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, made in 1940, for it presumes much of a moral nature that we no longer accept.
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, because Tracy is not seriously hurt, because the background music tells us this is supposed to be lighthearted and funny, and because we make allowances for what must have passed for humor in those days. The movie then jumps ahead two years, and Tracy is about to get married again.
It turns out that the reason she divorced Dexter 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 admire a woman who stays with an alcoholic husband and tries to help cure him, but we do not blame her if she gets fed up and leaves.
As to why it was Tracy’s fault that Dexter became an alcoholic, he goes on at great length about how she thought of herself as a virgin goddess, and that he was supposed to be her high priest. And just to make sure we understand that he is right, this idea of her as a goddess is repeated by her fiancé, her father, several others, and eventually Tracy herself. The problem is that we just don’t see it, and their saying it doesn’t make it so. Actually, it seems to me that Tracy would be an interesting person to know, and not just later in the movie when she supposedly has a change of heart, but right from the very beginning.
Tracy’s father, Seth, has been having an affair with a showgirl, and a tabloid called Spy has the story along with pictures. However, the man who runs the magazine agrees not to publish it provided Dexter, who works in the Buenos Aires office and who still cares about Tracy, can get a reporter and photographer into Tracy’s wedding under the false pretenses that they are friends of her brother, who works at the American embassy in Buenos Aires, and who is a friend of Dexter. Yes, this is a contrived plot. Moreover, it is not really believable. If I were running a tabloid, I’d much rather publish a story about a tawdry affair between an older rich man in high society and a flashy showgirl than publish a story about his daughter’s wedding.
Tracy’s mother has separated from Seth on account of his cheating on her, in large part because Tracy urged her to do so for the sake of her self-respect, but her mother says she would rather have a husband than self-respect. The implication is that Tracy was wrong to influence her mother in that way. Maybe she was, but then, I don’t think Tracy’s mother would be an interesting person to know.
In any event, Tracy does not invite her father 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, and he congratulates his wife for having the wisdom to agree with him on that point. 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. George, Tracy’s fiancé, finds out about it, and we are supposed to think him stuffy when he says he regards her behavior as unacceptable and asks her to promise him it won’t happen again. The idea is that since Mike and Tracy did not actually have sex, he is making a big fuss over nothing. You see, unlike Tracy’s mother, George apparently would rather have his self-respect than a wife.
Of course, the fact that Tracy is drunk is supposed to excuse her indiscretion. At least, her intoxication is an important plot point, something to do with in vino veritas, I imagine. But there is way too much drinking in this movie in general. Half 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.
Now, 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. But George is apparently more broad-minded than I am, because he is still willing to go through with the wedding provided that Tracy promise never to get drunk like that again. She refuses, and so the wedding with George is off. In his place, 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, and we are supposed to agree with them. Well, maybe it’s me, and maybe it’s seeing this movie from the perspective of the twenty-first century, but I think 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 guess the idea is that she has realized the error of her ways and will no longer drive Dexter to drink by doing her goddess thing. Fortunately, this is a movie where a character change in the last reel can result in a happy ending. In real life, sad to say, people don’t change that much.
In some ways, High Society, a 1956 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. Dexter’s complaint that Tracy acts like a goddess remains, but since that is no longer the cause of his being an alcoholic, it now has a different function. Instead of Tracy leaving Dexter because of his excessive drinking, it now appears she left him because she could no longer tolerate human imperfection, such as jazz.
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. And the remake eliminates the counter-blackmail scheme cooked up by Dexter and Mike.
What unfortunately does remain, in all its disgusting glory, is the scene where Seth, Tracy’s father, 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, young 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? Maybe Tracy is just following her father’s logic: her philandering is none of her fiancé’s concern. And after she gets married, she could continue with her father’s logic, which is that if she does not have a devoted, loving son to be her mainstay as she gets older, it would only be natural for her to go out and find a younger man to give her the love she needs.
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 were just a little boy who still had some growing up to do. Instead, Mike simply asks Elizabeth (Celeste Holm) to marry him, which is a little better, even if he did just get through making out with Tracy. 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.
Notwithstanding all these “improvements,” however, The Philadelphia Story is still a better movie than High Society. For all its moral anomalies, the former is lively and entertaining, whereas the latter is tedious and dull.