The Philadelphia story with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant is one of my favorite movies. Although some of the dialogue is sexist enough to make me cringe, the story keeps the film relevant.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s sort of a 1940’s Pride and Prejudice. Two of the principal characters begin the film with deeply held prejudices–the wealthy Tracy (Played by Hepburn) against her ex, the paparazzi and her father, the working journalist Macaulay ‘Mike’ Connor (Played by Jimmy Stewart) for the rich…especially Tracy.
The backstory is: Tracy and Haven had been married when they were young, but they divorced because Tracy could not abide Haven’s alcoholism. When the film begins, Haven has beat alcoholism through sheer will and has returned with Mike and Liz in tow for Tracy’s wedding to a “self-made man.”
I won’t go into further detail regarding the plot, because the genius of the story is not the resolution of the plot, but the transformation of Tracy and Mike as characters.
Haven challenge’s Tracy’s opinions about herself while, at the same time, Tracy challenges Mike’s opinions about wealth. At a crucial point, Tracy and Mike abandon their self-limiting beliefs. Because they are tipsy and the night is wild, they mistake their euphoria for passion and kiss.
This is my favorite part, because it so beautifully illustrates the sense of freedom and possibility that happens when false beliefs are abandoned.
The self-made man witnesses this indiscretion and calls off the wedding, thinking something more happened between Mike and Tracy. In other words, he performs the part of foil–the character full of judgment who does not change. When Mike assures him nothing happened, he tells Tracy he’ll take her back. Tracy declines saying, “I thought you would have thought better of me than I did of myself.”
Haven proves, by standing by Tracy through all of this, that his criticism was always of her wrong beliefs, never of her. Tracy ends up back together with Haven, with a renewed sense of hope and possibility. (Don’t worry about Mike, his Liz is waiting in the wings)
This movie is on my mind because I am revising a story of reunited lovers. And, if a story of reunited lovers is to work, each lover has to prove they have changed. However, I think it’s also so important to balance that change by showing that each character retained a fidelity to the core of their former lover (ie what was always good and strong).
I’ll end with my favorite line from the movie (which, sadly, illustrates none of the above, but which I love, love, love nonetheless). Mike is drunk and visits Haven to snark about some of the things Haven has said to Tracy. While there, Mike sees that Haven owns a copy of the book Mike authored. Mike starts, blinks and says,
“My book! Why CK Dexter Haven, you have unexpected depth!”
I am soooo waiting for a chance to say that line…