and Mike that is eliminated. It did not lead to anything much in the original, so it is no great loss.
Dexter still does not want Tracy to marry George (John Lund), but his attempt to prevent their wedding is not as aggressive as it was in the original. That too is an improvement, because interfering in an ex-wife’s wedding plans is just plain awful. What unfortunately does remain, in all its disgusting glory, is the scene where Tracy’s father, Seth (Sidney Blackmer), announces that if a husband cheats on his wife, it is none of his wife’s business, followed by his putting all the blame on Tracy: if a man does not have a devoted, loving daughter, he cannot be blamed if he has sex with a devoted, loving woman as a substitute.
George is still depicted as being a prig for objecting to the way Tracy carries on the night before their wedding. First he catches her and Dexter kissing, and then she goes on to do some lovey-dovey necking with Mike. If this is the way she behaves the night before her wedding, what would George be in for as the years rolled by? I have known men with wives like that, and I always feel sorry for them (especially if I am the one she is fooling around with). Maybe Tracy is just following her father’s logic: her philandering is none of her fiancé’s concern. Besides, she has the excuse that she does not have a devoted, loving son to keep her from wandering.
Still yet another improvement is that we are spared the scene where Mike asks Tracy to marry him, and when she declines, Elizabeth takes him back, as if he was just a little boy who still had some growing up to do. Instead, Mike simply asks Elizabeth (Celeste Holm) to marry him, which is much better. Then Dexter and Tracy decide to retie the knot, and since she seems to have matured enough to accept his jazz compositions, we assume all will be well.