Adam’s Rib (1949)

Does Adam’s Rib give us a glimpse into what life was like in America in the late 1940s, or does it just tell us about what movie audiences expected to see on the big screen in the late 1940s?  Looking back that far, it is hard to tell.

The theme of the movie is the double standard regarding the sexes, which in those days meant that when a man had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another woman after he was married, it was no big deal; but if a woman had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another man after she was married, her behavior was shameful and scandalous.  Arising out of this general attitude was the “unwritten law,” which held that a man should not be punished for killing his wife’s lover, especially if he caught them in flagrante delicto.  But the same latitude was not extended to the wife, should she kill her husband’s lover.  It is the assertion of this movie that the double standard is wrong, that men and women should be treated equally.

On the one hand, this movie would seem to be premised on idea that this double standard was widely accepted by society at that time, not only as the way things were, but as the way they ought to be as well.  On the other hand, if the double standard were as firmly accepted by society as this movie would have us believe, then a movie like this that challenged that double standard would have been regarded as scandalous and unfit for viewing.  In other words, the audience had to be receptive to the idea that the double standard was unfair in order for this film to be successful.

When the movie begins, we see dizzy Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) following her philandering husband Warren (Tom Ewell) on his way to an assignation with Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen).  The movie is unrelenting it its determination to show us that Doris is klutzy and simpleminded.  For example, we see her looking at the instruction booklet just before firing the revolver she has in her hand, as if pulling the trigger was something complicated.  The purpose of depicting her in this way, one must suppose, is so that we won’t hold her morally responsible for shooting her husband, which she manages to do after firing wildly around the room.  Later, she testifies that she was not trying to shoot anyone, but only trying to scare Beryl into leaving her husband alone.

The scene shifts to the Bonner household, where Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) are being served breakfast in bed by their maid.  This is not a special occasion, like an anniversary.  It is just another workday for this married couple.  Whom do you know today that gets served breakfast in bed by a maid just before going to work?  I refer back to my question in the first paragraph:  Was this normal in 1949, or was this something people expected to see when they went to the movies?

Anyway, Amanda says that Adam was making strange sounds in his sleep, which she mimics.  Because the idea of infidelity is already in our heads, we suspect he was dreaming about having sex with another woman.  Whatever the case, she spots the article in the newspaper about Doris shooting Warren, smiles broadly, and says, “Hot dog!”  Is this really an occasion for glee?  When she says the husband survived, Adam says, “Shame,” a sarcastic response to Amanda’s genuine delight.  She says it serves him right.  Later, after they leave the bedroom, the maid sees the story and says, “Attagirl.”

It turns out that Adam is an assistant district attorney, and he is assigned to prosecute Doris, while Amanda is also an attorney, who decides to defend Doris.  We know this is unrealistic, just a plot device, something that would never be allowed to happen in real life.  During the trial, Amanda keeps trying to make the case that there is a double standard for men and women, especially when it comes to the “unwritten law.”  However, Amanda does not explicitly say that she believes it should be all right for a woman to kill her husband’s lover.  As a further complication, that argument would not apply in any event because Doris did not shoot Beryl, but Warren.  Perhaps Amanda meant the unwritten law to say that it is also all right for the husband to kill his unfaithful wife, and so that should apply to the woman as well, allowing her to kill her husband.  We don’t know, because Amanda does not say that either.  This unwritten law seems to be an unspoken law in this movie as well.  In the end, we get a watered-down version, in which Amanda argues that Doris was just trying to protect her home by scaring Beryl, and shooting Warren was just an accident.

Now, it is not just the men in this movie that believe in the double standard.  Amanda’s secretary approves of the double standard just as much as the men.  At the same time, just like Amanda’s maid, her secretary seems to resent the very double standard she embraces, because upon hearing that a woman shot her husband, she says it served him right, even before knowing any of the details of the case, including the infidelity.

We have already noted that Doris is portrayed as being a dimwit, so as to make her less culpable.  Her husband Warren, on the other hand, is depicted as being a real jerk, who says on the witness stand that he does not love his wife and does not know why he married her.  Furthermore, he admits that he beats her regularly, often knocking her to the ground.  Earlier in the movie, Doris tells Amanda that the first time he hit her, he broke her tooth, the upper-left molar, no less.  And the point of this depiction is to make him seem to deserve being shot.  These characterizations are so heavy-handed as to make the story completely uninteresting.  After all, a man does not have to be a wife-beater to be unfaithful, and his wife does not have to be addlebrained to shoot him in a jealous rage.

The movie tries to have it both ways.  During the trial, Amanda calls to the stand three women who are seen to be equal, if not superior, to men, both mentally and physically, the point being that women should be treated the same as men.  So, why not have a movie in which, say, the chemist, with several advanced degrees and responsible positions in both the public and private sector, be the one who shot her husband?  Flipping back and forth like a Necker cube, the movie wants us to acknowledge that women are equal to men, while at the same time it tries to elicit our compassion for a helpless, weak woman who would be the last person you would offer up as an argument for gender equality.

At this point, I must comment on another double standard, one not made explicit in the movie, but which is definitely present nevertheless:  that between blondes and brunettes, or more generally, between blondes and all other women.  Aside from an occasional woman seen briefly with no speaking part, Doris is the only blonde in the movie.  All the rest are either brunettes, red heads, or elderly women with gray hair.  As if the movie had not already made it painfully obvious that Doris is not very bright, the producer must have decided that this had to be reinforced by the dumb-blonde stereotype.  But that is not all.  During the trial, when Amanda is summing up and wants to drive home her point about the double standard, she implores the jury to imagine Doris as a man.  We see Doris transform into a man with dark hair.  And then she points to Warren, asking them to imagine him as a woman, at which point he changes into a woman with blond hair.

Anyway, the conflict between Adam and Amanda spills over into their marriage, causing them to break up, leading to apparent infidelity, threats with a fake gun, making up, but with fake tears, and hints of further conflict to come.  But at least their reconciliation seems to make sense, sort of.  What does not make sense is the reconciliation of Doris and Warren.  After she is found not guilty by the jury, Doris and Warren become a loving couple, embracing each other and their three children, ready to go back home and live happily ever after.  I’ll bet he beats as soon as he gets her alone, and I’ll give him a week before he starts cheating on her again.  Oh wait, I forgot, this is a movie, not real life.  Never mind.

Of course, the reason for their reunion is that a more realistic ending for them would have been unthinkable.  In other words, suppose Doris had turned to Amanda after her acquittal and said, “Will you help me get a divorce from that louse?”  And while I’m on the subject, suppose Amanda had decided she was fed up with Adam’s insufferable attitude toward her on account of the way she defended her client in court, and she decided she would get a divorce as well.  That would have offended the audience of 1949 far more than the movie’s challenge to the double standard ever could.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Bridesmaids is a comedy about a bunch of women that are getting ready to be bridesmaids for one of their friends who is getting married.  I thought this movie was funny and I enjoyed it, so there is no criticism coming from me in that regard.  What struck me about the movie, however, was the irony of marriage that was obvious to the audience but seemed to escape the characters in the movie.

On the one hand, the women in the movie that are single want to get married and look forward to being married as something wonderful.  There is, of course, Lilian (Maya Rudolph), the woman who is about to be married.  Then there is Annie (Kristen Wiig), who is going to be her maid of honor, at least initially.  Annie is single and wants to get married.  Unfortunately, she is having a succession of one-night-stands with the same man over and over again.  That man is Ted, played by Jon Hamm, whose good looks are almost painful to behold, especially if you are a man who has had to compete for women with the likes of him.  Ted will never marry her, of course, for he doesn’t even like her to spend the night, but wants her out of his place as soon as they are through having sex.  When she finally breaks up with him (if you can call it that), he utters a classic line as he drives away:  “You are no longer my number three.”  Finally, there is Megan (Melissa McCarthy), who is in the movie strictly for laughs.

On the other hand, the women in the movie that are married (or had been married) find marriage to be either sexually frustrating, sexually repulsive, disappointing, or just plain miserable.  Annie’s mother (Jill Clayburgh) is divorced and still resentful over being left for another woman over twelve years ago.  Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie’s nemesis, admits that her husband travels a lot and she is lonely.  Rita (Wendy McLendon-Covey), who is stepmother to children that despise her, dreads having sex with her husband.  And Becca (Ellie Kemper) is sexually frustrated because she is married to a neurotic man for whom sex has to be done under specified conditions so exacting that they often end up not having sex at all.

But the women that are single are oblivious to the unhappy situations of the women that are or were married.  Moreover, the unhappily married women are equally oblivious, for they also think it is just wonderful that Lillian is getting married.  Some people can learn from the mistakes of others; some people have to learn everything the hard way; and some people don’t learn no matter what happens.  When it comes to marriage, these women seem to fall into the last category.  Unfortunately, that only means the movie is true to life.

While the women are getting ready for the wedding, Annie meets Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), a police officer.  They seem to be suited to each other.  They have sex over at his house, and he has no qualms about letting her spend the night.  He even wants to spend the day with her when they get up.  But she gets cold feet, saying, “Last night was a mistake.”  Then she refuses to return his phone calls.  Annie feels bad about the whole thing, but no matter what she does, he refuses to accept her apology.

Life is full of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, but I have never rebuffed an apology in my life.  The minute someone indicates that he or she is genuinely sorry about something that happened, I find it impossible not to be forgiving.  That does not mean I will let that person back into my life, for that is another thing entirely.

In other words, Nathan could have accepted her apology and then said that, indeed, the night they made love was a mistake, but they could still be friends.  And “being friends” need not mean socializing together on a regular basis, but only that they smile at each other and exchange a few pleasantries when they meet.  The way he held a grudge against Annie for so long was a warning sign against having a relationship with him.  And for what?  She really did not do anything so terribly wrong.  In fact, it was not even the sort of thing for which I would have expected an apology.  Our search for love is full of false starts and blind alleys, and we don’t know how things will end up when we start them.  But then, I guess the way Annie refused to accept Helen’s apologies means she is not much better than Nathan.  Maybe they deserve each other.  But it’s going to be a rough marriage.

Love Actually (2003)

We do not expect romantic comedies to be realistic, and so it would be inappropriate to criticize them by that standard.  Rather, we expect such movies to be sentimental and idealistic about love, allowing the couples to go through all sorts of absurd situations until they finally marry and live happily ever after.  However, our tolerance for this is limited, which is why romantic comedies should be no more than an hour and a half long.  Love Actually is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and as a result, our ability to suspend disbelief is strained.  In the end, the unrealistic nature of this movie begins to tell against it, and we become cynical about some of the situations.

The main reason for the length of this movie is that it consists of about nine different interweaving stories.  One story is too silly to bother with, the one about Colin, who decides that his problem is that British women are too stuck up (the movie is set in England).  He decides that he will do better in America, especially with his accent.  When he gets there, he immediately ends up being invited to spend the night in the same bed naked with three beautiful women, and with a fourth roommate, said to be the sexy one, who is on her way.

It is the remaining stories that suffer from the natural tendency to apply realistic standards to any romantic comedy that overstays its welcome.  The unrealistic aspects of these stories center around three themes:  communication, sacrifice, and homosexuality.

Communication

It is a common situation in romantic movies to have two people that would be perfect for each other if one of them would just speak up and say, “I love you.”  In one of the stories in this movie, Mark videotapes the marriage of Peter and Juliet (Keira Knightley).  Mark is Peter’s best friend and best man at the wedding.  Peter wants Mark and Juliet to be friends, but Mark does not appear to like her.  Later in the movie, she discovers, when she sees the videotape of the wedding and reception, which is always focused on her, that Mark actually loves her.

Now, for some reason, the movie keeps promoting the idea that Christmas is the perfect time to be honest about one’s love.  So, one evening shortly before Christmas, Mark shows up at Peter and Juliet’s place, and Juliet answers the door.  Mark has a bunch of cards, approximately two by three feet, on which stuff is written.  The first one says for Juliet to tell Peter it is Christmas carolers, and he plays a recording of caroling that is on his tape recorder.  (It is almost painful to relate this part.)  He reveals one card after another, confessing his true love for her.  She kisses him affectionately.  We get the sense that if Mark had just spoken up earlier, she might have married him instead.  But, as they say, “Faint heart never won fair maiden.”

The result is a spiritual ménage à trois, in which we are to imagine that Mark and Juliet will now be able to love each other, though not consummating their feelings physically, which will make Peter happy, since he wanted them to be friends.

In a second story, Jaime (Colin Firth) discovers that his girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother when he comes home early one day.  I wish I could say that it was unrealistic for her to have sex with Jaime’s brother right there in the apartment where she and Jaime live together.  I mean, clearly, she should have gone to the brother’s place for sex.  But people actually do such things, so I can only say that it’s stupid, not unrealistic.  Anyway, he retreats to a place in France, I think, that he apparently goes to every year to write.  He is alone there except for a housekeeper, Aurélia, an attractive young woman who speaks only Portuguese.  It is clear that they are falling in love with each other, but owing to the fact that neither can speak the other’s language, they are unable to make their feelings known.  When it is time for him to go back to England, she returns to Portugal.

Jaime makes a determined effort to learn Portuguese.  When he speaks it just well enough to express himself, with humorous effect, he travels to Portugal, finds Aurélia, and tells her he wants to marry her.  She accepts his proposal in English, revealing that she has been making an equal effort to learn his language.

In a third story, John and Judy perform naked, simulated sex scenes as body doubles for a movie.  But John is shy, and it takes a long time for him to work up the nerve to ask her out on a date.  When he finally does, she accepts, and it is clear that they will soon be lovers.  Like the story about Colin, this one would be too silly to bother with were it not for the fact that it is another instance of the communication theme.

David (Hugh Grant), a bachelor, is the prime minister of England.  He falls in love with Natalie, who is a member of his household staff, but he cannot bring himself to tell her how he feels.  One day, he walks in on her and the visiting president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton), just as the president is making a move on her (Bill Clinton had only been out of office for three years when this movie was released).  David is disturbed by this and has her transferred to a job where he will not see her anymore.  He gets a Christmas card from her, which essentially says that she loves him, after which he finds out where she resides so that they can live happily ever after.

Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his wife and is worried about raising their stepson, Sam.  There seems at first to some trouble between them, but after making a concerted effort to communicate with Sam, Daniel discovers that the problem is that Sam, who is eleven years old, is in love with a girl at school named Joanna.  Joanna is extremely popular, and Sam doesn’t even think she knows he exists.  Daniel convinces Sam that he must tell Joanna how he feels about her, or he will regret it for the rest of his life.  Sam catches up with her at the airport and tells her he loves her.  He is taken away by security guards, but she catches up with him and kisses him.

Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with Karl, so much so that everyone in the office is aware of it except Karl.  Her boss urges her to tell Karl how she feels about him.  She finally does so, and they almost consummate their passion for each other, but then the phone rings.  As this leads to the next theme, sacrifice, I will take up the rest of this story up in the next section.

Placed one after another in this fashion, we see what an unrelenting drumbeat this movie is in its advocacy for communication as the panacea for all problems romantic.  Now, on the one hand, it is certainly true that in order for a romance to get going, someone has to make the first move, usually after some hesitancy.  But I shudder at the thought that some people will take the moral of these stories seriously and believe that all they have to do is confess their love and it will be fully requited.

Looked at realistically, even if Mark were lucky enough to have Juliet answer the door instead of Peter, she would probably not have appreciated his unwanted advances and would have thought his routine with the cards to be creepy.

As for Jaime and Aurélia, I remember someone telling me that a lot of soldiers married Vietnamese women when they were overseas during the war, and that things worked out just fine until the women learned to speak English.  Then they started having problems.  Because Jaime and Aurélia cannot communicate with each other, their feeling for each other has to be mostly physical, unless you are willing to buy into the romantic nonsense that they were made for each other and they sensed it somehow.  Once they can talk to each other, they may find out just how incompatible they are (e.g., it may turn out that he wants to have children and she does not).

Regarding David and Natalie, my only thought there is that if their relationship turns sour, he may find himself on the wrong side of a sexual harassment suit.

But the one that bothers me the most is the one in which Daniel talks Sam into telling Joanna how he feels.  It is one thing for a mature adult to suppose that all he needs to do is tell a woman he loves her and all will be well, but I really cringe when a parent talks a child into doing something like that.  A very likely scenario would be for Joanna to react negatively to Sam’s telling her that he loves her, because she thinks him to be a nerd.  And as children have less tact than adults, she might have expressed her contempt for him without reservation.

Sacrifice

When Harry (Alan Rickman) finds out that Mia, his new secretary, wants to have sex with him, he decides to buy her an expensive necklace for Christmas.  He tries to buy it on the sly while shopping with his wife Karen (Emma Thompson) in a department store, but the sale is interrupted when she finishes her shopping and finds him at the jewelry counter, where he pretends he was just looking around.  She laughs it off, saying that her expectations are not so high as to think he would buy her jewelry after all their years of marriage.  On another day, he returns by himself, buys the necklace, and puts it in his coat pocket.  When he gets home, Karen feels something in his coat as she hangs it up.  She finds the box, opens it, and concludes that it is a present for her.  When Christmas arrives and they open their presents, her present turns out to just be a CD.  She is heartbroken and later confronts him over it.  He admits he was a fool, and she says he has made a fool of her.  Nevertheless, she decides to stay with him.

Realistically, a man would have to be a fool to try to buy a necklace for his mistress while shopping with his wife.  Even buying the necklace when he was by himself would be risky.  A jeweler I used to know said that one night he was waiting on a customer who was buying a diamond necklace, when suddenly a woman walked up to him and said, “Hi George.  Are you getting that for Emily?”  He said that he was, and the woman assured him that Emily would love it.  When she left, the customer turned to the jeweler and said, “I guess I’ll need to buy two of them now.”  In fact, that particular jewelry store used to have Wednesday nights be for men only, so that neither wives nor the friends of the wives would know about such surreptitious purchases.  In any event, said purchases would be kept at the office, not brought home for the wives to discover them.

The important thing, however, is the theme of the woman sacrificing her happiness for the sake of others, presumably for the children in this case, a feature not uncommon in Hollywood melodramas.  In real life, Karen might have stayed with Harry after finding out that he was cheating on her, but the marriage would not likely have been a happy one after that.  In fact, she herself says as much later on, that life will always be a little worse from that point on if she stays with him.  Now, a man might make a great sacrifice in a movie, but it is typically on a grander scale, such as that of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.  But it is women that sacrifice themselves in the movies for domestic reasons, something that men never seem to do.  After all, Jaime did not forgive his girlfriend when he found out that she was cheating on him.  Even if they had been married and had children, had he forgiven her and stayed with her, he would have been despised as a cuckold.  But when a woman forgives her husband in a movie, making a sacrifice for the sake of the family, it is sentimentalized to the point that her staying with him is portrayed as something noble and fine.

The incipient relationship between Sarah and Karl, referred to in the previous section, is interrupted again and again by her mentally disturbed brother Michael, who keeps calling her on the phone.  Michael is institutionalized, because he is prone to be violent.  Later on in the movie, with all hope of finding happiness with Karl gone, we see Sarah visiting her brother in the insane asylum, giving him a big hug.  The idea, you see, is that her love for her brother is what is truly important.  But once again, we have a story about a woman who nobly sacrifices her happiness for someone else.  In other words, the movie knew better than to have it be a man who was sacrificing his love life to take care of an institutionalized relative.  And it is all so pointless and unrealistic anyway.  In real life, Sarah would have visited her brother from time to time, but she would have lived her own life as well, having a love affair with Karl, with the phone turned off.

Homosexuality

There are no homosexuals in this movie, but the subject keeps coming up in ways that seem strange.  In doing so, the movie dares us to object.  We would not hesitate to do so were the situation heterosexual in nature.  But as it is, we say nothing, lest we be accused of homophobia.  For example, there is a painting of four naked men, seen from behind, that the movie keeps insisting on showing us for some reason.  Now, if a movie kept showing us a painting of four naked women from behind over and over again, we would have no trouble saying, “What is the point of this?”  But as it is four naked men, we say nothing.

Billy Mack, a has-been rock star who has made an unexpectedly successful comeback, decides he would rather spend Christmas with his manager, Joe, the love of his life, as he puts it.  Then he suggests they watch porn together (heterosexual porn, of course), thereby removing the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two just seconds after it was ambiguously suggested.  The movie dares us to object to this scene.

But let’s assume instead that Joe was Josephine.  Billy Mack’s telling Josephine that she was the love of his life would be uncomfortable enough even if he meant it romantically, given that they have had a strictly professional relationship for years.  Why not just try kissing her instead?  But then imagine that after telling her she is the love of his life, he suggests that they watch some homosexual porn, thereby reassuring her that he has no designs on her sexually.  Reversing things in this way makes us see that the scene would be strange no matter what the orientation of the characters might be.

At the wedding of Peter and Juliet, Sarah can tell that Mark seems a little down, so she asks him, “Are you in love with him?”  Well, I suppose she was only giving voice to what the audience was already suspecting, because the movie did seem to suggest that as a possibility, especially since at the stag party for Peter, Mark arranged for there to be prostitutes available, but the prostitutes turned out to be men, leaving us to wonder what the heck is going on.  Once again, it is not the possibility of homosexuality itself that strikes us, but what was said in that regard.  There is no way I would ask a man if he was in love with another man.  Maybe, if he was openly gay, and if we were pretty good friends, I might ask a question like that.  But Mark is not openly gay for the simple reason he is not gay.  And Mark and Sarah are not close friends, but only casual acquaintances.  So, for Sarah to come right out with a question like that was inappropriate for the simple reason that it was none of her damn business.  Now, if Sarah had asked Mark if he was in love with Juliet, we would have had no problem saying that her question was inappropriate.  But since she asked him if he was in love with Peter, the movie is once again daring us to object.  Of course, her asking him that question is supposed to be justified because she thought he might need someone to talk to about it.  In other words, this dovetails with the communication theme discussed above.  But being willing to listen to a friend who needs to talk is one thing, and prying into his personal life is something else again.

Daniel suggests that Sam, who is a preadolescent eleven-year-old boy, is a bit young to be in love, but Daniel humors him when Sam insists that he is not.  Fine.  But then, when he starts to ask Sam if the feeling is reciprocated, he begins by saying, “And what does she…,” hesitates, adds the word “he” as a possibility, and then completes the question, “…feel about you?”  Again the movie dares us to object.

We have reached the point that we now need a new term, homophobia-phobia, the fear of being accused of homophobia.  The movie dares the people in the audience to express any misgivings about the scenes discussed above, and so great is their homophobia-phobia that few have the courage to do so.

Conclusion

Owing to the fact that Richard Curtis, the man who wrote the screenplay and directed this movie, wanted it to be about the intersecting lives of many different people and their stories, its excessive length was inevitable.  Equally inevitable, then, is the fact that we become increasingly critical of the movie’s naïve idealism as it wears on.

Kate & Leopold (2001)

Kate & Leopold is a time-travel love story.  Leopold (Hugh Jackman) is a tall, good-looking aristocrat from the nineteenth century who goes through a time portal and ends up in the twenty-first century. He meets a woman named Kate (Meg Ryan), and befriends her brother Charlie (Brecklin Meyer), who is a funny-looking little-guy. Leopold and Charlie end up one evening at a nightclub, where they sit at a table with some beautiful women. Charlie tries his best to amuse the ladies, getting nowhere, while Leopold just sits there being the strong, silent type, whom the women are obviously attracted to. Later, as they are walking home, Leopold tells Charlie that he is a Merry Andrew, a buffoon, and that is why he gets nowhere with women.

Now, I guarantee you that if Leopold had acted like a Merry Andrew, and Charlie had just sat there being silent, it would still have been Leopold whom the women were wanting. In fact, the movie might have been more interesting had the actors switched parts. If Charlie had been tall and good looking, but was a flop with the ladies, while Leopold had been a funny-looking little-guy who succeeded with women in general, and with Kate in particular, on account of his Victorian manners and aristocratic demeanor, then that might have been interesting. Not realistic, but interesting.  As it is, the hapless Charlie, whom fate had provided a plain face and small stature, has to endure the additional insult of being told by a man both handsome and well-built that he is doing it wrong.

Because there is nothing surprising about a tall, good-looking man succeeding at love, regardless of which century he comes from, the movie ends up being routine and predictable, notwithstanding the stuff about traveling through time.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) and High Society (1956)

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.

Roman Holiday (1953)

In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) gets bored with all the ceremonial duties she has to perform and runs away.  Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is a reporter assigned to cover a boring press conference with Princess Ann for his newspaper, but he runs away from his duties as well.  They meet without knowing who each other are.  It begins when Joe finds her sleeping off a sedative on a public bench.  He eventually lets her sleep it off in his apartment.  The next morning he finds out who she is and plans to cash in on his good fortune by writing an exclusive story on her.  They spend the day together end up falling in love instead.  In the end, he forgoes writing that story as she returns to her duties as princess.

At one point, Princess Ann alludes to the Cinderella story by saying, “And at midnight I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper,” which, of course, mixes up the elements of the fairytale. In similar way, the movie itself is a Cinderella story with the elements mixed up.

Cinderella was a lady by birth, but forced into servitude by her wicked stepmother. For one night, she is able to dress up like the lady she really is. Princess Ann is a commoner by nature, and for one day she is able to dress up like the ordinary person she really is. At the end of the fairytale, Cinderella comfortably slides her foot into a glass slipper; at the beginning of the movie, Ann slides her foot out of the shoe that is bothering her. Cinderella marries the prince she has fallen in love with; Ann does not marry the commoner she has fallen in love with.

We expect there to be a moment when she finds out that Joe is a reporter, causing her to feel hurt and betrayed, believing that he tricked her for the sake of a story; and that he will say that was true at first, but now he is in love with her; and then she will say she does not believe him, and so on. That is the formula for movies when there is deception about someone’s identity. In The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), for example, when Princess Flavia (Deborah Kerr) finds out that the man she fell in love with is not King Rudolf (Stewart Granger), but just an impostor, she jumps to the conclusion that his courting her was part of the act, and thus she feels betrayed. In Roman Holiday, however, it is refreshing that Ann trusts Joe so much that one brief assurance from him is all she needs.

As with Princess Flavia, Princess Ann gives up the man she loves for the sake of her royal duties, but we have to wonder why. The Prisoner of Zenda was written in 1894, back when monarchs still mattered. And in the movie, much is made of the danger of letting someone like Michael (Robert Douglas) seize the throne. But by 1953, monarchs had pretty much become ceremonial, kept around as tourist attractions. After all, when King Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, civil war did not break out, so it is hard to believe that Princess Ann could not abdicate without precipitating some kind of political disaster.

In fact, I have my suspicions about King Edward VIII. The story is that he loved Wallis Simpson so much that he made the great sacrifice of giving up his throne for her. But I think he was just using her as an excuse. The idea of being a titular monarch, with no power but lots of ceremonial duties, might have been maddeningly tedious to him, and he was glad to get out of it. Just to say, “I don’t want to be King, because it’s boring,” would have been a great insult. But everyone understands that love conquers all, and with that as a cover story, he made his escape.

And this brings us back to Princess Ann. She clearly hated her duties, and she loved Joe. How easy it would have been, when Joe indicates that he will not publish what happened between them in the newspaper, for her to immediately renounce her position, and say she intends to marry him, the two of them walking away together to live happily ever after. As it is, we sort of feel that the boring life she has resigned herself to is just what she deserves.  It is a pointless sacrifice.

Say Anything… (1989)

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again. This formula for a romantic comedy is all right when all you want to do is pass the time watching a mildly amusing movie. But when it is one of the movies listed in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die, you expect a little more. I suspect it is the fact that Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Say Anything… that mesmerized critics into thinking it was something special.

In addition to the formula noted above, this movie also employs the standard Hollywood device of having a woman be forced to make a choice between love and something else, and then when she chooses love, as the formula requires, she ends up getting the something else too. Usually, the woman’s choice is between a boring but respectable man of whom her family approves and who will be able to provide for her in comfort, and a charming man that she loves but who is poor and irresponsible. But when she decides to marry the poor guy, it turns out that he actually has lots of money. The movie French Kiss (1995) would be an example of this.

In this movie, the woman is Diane (Ione Skye), and she herself is the boring but respectable person of whom her father, Mr. Court (John Mahoney), approves and who will be able to provide for herself in comfort owing to the fact that she is on her way to having a successful career after she gets out of college. This constitutes a slight variation in the formula. In any event, she must choose between her own education/career and Lloyd (John Cusack), the poor and irresponsible guy she loves whose idea of a career is that of being a kickboxer. Of course, there are movies in which a woman must choose between a career and a husband, but it is usually a glamorous career like show business, as in Imitation of Life (1959), not the kind of respectable career that Diane is pursuing.

Actually, Lloyd’s charm wears a little thin. He is living with his sister, who is a single mom, and he gets on her nerves with his antics. She makes a mark for the volume knob on his boom box, beyond which level he must not go, because it disturbs the neighbors. But he apparently does not care about that, because later in the movie, he takes the boom box and plays his and Diane’s song at volume ten near her house in the middle of the night to prove his love for her, probably waking up all the neighbors on the block. It is one thing to be irresponsible. It is another thing to be an inconsiderate jerk. One wonders just how long Diane is going to put up with him, especially since his plan seems to be to just let her support him, as when he tells her father, “What I want to do for a living is be with your daughter.” I guess you could say that in this movie it is the man who chooses between having a glamorous career like kickboxing and just being a house husband.

Presumably, as a way of avoiding the obvious formulaic nature of this film, a little trouble for Mr. Court with the Internal Revenue Service is thrown in. It begins rather melodramatically, with a couple of IRS agents showing up at his house at night. In real life, an auditor would begin his investigation by showing up at Court’s place of business, which is a nursing home, and asking to see the books. In a subsequent scene, an IRS agent does show up at the nursing home and asks ominous questions like, “Your income, Mr. Court, hasn’t changed substantially in seventeen years…. Why would you stay so long with an operation that is clearly not a growth enterprise?” Wow! Isn’t that incriminating!

By this time, we are starting to think that the IRS agents are absurd caricatures, and that Court will be vindicated in the end. But it turns out that Court really is guilty. However, if he has been stealing money from his patients, then it would seem he is in more trouble than just not paying his taxes. There should still be fraud charges to deal with. But the movie glosses over that.

Once we accept that Court is guilty of defrauding his nursing home patients and then not paying taxes on what he stole from them, there are further incongruities. For example, Court goes to a store to buy some luggage, but all his credit cards are rejected. At the same time, Diane discovers thousands of dollars in cash squirreled away in a drawer. So, why didn’t Court use the cash to buy the luggage? Cash leaves no tracks, and even the IRS would not have been aware of that purchase.

Beyond that, the movie seems to at first to suggest that Court was stealing all that money in order to provide for his daughter, and so we are supposed to like him for that. But then it turns out that he was using all of his ill-gotten gains to buy collectibles, like a nine thousand dollar juke box. In other words, he’s an idiot. The function of this IRS subplot is to break the excessive attachment between father and daughter so that she is free to leave him for Lloyd. But calling in the Feds so that a girl can leave home and marry the boy she loves is a bit much.