The Philadelphia Story
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Cary Grant
Written by: Donald Ogden Stewart
Play by: Philip Barry
Directed by: George Cukor
There’s a reason I’ve avoided writing about this film till now. It’s always intimidating trying to review your favourite movies, and this is a very rich text. There are a lot of themes in it – addiction, domestic violence, class relations, gender relations, and more – that I’m barely going to touch on because if I tried to do them justice we’d be here all day! Instead, I’ll confine myself to some brief general thoughts and then launch into my ace analysis of the film.
I once heard someone describe The Philadelphia Story as one of those movies where everything comes together perfectly, and I can’t think of a better summation. Part fairy tale, part Shakespearean rom-com, part comedy of manners, the story is sweet and funny and even challenging. Jimmy Stewart’s against-type performance as Mike is my personal favourite (this is my favourite Jimmy Stewart movie!), but Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, and Cary Grant are also perfectly cast. The supporting cast are great, too, with Virginia Weidler, Mary Nash, and one-scene-wonder Henry Daniel being especially loveable. Add to that lavish sets, beautiful filming, and a script that is positively effervescent, and you get one of the best romantic-comedy-dramas ever made.
Now onto ace stuff. From an ace perspective, there are three main points of interest in the film: one positive, one neutral, and one negative.
This is very much a story that celebrates friendship. Like Bathsheba Everdene, Tracy Lord is faced with a choice between three suitors. One is sturdy and dependable, and one is dashing and romantic, but, like Bathsheba, she ends up with the one she has been friends with the longest. We’re told multiple times that Tracy and Dexter “grew up together”, and the other Lords treat Dexter like part of the family. Dexter’s criticism of Tracy is also contrasted with her other suitors’ more worshipful attitudes. Both George and Mike compare Tracy to a “queen”, but Dexter has no problem pointing out her flaws. His criticisms are harsh, but they prove that he loves her for who she is, rather than some idealised version of her. This is in keeping with Tracy’s own expressed desire: “I don’t want to be worshipped; I want to be loved.”
However, despite Cary Grant’s top billing, it is Jimmy Stewart’s Mike who is the film’s clear male lead. The movie is basically structured as a screwball comedy about two seemingly incompatible people (a cynical reporter and a stuck-up heiress, just like in It Happened One Night) who go from despising each other to falling in love. The twist is that they don’t end up together. The film builds to a climax where Mike gives Tracy a reckless, last-minute proposal – and she turns him down flat.
Yet this refusal is so sweetly given it hardly feels like a rejection. And Tracy does not repudiate her relationship with Mike or express any regret about their time together. The film’s end continues to validate their friendship. As a result, the film plays out like a rom-com where the two leads come together, not as lovers, but as friends.
And it’s not just Tracy and Mike who become friends. The film is also about the broader friendship that forms between Tracy, Dexter, Mike, and Liz. Dexter and Mike have already bonded a bit over their shared blackmail scheme. Dexter and Liz have shared confidences. And Tracy, aware that Liz is in love with Mike, actually cites that as one of her reasons for refusing him. Thus, the film could actually be described as a screwball comedy about two cynical reporters and two stuck-up rich people who start out despising each other and end up becoming friends.
At the end of the movie, Tracy and Dexter decide to re-marry, but not without asking Mike and Liz to participate as best man and maid of honour. As a result, the marriage ceremony ends up being for all of them, as much about affirming their friendship as about solemnising Tracy and Dexter’s romance. Meanwhile, Mike will probably end up with Liz – another case of long-standing friendship leading to marriage. The film thus blurs the line between friendship and romance: the romantic relationships are based in friendship, and the friendships play out like romances.
This movie is nothing if not sex-positive. One of Tracy’s character flaws is her puritanical attitude towards sex, which is seen through offhanded comments and also through her relationship with her father. Seth Lord has been photographed in the company of a younger woman, and the press have drawn an obvious inference. Tracy, having convinced her mother to kick him out of the house, is outraged when he shows up the day before her wedding and even more outraged when she learns that he and her mother have reconciled. Seth, however, is unrepentant. Far from apologising, he criticises his daughter’s coldness and lack of understanding. He barely bothers to defend himself or to explain that he didn’t do anything wrong. Instead, he makes it clear that his sex life is none of Tracy’s business and that she has no right to shame him for it.
Tracy finds this hard to accept, but she finds herself in a similar position when George, her fiancé, catches her and Mike together after a late-night swim. George, too, draws an obvious inference, and gets angry at Tracy in much the same way as Tracy was angry at Seth. Nor is George the only one to think the worst of Tracy: her kid sister Dinah also assumes she and Mike must have had sex. This leads both George and Dinah to drastic conclusions. In George’s case, it is that he cannot marry Tracy. In Dinah’s, it is that Tracy has to marry Mike.
Dexter, in contrast, is unfazed by the incident. Though in love with Tracy, it does not bother him that she spent an evening with another man. He also refuses to jump to any conclusions about what actually happened between her and Mike. Instead, he offers her comfort and support, and refuses to let her berate herself.
In the end, Mike confirms that nothing (i.e. no sex) took place between him and Tracy. George is willing to go ahead with the wedding, but Tracy, realising that she could never live up to George’s standards, ends the engagement herself. She has realised that it is Dexter’s understanding and Liz’s forgiveness that she needs, rather than George’s harsh judgementalism. She rejects sexual shame, both for herself and others, and finally reconciles with her father.
On a side note, this is also the movie where Mike memorably says there are “rules about” having sex with someone who is “a little the worse (or better) for wine”, proving that even eighty years ago people were aware of the relationship between alcohol and consent.
Although we’re probably meant to understand Tracy as an allosexual woman with overly conservative ideas about sex, she could easily be read as someone on the asexual spectrum. The way Tracy talks about sex suggest that she does not care for it, and Dexter complains about Tracy’s sexual aloofness while they were married. His implication is that Tracy is a snob who sees sex as beneath her, but it is also possible that Tracy has a perfectly legitimate sex-aversion.
By this interpretation, the movie isn’t just sex-positive but downright sex-compulsory. Tracy is shamed and mocked for her sexual reluctance. She is eventually “cured” of her sex-aversion (with the help of alcohol); discovers that she likes sex after all; and re-marries in the hope of finally being able to have a “normal” sexual relationship. That’s a very ace-negative story, and I wouldn’t blame any ace-spectrum person for disliking it.
Of course, it’s important to put this movie in its historical context. Back in 1940, conservative notions about sex, such as that sex was inherently sinful or that sex was something women did for their husbands rather than for their own enjoyment, exercised a much greater influence than they do today. In such an environment, a woman’s sex-negative sentiments might well have more to do with internalised sexual shame than with asexuality. Today, when female enjoyment of sex is considered normal, expected, and even necessary, it is reasonable to assume that most women who express an aversion to sex do so because of asexuality or other internal factors. But the same could not be said eighty years ago. If The Philadelphia Story were made today, it would feel conservative or even reactionary. But, for the era it came out in, it was reasonably progressive.
Still, asexual people existed even back in 1940. And with no language available to describe asexuality, it would often be hard to distinguish them from social conservatives. As a result, Tracy could be ace-spectrum, or prudish, or both; there’s no way to know. And, from that perspective, it’s disappointing that Tracy’s sex-aversion is not treated more sympathetically. It would have been nice to see Tracy and Dexter have a frank conversation about what they both wanted in a marriage and how they could best respect each other’s needs. As it is, all the blame for their sexual problems falls on Tracy, and so, presumably, does all the responsibility for fixing those problems.
As I said, this is a very rich text. How you interpret it and what you get out of it will depend a lot on your own personality and life experiences. As someone who values friendship, I’ve always been charmed by the relationships in this movie, and, as someone who doesn’t understand the difference between friendship and romance, I love the way it blends the two together. Different people – even different ace people – may experience this film differently. But, for me, it will always be one of the most important movies of my life.
4 Stars; 3 Aces