The Philadelphia Story

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GringoTex
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#1 Post by GringoTex » Mon Mar 07, 2005 8:35 pm

Katharine Hepburn stars as the spoiled and snobby socialite Tracy Lord in this sparkling 1940 screen adaptation of The Philadelphia Story, one of the great romantic comedies from the golden age of MGM studios. Applying her impossibly high ideals to everyone but herself, Tracy is about to marry a stuffy executive when her congenial ex-husband (Cary Grant), arrives to protect his former father-in-law from a potentially scandalous tabloid exposé. In an Oscar-winning role, James Stewart is the scandal reporter who falls for Tracy as her wedding day arrives, throwing her into a dizzying state of premarital jitters. Snappy dialogue flows like sparkling wine under the sophisticated direction of George Cukor in this film that turned the tide of Hepburn's career from "box-office poison" to glamorous Hollywood star.

Disc 1:
Digitally Remastered Movie with Commentary by Film Historian Jeannine Basinger
George Cukor Movie Trailer Gallery

Disc 2:
Two Documentaries About the Star and Director: Katharine Hepburn: All About Me - A Self-Portrait and The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor
Robert Benchley Short: That Inferior Feeling
Cartoon: The Homeless Flea
Audio-Only Bonus: Two Radio Adaptations Featuring the Movie's Three Stars

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Michael Kerpan
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#2 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Mar 14, 2005 10:24 am

The script is so misogynistic and contemptuous towards women, that it almost makes me sorry that this is so wonderfully directed and acted.

It's nice to have such a nice DVD -- but this is a very frustrating film for me.

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#3 Post by ezmbmh » Mon Mar 14, 2005 1:25 pm

yes, there is an undercurrent in many of these glittering comedies of the time--this and Holiday and other of Hepburn's roles especially--that headstrong, powerful women need to be taken down by love for their own good. Mysoginistic probably isn't too strong a word. But, like with Shylock, it's a mixed bag, and maybe blessedly so--without Tracy Lord et al, we wouldn't have even a glimpse of this side of woman's potential and in themselves these characters who choose love over freedom are a subtle rebuke to the macho ideal of the day, Gable/Wayne country, where nobody needs nothin from nobody.

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Steven H
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#4 Post by Steven H » Sat Mar 26, 2005 12:53 pm

It's not too hard for me to look beyond the misogyny... except for a few comments ("put me in your pocket, Mike" etc.). The Hepburn documentary on disc 2 is great. Hepburn: "I still take cold showers, it's good for the character." You don't say? It's also implied she believes in reincarnation and they point out a few pieces of her artwork.

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skuhn8
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#5 Post by skuhn8 » Sat Mar 26, 2005 1:15 pm

Mysogyny in Hollywood? You can thank Breen and the Productoin Code for that. Every head-strong "Shrew" must be "tamed" in the third act. Now that I've learned about these contrived machinations I understand that it's vital to lightly gloss over the obligatory Code ending and instead revel in the subtle subversive touches that pepper these classics.

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Gregory
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#6 Post by Gregory » Sat Mar 26, 2005 5:24 pm

There's a lot more going on with The Philadelphia Story than just the Production Code at work. The project of subduing Hepburn didn't begin until years after the Code went into effect. Her characters remained very challenging throughout the 1930s, albeit with some limiting factors (such as her longing for a male figure in her life in most of the mid-'30s films, and the strategy of removing Hepburn's strength and its implications from contemporary culture by placing her in period settings). And in Little Women, for example, her character is "tamed" at the end mainly because it follows the conclusion of Alcott's novel. In the (post-code) Bringing Up Baby, one of the most subversive films of its era, she is not tamed -- quite the contrary.
But in 1938, the year of Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, another Hepburn/Grant film with an inescapably challenging examination of gender roles, Variety famously labelled her "box office poison." "The part of a spoiled playgirl is perfectly suited to Miss Hepburn's talents," the New York Herald Tribune sniffed. MGM feared the insubordination of their new star and decided to show very clearly that her persona could be brought in line with conventional women's roles in the way that many critics and audiences desired. After her string of box office failures, the studio understood that to salvage her career as a film star they needed to subdue the Hepburn figure but allow her to retain a bit of her "difficult" personality that made her a distinctive star. Accordingly, in Philadelphia she is tamed decisively throughout, not just at the end. This was a major turning point in Hepburn's career that cleared the way for the roles she typically played with Spencer Tracy, her spinster roles, etc.
This particular strategy was unique and was not applied to anyone else Hepburn as far as I'm aware. It's not unrelated to the norms enforced by the Production Code, but as I said there was much more going on. That's personally one reason why much of Hepburn's '30s work remains so vital.

Anonymous

#7 Post by Anonymous » Mon Mar 28, 2005 12:04 am

I've read the Philip Barry play "The Philadelphia Story" and Tracy Lord's character did not change significantly from the play to the film. I don't think that the "misogynistic" story elements had anything to do with Hollywood taking Hepburn down a peg.

We watched the film last night. The transfer quality is excellent. As for the misogynistic elements, I think that's an easy label for something a little more complex. Also, Hepburn's excellent performance softens that problem somewhat.

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Gregory
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#8 Post by Gregory » Mon Mar 28, 2005 1:05 am

No, of course they didn't re-write the film part for Hepburn. She had already performed in The Philadelphia Story on the stage. Rather it was her casting in the part that was part of the project of re-shaping the Hepburn persona as someone more traditionally feminine qualities, less directly challenging to the bourgeois/patriarchal order in her roles and performances, more amenable to doing press and publicity. Her characters and persona had strayed too far from these conventions, in spite of limitations on these that were inherent in the RKO films. This enabled her to develop an image and body of work far ahead of its time (which I value greatly) and her contract there had ended in commercial disaster. Taming her image was not only a conscious choice for MGM, it was the only choice if she was going to continue to have a film career. MGM carried this strategy out by casting her in The Philadelphia Story and continued it with the roles she was given in the subsequent MGM comedies.

I agree, it is a complex situation (and I personally never labeled it pure misogyny, though the term isn't totally unwarranted in reference to parts of The Philadelphia Story). Hepburn likely agreed that her image needed to change; she knew that her career had almost ended. She trusted Cukor (he was a lifelong friend) and was pleased when the film was a success.

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Michael
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#9 Post by Michael » Fri Oct 06, 2006 2:32 pm

The script is so misogynistic and contemptuous towards women, that it almost makes me sorry that this is so wonderfully directed and acted.
Sorry for coming to this late. I fail to see the film being "misogynistic". Sure, some of its characters are misogynistic, especially Tracy's father but that doesn't mean the film itself is "misogynistic". In other words, the opinion or belief of one character doesn't always mean the whole film supports that opinion. I see The Philadelphia Story as a magnificent farce and it never really glorifies the father's attitude.. especially the way he belittles his wife and daughter. He comes off as an asshole. Kate's character is pretty a strong woman - and also so rich and complex that makes me think that there is no way the film is "misogynistic". Look at how she takes her fiance's offer to call off the wedding and carries away with it. She's smart! Sure, she's flawed just as much as everyone else in the film.

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david hare
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#10 Post by david hare » Fri Oct 06, 2006 5:28 pm

Misogyny is the last word you could apply to either P S or Cukor. Some people try to argue the misogynist line with Adam's Rib, but Hepburn and Cukor completely undermine any such element in the text. And there's always David Wayne as Kate's best girlfirend. (And possibly Spencer's, after reading about the obliging gas station attendant.)

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Lino
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#11 Post by Lino » Fri Oct 06, 2006 5:57 pm

I think it's always dangerous to apply late 20th century terminologies to mid-century's arts and minds (and you could say that pretty much about any time frame). Women have come a long way since then and what we perceive today as misogynistic towards them, might not have been that way then.

What does change is one's perception of certain issues. Do you know about that old Mickey Mouse cartoon in which he smokes, spits and drinks beer? Well, nowadays we might call that "politically incorrect". Back then, it was called fun!

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tryavna
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#12 Post by tryavna » Fri Oct 06, 2006 7:30 pm

I'm not sure that I buy that argument entirely. It's obviously dangerous to apply a specialized vocabulary or concept to a time period that pre-existed that vocabulary or concept. (Homosexuality is the classic example, of course, since the term and category are largely late-19th/early-20th century inventions of psychology and law.) Basically, we're talking about what Marx called a "simple abstraction."

However, using the word "misogyny" seems fair game for two reasons: (1) The word itself has existed since the 17th century and has always meant "a hate or contempt for women"; (2) "Women's rights" (or more broadly, the idea of women possessing dignity and agency) has a very long history in its own right -- in Europe and America dating back at least to the Enlightenment. So it seems entirely within bounds to decry the mistreatment of women by people who claim to live in an "enlightened" era or community. Otherwise, how else do we jugde a society's progress? I think it's a pretty good sign that most people today would condemn slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, child labor, etc. as unethical regardless of the conventions of previous era.

As for Philadelphia Story itself, I've always felt a little uncomforable at certain moments during the film -- primarily Tracy's father's little speech about the need for women to understand a man's need for dalliance. The film seems to expect its viewers to accept that Tracy is indeed an ice maiden who has driven both her ex-husband to drink and her father (?!) to his mistresses. It's obviously a much better movie, but it still reminds a bit of how Cimarron expects us to accept Yancey's inability to be a good husband and father or to provide a stable home -- simply because he possesses a pioneering spirit.

But I do love Philadelphia Story!

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Michael
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#13 Post by Michael » Fri Oct 06, 2006 11:55 pm

The film seems to expect its viewers to accept that Tracy is indeed an ice maiden who has driven both her ex-husband to drink and her father (?!) to his mistresses.
I've seen the film at least ten times and it never made me see Tracy as an ice maiden once. Maybe she is for other viewers. Sure, her family insists on making her appear like an ice maiden which causes her much confusion from the beginning. But still I feel that Tracy is too complex to reduce in any way. Instead of revolving around one character (not even Tracy), the film is a tapestry with every character from every walk of life stitched into it.. each character has his own story. No one is right or wrong. Just different beliefs, different values, different backgrounds, different classes. All that is what makes this film so rich and brilliant.

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Gregory
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#14 Post by Gregory » Sat Oct 07, 2006 5:52 am

I humbly suggest trying to understand Hepburn's character not in relation to her father but primarily Dexter Haven (Grant). The story is one of an immature, irresponsible, exploitive male character (all flaws forgiven of men far more back then, especially those of Haven's class) whose task is to make "a first-class human being" out of Tracy (and by extension, in this context, Hepburn) by getting her to capitulate and overcome her headstrong qualities. This interpretation is reinforced quite strongly in numerous, repeated lines related to Tracy's personality in the play and the film, and in the way that the ostensibly happy ending fits with everything that comes before it. Again, I wouldn't do anything as simplistic as label Cukor a misogynist, but the film was a key example of taming proto-feminist personae that emerged in the 1930s. This was done consciously and very successfully, although Cukor shouldn't get all the blame for this, or even a substantial part (see what I wrote in more detail about the context further up in the thread).
As for whether Hepburn subtly undermined the interpretation I've described through the sheer appeal of her character's strength and intelligence -- I seriously doubt more than a small handful of people thought so back in 1940, when the Tracy character was largely considered more or less an arrogant, recalcitrant bitch for most of the film (as was the Hepburn persona generally). Tracy seems sympathetic to so many more viewers in the last 30 years or so because dominant ideas about gender norms had changed so drastically since the time of Philadephia Story.

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#15 Post by david hare » Sat Oct 07, 2006 7:02 am

Well Greg

first of all you have Kate playing off patriarchal pig dad with:

Cary as numero uno hubby who has an obviously gay (but "safe" for Cukor) overtext, especially given the period; then you have passive Jimmy Stewart who get's led to the fountain by Kate and comes back more smashed than she does, and exits more or less as a failure; then you have Ruth Hussey as Stewart's Hildyesque best buddy who's twice the man he is; then you have the new "husband", John Howard, who's obviously unworthy of Kate from the Movie's (and the audience's) point of view -

Only Donald Ogden Stewart could have written these roles, BTW, look at Holiday;

And of course you have Virginia Weidler, who does the entire social commentary about class and station and wot's next.

REALLY guys - if this isnt a Hepburn vehicle which engages class issues much more than it does sexual role types, what is? Remember she became box office poison in Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett when she played all three sexes. That movie died in the ass of course, but PS made a Motza and totally resurrected her carre (and din't hurt Cukor either.) Of course la Cava's Stage Door from two years earlier is her major comeback. And this is the payoff. And she's great!

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Michael
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#16 Post by Michael » Sat Oct 07, 2006 9:05 am

davidhare, thanks for this great rundown. This is exactly, exactly how I see every one of those characters every time I watch the film. I almost woke everyone up in this house when I read your interpretation of Dexter. YES! YES!

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tryavna
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#17 Post by tryavna » Sat Oct 07, 2006 11:34 am

Gregory wrote:Again, I wouldn't do anything as simplistic as label Cukor a misogynist, but the film was a key example of taming proto-feminist personae that emerged in the 1930s. This was done consciously and very successfully, although Cukor shouldn't get all the blame for this, or even a substantial part (see what I wrote in more detail about the context further up in the thread).
I agree with Gregory's interpretation here. It makes a lot of sense, especially since it's only certain scenes (not the movie as a whole) that bother me when I watch it.

And I want to emphasize that I don't think Cukor or the entire movie is misogynistic. It's just that, personally, I don't see Cukor (or Hepburn, for that matter) actually undermining -- or distancing himself from -- Tracy's father's speech. Of course, this may have more to do with the arc of Philip Barry's original play, which I've never read or seen performed outside of this movie. Perhaps Barry didn't leave much room for radical critique of gender norms -- just as I don't really get the feeling that Barry is doing anything more than gently poking fun at America's upper classes here or in Holiday. (But that's another issue, and one that has never really bothered me as much.)

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Gregory
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#18 Post by Gregory » Sat Oct 07, 2006 2:55 pm

davidhare wrote:if this isnt a Hepburn vehicle which engages class issues much more than it does sexual role types, what is?
They're of course intertwined (see Desk Set, especially) and in the early work she was repeatedly (type)cast as a parody of a female socialite, although she usually escaped the confines of that role. But I feel strongly that the gender issues are the primary concern here, but exploring that would be a book-length task, which thankfully was completed by Andrew Britton before he died of AIDS, tragically young, in 1994. I acknowledge his book on Hepburn as a major influence, and I hope everyone interested in this discussion will seek out that book if they haven't already.
Only Donald Ogden Stewart could have written these roles, BTW, look at Holiday
To me, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story seem completely different, and in many ways in opposition, especially in the films' bias either for or against the characters' gender roles and traits (mainly Grant's "irresponsibility" and Hepburn's rebelliousness) within social norms and whether deviations are to be liberated from their constraints (Holiday) or worn down and corrected (Philadephia Story). We don't have to accept these characters in the way they are structured within the meaning of the film, but again it seems to me the project of Holiday is to open up possibilities for equality between the couple where Philadelphia story closes off the same.
Remember she became box office poison in Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett when she played all three sexes.
She was labelled box office poison in '37, a full two years agter Sylvia Scarlett, and given the consistently unconventonal, independent characters in the rest of her RKO work, and the commercial failure of almost all of these films, I think the bo office poison thing was more than a backlash against Sylvia Scarlett, although that was certainly one of her most challenging of all.

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Gregory
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#19 Post by Gregory » Sat Oct 07, 2006 3:20 pm

Accidentally double-posted, so I'll edit it to say: It's pretty sad how Warner has neglected many of Hepburn's films. Mary of Scotland was released in the last year, for what that's worth, (as was State of the Union, from Universal), but they could still be doing much, much more. I'd have thought by now we'd at least see a stand-alone release of the fairly well-known Morning Glory, (for which she won her first Academy Award, for what that's worth).
Anyway, mods, feel free to delete this, as it started as an accidental post and is off-topic griping.

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#20 Post by david hare » Sat Oct 07, 2006 5:01 pm

Apart from Morning Glory and (Cukor again) Bill of Divorcement which are fine pictures, and in which Kate is still learning her craft I think, her other early RKO pictures are simply appalling, from any perspective.
The Little Minister, Spitfire and Break of Hearts all got a run on TV recently and they beggar belief. Little Women is available on an R4 disc and is very nice. The Arzner picture CHristopher Strong is also of some interest, her only lesbian director obviously, but Arzner's work (at least what Ive seen of it) seems overrated to me.

Holiday is a miraculous movie - my absolute favorite Hepburn, and it's Barry/Donald Ogden Stewart again. Surely, even if Barry's plays are analyzable in feminist terms like patriarchy and so oin, Stewert's peerless screenplays of them focus entirely on the class aspect (from which of course patriarchy may well arise.) Stewart and Cukor give the meatiest role to Lew Ayres, as the alcoholic brother - wonderfully played too. It's not just the women who can't escape this stratified world.

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Gregory
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#21 Post by Gregory » Sat Oct 07, 2006 6:02 pm

You didn't care for Little Women (I'm setting up an obvious joke there for davidhare, aren't I)? The Little Minister and Spitfire are by no means great films and not exactly on a par with Holiday, but then relatively few films I see are. But those two are fascinating, at least to me. I've actually never seen Break of Hearts.

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david hare
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#22 Post by david hare » Sat Oct 07, 2006 6:12 pm

Spitfire is so bad it's almost unmissable.

Kate as butch Mountains hilbillly gal with abominable Okie accent.

Incroyable!!!!

I also find Kate's turn in Suddenly Last Summer unintentionally hilarious, certainly helped by the extraordinary lengths Mank had to go to to suppress any mention of the actual subject matter. And of course Kate's reaction shots to the unspeakable make me laugh out loud. Indeed I don't care for any of her 60s and 70s grand theatrical outings, with the sole exception of Cukor's wonderful valentine, Love Among the Ruins.

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Michael
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#23 Post by Michael » Sun Oct 08, 2006 8:01 pm

Well, some of you are not alone in thinking that Kate's character is an icy socialite and the film is sexist.

Take a look at this review.

Incredible because I really see the film in the opposite way.

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Gregory
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#24 Post by Gregory » Sun Oct 08, 2006 9:16 pm

Just in case there was any confusion, I don't consider her an "icy socialite," as that reviewer refers to her. However, I think that was how the role was intended, within the mainstream values of the era. I'm sure many people would still see her that way.

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lubitsch
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#25 Post by lubitsch » Mon Oct 09, 2006 8:11 am

First let's please drop the "Cukor is not mysoginistic stuff". This is a film made after a play written by Barry and written by Donald Ogden Stewart. That's what we are talking about primarily and Cukor/Hepburn at the sausage factory MGM have limited opportunities to undermine what's in the script.

The script itself is clearly following one line. Every caracter trashes Hepburn at least once about her icy caracter, not only the men, but also the mother and her little sister. Hepburn finally recognizes the wrong way of her life, loosens up and transformed into a submissive woman accepts gladly men as drinking, philandering swine they are. Cary Grant finally tells her exactly to what to tell the guests and she follows him blindly.

There are films which are multi layered, PS does not belong there, you don't expect from a MGM movie subversive tendencies, do you? Just look at the scenes how they are played when the other people attack Hepburn, how she freezes and even cries when her father attacks her brutally and how sweet the reconciliation with him is after she has learned about her wrong way. The only person who does not attack her before her transformation is her worthless fiancee. And then there's Ruth Hussey in the background. She's stronger than Stewart allright, but she plays the female role of enduring the unfaithfullness Stewart's with Hepburn and finally welcomes him back.

I think this outdated rubbish is a good example of a film which gets enshrined by TV, Video and DVD as an immortal classic through sheer repetition. It's a classic example of the rigid, uncreative and dull efforts MGM put out for years with its reactionary attitudes. It speaks volumes about Cukor that he could blossom there while great directors avoided MGM like hell.

A nice quote for the end: "Shaw exposes the condition of women, Barrie exalts the virtue of ladies, Maugham exhibits the vices of females, Barry exploits the talents of actresses"

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