Movie. Philadelphia Story, 1940.

Posted by T on October 09, 2006
By Title, Movies

B&W. Though color was available, I’m guessing B&W was thought appropriate, since the movie is basically the filming of a play, so the artificiality is congruent with the medium. I suppose it could hardly be for budgetary reasons, given the all-star cast.

The story expands the classic love triangle to a love quartet: one woman, three men. (Actually there is a second girl, but she is just a foil, so can be ignored in a brief summary.)

The three men represent the upper, middle, and lower class. Of course, not really working-class; that would be too grimy. So the third man (James Stewart) is a suave intellecual and poet, who must work at a job he doesn’t like to make ends meet. The upper class gent (Cary Grant) is Katherine Hepburne’s former husband, who shows up again just as she is about to marry middle-class (everyone together: boring! boring!) John Howard.

Philadelphia is a good choice of city, since it is “big” yet still quite rural in flavor compared to its (once little now) big sister two hours’ north. Thus, one can have a mansion in this story and tap into both urban sophistication and rural charms.

The writing is witty, as one would expect in a play thought worthy of making into a movie with a “who’s who” cast of players.

One can analyze the story from a variety of perspectives.

1. Marriage as fun and fulfillment

Just about everyone is divorced. But that doesn’t matter, as long as they can find happiness.

2. Alcohol as truth-serum

Most of the people are either drunk, on their way to being drunk, or overcoming their scruples about drunkenness as one step on the way to finding themselves.

3. Accepting human frailty as key to success

The key to being a good wife, a good daughter, and finally a good person, is to accept the frailties of others.

4. Class warfare

Everyone agrees that the fiancé is a boring fellow that holds quaint values such as establishing a permanent home, looking to the future, working hard. The play is thus a critique of the bourgeoisie; criticism on the gounds of the bourgeoisie’s — you guessed it — “hypocrisy”. The genius of this play is to set it up so the critique to be levelled comes from both above and below. The upper-class theatre-goer is re-affirmed, as well as the lower-class movie-watcher.

The attack pours it on: from above and below, both classwise, and age-wise. Hence, the little sister’s role.

To make the hypocrisy charge stick, the author contrives something or other from the Howard character’s past that “really does” show he is a hypocrite.

However, the real denouement is later. And it is, quite simply, unfair. There is evidence that he reacts to, which was misleading evidence. But everyone else, even the dame herself, had interpreted it the same way he did. Somehow, the hasty judgment only sticks to him.

Moreover, it wasn’t really misleading evidence. He actually did have plenty to be aggrieved about.

I’m giving this a “one” because of the clever dialogue and acting.

But it is a full-scale, vicious attack on Christianity: witty, sophisticated, urbane, delightful.

(A note for logicians. The attack is enthymematic, and by modus tollens. If Christianity, then [a bunch of consequences, such as future orientation, family, work ethic, subduing one’s passions, etc]. The consequent is attacked allegorically under the figure of the ethos of the bourgeoisie. This is the seditious method of much 20th century fiction. We, of course, both embrace and criticize the upper class, the bourgeoisie, and the lower class, in terms of biblical norms. Quite different.)

In short, watch it, and enjoy; with your eyes open.

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2 Comments to Movie. Philadelphia Story, 1940.

  • And my wife tells me I overanalyze the movies I watch. I don’t think Jimmy Stewart made many bad movies. He won the Oscar for this one but he was much better in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    The values aside, it is a rather pleasant diversion

    PS I have no idea how I found this site.

  • Yes, I see the screenplay got an Oscar also, and there were several other nominees connected with it. The playwrite Philip Barry probably should have been mentioned.

    I’ll make the Sinatra remake much shorter.

    Don’t know how you found us, but you’re welcome any time.

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