The Philadelphia Story, by Albert W. Vogt III

There have been a few movies with the City of Brotherly Love in its title.  Incidentally, Philadelphia literally means “city of brotherly love” in Greek, though its sports teams, or most specifically their fans, detract from this notion.  There was an infamous moment, to name just one, when spectators at a Philadelphia Eagles home game in December of 1968 threw snow balls at a man on the field dressed as Santa Claus.  Oh, by the way, those snow balls were packed with batteries inside.  Now, of the select group alluded to in the first sentence, I have only seen today’s film, The Philadelphia Story (1940), number forty-four on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.  Hence, I have no idea if those others are as out of phase with any stereotypes that might have formed in your head after telling you about the near Santa slaying.  Sorry, I could not resist.  This is all a long way of saying that today’s piece of cinema is charming.

The Philadelphia Story does not start out as charming.  C. K. Dexter “Dex” Haven (Carey Grant) storms out of an expansive mansion, loading up his car with his belongings.  On his heals is his soon-to-be ex-wife, Tracy Samantha Lord (Katharine Hepburn).  She is only too eager and glad to be lending a hand to his exit, and snapping in half one of his golf clubs for good measure.  Some time passes and the eligible and beautiful heiress is engaged to another, the rags-to-riches coal executive George Kittredge (John Howard).  Because this is high society, such events are the stuff that those in the field of journalism wait for with a great amount of anticipation.  This is true for Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), the editor and publisher of Spy magazine.  This is a publication with which Tracy has some familiarity, and nothing but negative impressions.  Still, Sidney is determined to get a story, and he summons one of his writers, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), along with his photographer Elizabeth “Liz” Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to give them the assignment.  Mike is against it, feeling that it is an invasion of the wedding party’s privacy to be around for such an intimate occasion.  Besides, he doubts that they will be welcomed.  This is when Dex enters the room to offer his assistance.  Also, Sidney threatens Mike with being fired if he refuses, so he goes along with it.  When they arrive at the Lord estate, Dex initially tries to pass them off as friends of Tracy’s brother, but she does not believe the tale.  Instead, Dex informs her that he has been sitting on an article about a supposedly illicit affair on the part of Seth Lord (John Halliday), Tracy’s father.  In order to keep it under wraps, Dex promised Sidney to get the inside scoop on the upcoming nuptials.  Thus, Tracy puts forward her best manners and invites Liz and Mike to stay.  Later that night, there is a party at a nearby house, to which pretty much everyone already discussed attends, save for Dex and Sidney.  Mike and Tracy proceed to get very drunk, much to George’s horror.  Every time he tries to get her to leave, she demands one more dance and/or drink.  Meanwhile, even before the soiree, there had been a few interactions between Mike and Tracy that had worn down the veneer of high society for Mike.  For one thing, she shows interest in his one and only published book.  Any writer will tell you that this is the best kind of flattery for them.  Indeed, he is beginning to believe that she cannot marry George, who is a good guy but much too staid and stiff for Tracy.  In his drunken state, Mike has a driver take him to Dex’s mansion to get some late-night advice.  It is here that Mike first forms the idea that George and Tracy cannot go through with their planned wedding.  The problem is that society is expecting a ceremony, and this includes Sidney.  What they need is something to get them out from under his spell, and Mike has some dirt on his boss that could ruin the publisher and get the writer fired.  Nonetheless, it is worth it to Mike because it would allow him to focus on the kind of writing that he truly wants to do.  In the middle of dictating the lurid details to Dex, Liz and Tracy arrive.  Liz is pulled into typewriter duties while Mike is tasked with escorting Tracy home.  Once back at the Lord estate, they have a few more drinks, exchange a couple of kisses, and decide to go for an extremely early morning swim.  On coming back from the pool, with Tracy being carried in Mike’s arms, they encounter Dex and George.  Mike takes her up to her bedroom before coming back down, only to be punched in the face by Dex.  This is done to save Mike the heavier blow that George wanted to land on the reporter.  Whatever it is that happened, it would seem that the wedding that is supposed to take place later that day is in jeopardy.  Tracy remembers little of the night’s activities when she finally awakens, though the raging hangover she is experiencing tells her that it was nothing good.  She emerges onto her back garden and is accosted by the same people from a few hours previous.  She is also reminded by her teenaged sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) that she is supposed to be walking down the aisle momentarily.  The one thing that she does know is that she does not want to marry George. Still, shortly after he departs, the wedding march begins to play from the room in which the ceremony is supposed to happen.  Seeking to save her from embarrassment, Mike offers to stand in for George.  Tracy refuses because she can tell that Liz is in love with him.  Instead, it is Dex who steps up, which, if you watch the movie, it is evident this had been the plan all along.

This ending to The Philadelphia Story may come as a surprise if you have just my synopsis to go on, which is why I added the caveat about needing to watch the film.  To give a little more context, it is mentioned a few times during the proceedings that Dex and Tracy grew up knowing each other.  Thus, there are no sudden decisions made, other than the one by Tracy at the beginning when she seemingly throws Dex out in a fit of rage.  The movie also works because it completes a character arc on Tracy’s part, going from a spoiled brat in the beginning to learning how to truly value others.  It is this idea of value on which I would like to focus my Catholic energies.  Specifically, I am going to relate it to how the Church views the vocation of marriage.  Society refers to it as an institution, and there are some not so subtle allusions around today that make it seem like the kind in which you put people with emotional issues.  Unfortunately for those outside of Catholicism (and some in it), “vocation” sounds too religious.  I say “unfortunate” because there should be no reason why the connotations that word invokes should be a problem for anyone.  Vocation, covenant, matrimony, these are all words meant to evoke the sacred pact the married couple makes before God.  And that which God joins, let no man put asunder, or so some renderings of the vows go.  Put differently, it means that these situations should not be entered into lightly.  On the surface, this may not fit with today’s film.  After all, Dex and Tracy have divorced.  That is stereotypically seen as such a dirty word to those outside of the Church that it scares some away from it.  At the same time, sadly, it sometimes happens, even to Catholics.  This is never God’s fault, but rather those of people like Tracy, who clearly did not have the correct disposition for marriage.  I would speak to Dex side of things, but we really do not get that perspective.  In any case, they correct their mistake by the end.  Tracy also avoids another one by refusing Mike.  The Church has potential couples go through a great deal of discernment before it agrees to marry them.  This is more in line with Dex and Tracy.

One of the marks of a good movie like The Philadelphia Story for me is that it keeps you guessing.  By the end, it could have been either Dex or Mike for Tracy, and I could have been satisfied with either of those choices.  Yes, choosing Mike would not have been the Catholic ideal, though an audience can see a great deal more of a situation than can the characters in it.  Sometimes I wonder if this is how God sees our lives, like a film playing out before Him.  Finally, this one had me laughing out loud a few times, and that is worth something.


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