The Philadelphia Story

23 03 2010

If a good horror film is one that scares you when you’re least expecting it, then The Philadelphia Story is a good horror film.

This 1940 black and white film is dazzling. The people are beautiful, rich and dewy in soft focus.

What I knew about this movie before seeing it for the first time was that Katharine Hepburn was mostly responsible for it being made at all – she brought it to Broadway and then to Hollywood. I also knew that I generally enjoy her films and characters.

What I didn’t know was that this film showcases a real life conflict but in a fantasy setting.

The movie opens with a lover’s spat that quickly ends in the man pushing Hepburn to the floor. You get the feeling it’s supposed to be comedic. Me and my guy didn’t laugh. “This film is already condoning violence against women” he said, just minutes into the film. *Collective grimace* as we curled up on the couch to watch the plot unfold.

Instantly the film advances two years after the domestic violence incident as Hepburn is set to marry a different guy. She seems to be happy and secure in her life at this point.

An exchange between Hepburn and her mother:
Her mother: We both might face the fact that neither of us have proved to be a very great success as a wife.
Hepburn’s response: We just picked the wrong first husbands, that’s all.

Her being rich and fabulous, some tabloid staffers show up to capture the wedding – one of which is a future love interest for Hepburn’s character. And by “future” I mean that very night.

How did the tabloid crew get into her big ol’ mansion the day before her wedding? Why it was all thanks to her sweetheart of an ex-husband. You remember him? The guy who pushed her? He’s a very charming Cary Grant in fact.

Over the next several scenes, we get treated with funny antics, physical comedy, a little charm, some quirky relatives – it plays out like a typical wedding movie. The highlights in this film are the bursts of great dialogue:

At one point, the new love interest says to Hepburn’s character: Oh, it’s grand, Tracy. It’s what everybody feels about you. It’s what I first worshipped you for from afar

To which she replies: I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved.

It is perfectly romantic at times:

The new love interest: No, you’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy. Full of life and warmth and delight. What goes on? You’ve got tears in your eyes.

She responds: Shut up, shut up. Oh, Mike. Keep talking, keep talking. Talk, will you?

At this point, we’re really into the movie – it’s all that black and white dazzle, all that quick dialogue and charm. Still, the scenes between Hepburn and the other men in her life are very disturbing.
Her father blames her for his affair with a younger woman, since she is not the ideal daughter:

Her father: You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. And without that you might just as well be made of bronze.

And Carry Grant, her ex-husband, seems to glorify the domestic violence:

Saying: I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know one time I secretly wanted to be a writer.

Still you watch and if you’re us then you think, you know, you believe in Hepburn. And sure enough, as the wedding nears, she drops her fiance when it’s clear that they won’t work well together.

Even better, when the new love interest proposes, she declines! It’s amazing – totally refreshing – makes you sit up in your seat and utter ‘wow’ at how progressive this old film is – you think, damn, what a winner.

Finally, everyone’s getting along – including Hepburn and her father, which, incidentally is about the time the movie starts to take a turn into horrifying territory. She apologizes for disappointing him and he denies ever feeling such a way. Huh? You sink back into your seat (if you’re anything like us).

Still, she’s going to be a strong, happy woman who doesn’t have to be married. Well guess what – big fucking yeah right. I don’t know if the studio came in on this or if this was the plot all along but she does end up with a man – not the sweet but too easy fiance, not the physically romantic new love interest but the abusive ex-husband.


She goes back to the abusive ex-husband. And the way it happens could make your skin crawl. He actually puts the words into her mouth as he feeds her lines while she speaks to the waiting audience. Everyone’s anticipating a marriage that day and so, they’ll give them one by remarrying each other. And she couldn’t be more pleased. Damn well delighted really. Everyone is at this point. Well, everyone except for us – mouths hanging slightly open I’m sure – staring in shock at the nightmare on-screen.

The end of this film involved her making promises to be a better wife while he offered nothing of the sort. How is that? Well, I guess it’s very close to a reality that many people live, even today. The U.S. Department of Justice shows that 3.5 million violent crimes reported 1998-2002 were acts committed against family members and 49% of those were against spouses. (Source)

How/why does a spouse stay a spouse when violence is in the mix? Plenty of ways.*

So it was a realistic story in a fantasy setting. The abused somehow managed to go back to the abuser – and with a dose of ‘sorry I wasn’t awesome’ attitude – AND with no expectation of the abuser to change/accept responsibility.

Yes, we were horrified.

I have friends who were shocked to find themselves in potentially abusive relationships – which eventually led to bewilderment at it being true which led to a state of despair and feelings of being trapped. I’m happy to report that all of these people are free of these abusive partners. Still I realize that for every handful of people who move on, there’s a handful of people who can’t or won’t.

Did the studio hold the power at the end of this movie? Was this the same ending when it was on Broadway? This requires more research but for now, I’m sufficiently freaked. I’m taking a break from old movies for a bit.

*How does a person leave? Resources
What to do? Talk – campaign – connect

PS – If you know of more recent statistics on domestic/intimate partner violence, please let me know in the comments – same goes for great older movies – thanks!



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