The Philadelphia Story (1940)


As many of you know, I have been slogging cheerfully making my way through the

1001 Books tophiladelphia story Read Before You Die.  As a companion to this list, there is a 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, which I am also keeping tabs on. As a bonus, I can cross items off my list much more quickly. No more 30 hours of Crime and Punishment — I watch a 2-hour movie and feel accomplished. Plus, I’m watching all those movies I know I should have seen, that have been swirling around me in the zeitgeist, and I can finally understand all the references I’ve missed over the years.

The other day I decided to watch The Philadelphia Story, which has been on my “movies to watch” list for quite some time. It looked funny and lighthearted– it was — and I was in the mood for just that type of movie. Of course, what interested me most were the women’s issues of the film. I am sure there is a wealth of scholarship on the subject, since the source material is so rich.

The movie, made in 1940, breaks many social conventions. The socialite Tracy (Hepburn) is a strong, opinionated woman who is preparing to marry for the second time. Her mother is also having marital issues, as her father is having an affair with a dancer. The contrast of class is apparent as Tracy is engaged to a self-made man while her social circle is made almost entirely of “old money.”

I can’t decide where this movie lands on the women’s rights issues. There are some appalling scenes — the movie opens with Tracy’s first husband hitting her, an act which is tacitly approved when she (SPOILER) ends up remarrying him at the end of the movie. The domestic violence as fodder for humor is certainly less acceptable today, thankfully. There is also a scene where Tracy is discussing her father’s infidelities with him he remarks with some blase:

What most wives fail to realize is that their husbands’ philandering has nothing whatever to do with them.

Oh, well then. I guess there is nothing to worry about. He even implies the affair is his daughter’s fault, classy man that he is. On the other hand, Tracy clearly rejects conventional gender roles. When she refers to her ex-husband as her “lord and master,” her fiance refutes the notion. She is her own woman and that’s why he loves her.

Though a comedy, this movie delves head first into social and gender issues, and while it sticks to the conventional marriage plot structure, it is nice to see a headstrong woman protagonist. And the cast is incredible: Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant – you can’t ask for anything more. Also, it’s funny and lighthearted and everything you want in a comedy, with the added bonus of a little substance you can think about later.


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