[1940] The Philadelphia Story

This powerhouse film dramatizes relationship-building to cathartic effect. Over the course of seemingly less than a week, we exhibit the full cycle of most of The Philadelphia Story‘s main characters’ synapses realigning as they come to realize their past mistakes, present unhappiness and future malaise simultaneously and work effortlessly to redefine themselves as modern people in the modernist sense: that self-consciousness is the righteous path and function, in their case, life, follows form. The Philadelphia Story huffs through almost two hours and the audience is better for it, almost, in the most modern way: that there exists a strived-for completeness, when in fact the audience must know that this is the question. In a way, whether intentional or not, through a modern lens The Philadelphia Story defines modernism through postmodern means.

Because through hyperrelapse behavior and infinite loops of information, the modern (in a contemporary sense) man and woman knows that the ultimate goal is to strive for completeness with the full intention of achieving a sliver of happiness completes his or her journey. Ever the pessimist, he or she is honest, which is the key component to the argument against The Philadelphia Story. At its core the film is art and the sped-up premise is meant as a plot device, eschewing reality for core competency; after two hours, the audience must leave with an impression – good or bad – that the film did not flounder. It is reasonable that the film is somewhat dishonest because I think that the writing and acting is compelling enough, and through seasoned performances from Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven), Katherine Hepburn (Tracy Lord) and Jimmy Stewart (Mike Connor), it is slightly obvious that the production team was in on this joke.

As the film progressed, it too became obvious that the actors’ intonation of and turning of phrase embedded and interpreted in the script worked harder to demonstrate characterization than a goofy flashback could have. It is perhaps plausible that more was in motion than the script let on and we only see the tail end of what was surely a several-decade-long struggle to define self. It is possible that our opening scene is a climax of sorts, and The Philadelphia Story
plays out an inevitable dénouement. When viewed through this lens, it makes logical sense that the characters would seek a quick resolution. Whether or not this interpretation correlates with author intent is an interesting question, especially with industry-wide exogenous factors affecting how and why films followed peculiar development paths. More simply, an argument can be made that in “simpler” times it was just easier to connect with others and subsequently evolve quicker. This example straddles Occam’s razor and deus ex machina a little too finely.

The why of the seemingly head-scratching conclusion is confined within its specific humor. Working within Hays’ confines, The Philadelphia Story utilized a workaround popular in its era called the comedy of remarriage. (Adultery was considered crude, so filmmakers would split its couple – legally – for the duration of the film to promote hijinks, only to see them reconcile near the end). It would have been more interesting to ply the framework a little and leave the ending more open rather than even more quickly burn the relationships it had spent hours setting up. There is something interesting in how much more quickly the end moves as director Gary Cukor begs us to be in on the farce. Perhaps The Philadelphia Story is a critique on the audience’s readiness to believe in the modern fantasy of clean relationships.

In the 60 or so posts thus far I have referred to the winner of film’s most prestigious award as “Best Picture,” even though the Academy only began referring to it as such in 1962. In 1940, The Philadelphia Story lost “Outstanding Production” to Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca. Among the other eight films, I’ve only seen The Great Dictator, so it is essential to reserve judgement on whether this year picked right. Historically, the benign nature of The Philadelphia Story would have done well to anesthetize national war anxiety without a direct satire to the goings on across the Atlantic.

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