The Analysis of George Cukor’s Romantic Comedy “The Philadelphia Story”
Ask someone when they last admitted their feelings to someone, and they will probably give a recent recount. Ask someone what that feeling of love means, and they go silent.Throughout our lives, molded by romantic literature and professor interpretations, we visualize, through rose-colored glasses, the idea of love being a series of magical moments. However, though the majority of people regard love-stories as having facets of trust and commitment, human relationships in these fictional narratives reflect social commentaries on crooked mechanisms in the human mind that promote avarice and self-fulfillment in relationships. Therefore, it is incorrect to label love-stories true indications of romance, because beneath their superficial messages exists satire on emotion.
George Cukor’s romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940) is then, in a sense, a comprehensive commentary on the peculiarities of human desire. It is a famous “remarriage” comedy, a sub-genre created by philosopher Stanley Cavell in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. The analysis of the portrayal of love in The Philadelphia Story based on Cavell’s philosophical ideas elaborates on the notion that the authentic object of true love is reality itself. In his book, Cavell explains that the best way to achieve mutual love for one another is to become aware of each others’ needs. In fact, he summarizes that human affection does not seek perfection, rather, it is attentive and dependent of judgement, that sees one for who he really is.
The Philadelphia Story illustrates the point very well, with several scenes showing the flaws in Tracy’s and Dexter’s relationship. Dexter loves Tracy despite her flaw of demanding perfection in other people and aims to subtly illuminate it to her up to the second wedding, so she doesn’t repeat her mistakes. In the beginning of the movie, the reasons for Tracy’s divorce from Dexter seem justifiable until we start to learn the part they played in toppling the others’ character. Though Dexter was an alcoholic, Tracy encouraged this behavior through her demands and accusations, and when they were not met, Dexter’s addiction grew worse. Cavell notes that “Tracy points out to that drinking was his problem he replied, ‘Granted. But you took on that problem when you married me. You were no help-meet there, Red. You were a scold’” (Cavell 146).
Dexter exasperatedly exclaims to Tracy that she was never there to listen to his troubles, and just continued to scold him for even having those problems. It is much easier to give your well wishes to a person in need than it is to be truly compassionate. Similarly, it is much easier to stop fighting and get a divorce than it is to have patience as your partner sorts through his problems. ‘Re-marriage’ comedy aims to show the importance of a character’s change of nature toward a flaw, and not just adopt a passive behavior. “ ‘Importance’ is an important word for Dexter,” Cavell writes, “as he links Tracy’s not being able to recall what happened the night she got drunk to her inability to tolerate human weakness, imperfection” and takes the point home by yelling, “ is enormously important…You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty” (Cavell 148).
By differentiating between two different adjective meanings of “first class”, he effectively mocks her upper-class snobbiness, and her critical, severe character. Tracy, while brought up in the first class, oft fails to differentiate on what it means to be a good person with what it means to be acceptable to the social elite. This could have been ingrained in her personality due to a lack of a mother figure in her life, and a dull father. After she contemplates Dexter’s words, Tracy cries over the model of True Love, reminiscing on her past marriage. She realizes that in order to be truly happy and reciprocate the love that Dexter holds for her, she has to learn to be less critical and more accepting of the problems that come with reality. By accepting that mutual love grows from understanding each others’ flaws, the bond between Tracy and Dexter grows stronger. Cavill asserts that Tracy learns to accept her own fallibility, and in doing so, is able to accept the highs and falls that life throws; she can’t keep letting go of loved ones as soon as problems arise.
Cavill’s analysis on The Philadelphia Story sheds light on the the workings of the human heart because he shows that true love is facing the pressures and downfalls of reality and how one learns to grow from those life lessons. He writes how “Tracy threatened to sink the True Love if Dexter takes another woman onboard”, and that “Dexter grabbed a person who talked ill of Tracy and exclaimed that she “still has a husband in me till tomorrow”” (Cavill 145 and 153). Though these instances might seem miniscule compared to the rest of the dialogue in the movie, there is much power wielded through their words. Tracy is very good at manipulating her words in a given situation, and Dexter can manipulate a situation with his words. Right before the wedding, there is a scene where George comes to discuss the previous night with Tracy. Tracy interprets from George’s message that a wife should “Behave herself, naturally” (Cavill 140). Dexter slyly corrects her by saying that she should “Behave herself naturally” (Cavill 140).
Dexter insinuates that Tracy shouldn’t follow societal standards on how to be a proper wife to her husband (especially true since in the ‘40s women were held in low regard and were housewives, not socialites like Tracy), but that she should be naturally confident. When George tries to ridicule Tracy, Dexter jumps in to criticize his patriarchy societal beliefs on the correct attitude of a woman. Though Dexter and Tracy might not see eye-to-eye in several aspects of their life, they exhibit an authentic human relationship by accepting the problems reality might throw towards them. According to Cavell’s philosophy, remarriage comedies require the creation of a new woman thru a mental transformation. For Tracy, this occurs in the swimming scene where she realizes her faults. When Dexter, concerned, asks if she is okay, she “darkly mutters,”Not wounded sire, but dead”” (Cavill 141). Tracy’s “rebirth” leads to self discovery of her bad assertive qualities. Since her first marriage failed because of her possession of those ‘goddess-like’ qualities, her rebirth frees her, and makes her a human again, incapable of being locked in an ivory tower.
At the end of The Philadelphia Story, she relinquishes her title of ‘Tracy Lord’, implying that she has completely been birthed free of her power issues. Cavell believes that in remarriage comedies men and women are spiritually equal–they both have the right to pursue happiness. As explained when Cavell explains Milton’s stance on love thru governmental analogies, no one wants to conspire to ruin their marriage, but everyone wants to fix the problems that are straining their marriage in the first place. In this case, as seen with the analysis on The Philadelphia Story, Cavell believes that in order to have true love, one has to understand the true reality of the extent of their problems, and have patience to keep human relationships strong.
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