Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Director: George Cukor

One of Philadelphia's Main Line society girls, Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is about to get married to George Kittredge (John Howard). Tracy's ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) decides to throw a wrench into the proceedings by encouraging a gossip magazine to cover the wedding, enlisting disgruntled writer Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Connor's girlfriend, photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). In The Philadelphia Story, amidst the mayhem caused by the guests, the preparation for the ceremony and the eccentric family members, Tracy begins to realize her shortcomings and how her shallow behavior may contribute to a vicious circle of unhappy marriages, and ultimately, an unhappy and unsatisfying life.

I'm probably about to commit an egregious act of blasphemy on the institution of classic cinema, but I truthfully did not really like this movie. Despite the powerhouse pedigrees of the actors, I felt absolutely no chemistry among them, and I felt no connection with any of their characters, except for one part. Tracy's father, who has been absent while having well-publicized dalliances with dancers out of town, gives her a really harsh dressing down the night before her wedding that just comes out of nowhere; I couldn't help but feel sorry for her, confused as to where this was all coming from, but sorry nonetheless. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this supposedly important moment was completely done away with when the next day, after absolutely nothing happening to support it, a complete turnaround is made by dad and everything is fine again. It was actually kind of odd, the more I think about it. I also realize that women being "ok" with their husbands and boyfriends having roving eyes is a product of its time, (as wrong as it is) but I can't even excuse that in this film because one of the main themes of the film from the beginning is Tracy's assertion that she and her mother are strong and doing the right thing by kicking their philandering husbands out and going at it independently, but all of this goes out the window throughout the film, for three of the characters (including Tracy and her mother) which makes me wonder why they brought it up in the first place because now the theme is hypocritical instead of relevant.

And that is the problem with a lot of what I see wrong with The Philadelphia Story - the story is scattered or non-existent. There wasn't enough back story to support the actions and demeanor of the actors, yet we were supposed to believe that romance suddenly blossoms because someone reads a couple of lines in a book, despite the fact that the author (Stewart) previously showed nothing but disgust and disdain for Tracy, who, up until this point was allegedly hopelessly in love with George and a bit of an ice queen. I think that I give a movies a lot more benefit of the doubt than most, particularly classic films because one has to look at a number of factors before completely judging a film, but I just found myself wanting the film to be over with. The Philadelphia Story was nominated for and won a number of Academy Awards in 1941, including a Best Actor Oscar for Stewart, which seems like an undeserved win, even by Stewart himself, apparently. Though not a particularly strong year in that category, Stewart was up against, among others, Charlie Chaplin for The Great Dictator and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath.

I'm sure that when I mention in conversation how I feel about The Philadelphia Story, my opinions will mostly be met with surprise, but I will then be curious to know exactly what it is about the film people like, and what about the story makes the film enjoyable for them. I may learn to appreciate the film seeing it through other people's eyes, but...probably not.

2 out of 5 stars

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