Rich and Mighty: The Script of the Philadelphia Story

JAN / FEB 2016: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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Classic Hollywood in general refers to the period of the film industry that encompasses the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. During this time, many films were released that have become critically adored. “Classic” in this context signals both age and quality. The reason why this is true is fairly easy to discern. By the decades mentioned above, film medium had existed long enough for the storytelling of a movie to begin to truly cohere technically and creatively into an art form. Now that filmmakers had a handle on the mechanics of what a film was they began to push forward with what it could do. Sometimes, this simply meant seizing on a phenomenally written story and preserving talented actors performing that story at their peak. The Philadelphia Story is one example. Its writing is all the proof a viewer needs of what a classic film can be, given its dialogue, humor, and themes of class division.

The Philadelphia Story was adapted from a play of the same name by Philip Barry, written in 1939. The film premiered in 1940 and starred Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant directed by George Cukor. The story follows socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she prepares to get married for the second time. Her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), arrives a few days before the wedding with two guests who happen to be a reporter, Macaulay Connor (Stewart), and a photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Though she hates it, Tracy allows their presence for her wedding to stop a magazine exposé about her father. Complications ensue when Connor and Haven challenge Tracy’s beliefs about herself and her feelings for her fiancé.

The script was adapted from the play by Donald Ogden Stewart, and the dialogue is of course the most conspicuous evidence it is a superb screenplay. Whether it all came from Barry’s play or Stewart wrote it himself, the fact remains that the spoken delights here are plentiful. Page after page could be filled with lines the characters say that are witty or even just well written. Haven compliments Imbrie at one point with “You’re a good number, Liz” and she comes back with “I just photograph well.” Tracy’s adolescent sister Dinah asks how she can postpone the wedding and Tracy suggests “Get smallpox.” And of course, there is the famous and passionate encouragement Connor gives to Tracy during a drunken interlude: “You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth fires and holocausts.” Writing like this barely happens anymore. And I haven’t even mentioned the verbal sparring between Tracy and Haven!

This film definitely qualifies as a romantic comedy, with emphasis on the comedy. Humor can be found frequently in every scene, not just in the sharp one-liners. Physical gags pop up as well. Early on, Tracy takes a horseback ride with her fiancé and it is clear he has never been on a horse before. There is also a comical punch, and Tracy’s Uncle Willie is a booty-pinching womanizer. Connor gets a hilarious drunk scene as well, and it all makes the modern moviegoer marvel that such laughs can be achieved without the use of any gross bits or vulgar language. We aren’t used to that and it is refreshing. The effectiveness of the humor is just as strong, and a lot of people will probably prefer it. Honestly, just try to get through Connor asking Haven for a drink… from his own bottle of champagne!… without laughing.

Good writing has more than dialogue and humor, though, and The Philadelphia Story offers it. The exploration of the theme of class and divisions of wealth and privilege is integrated into the storytelling. The introduction of Connor and Liz into the Lord mansion cheerfully pokes at class differences. Connor has to take the time to explain to Tracy that he and Liz have artistic talents but must work for money. During this conversation, Connor comments about the scenery they are walking through, and Tracy casually says it’s “part of our place.” Her complaisance to the level of her family’s wealth shows how she must grow by the end of the story. There is also a lot of talk about how a person’s money is no indication of their worth—for either good or bad. The audience will probably enjoy the Portuguese proverb Connor quotes: “with the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”

The Philadelphia Story is proof of what a classic film can be in many aspects, but certainly in the script, because it has humor, dialogue, and themes that thoroughly entertain. This story was adapted into the musical High Society in 1956 starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosy, and Frank Sinatra. How many classic films inspire another classic film? The old Hollywood period is called classic because when it reached it’s highest quality, it was one of the first times that happened. The Philadelphia Story is there at the top. ♥

 

 

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Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. She is described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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