A screwball comedy with a three-way love triangle, The Philadelphia Story is ultimately about a divorced couple reexamining why their relationship failed. Surprisingly, those examinations, while couched in the extravagance of the comedy genre, draw some very valid conclusions.
Tracy is a high-profile socialite whose first marriage ended after one year in a bitter divorce. Two years later, she’s poised to get married again, this time to the hard-working George Kittridge, and everything seems to be going right this time. That is until her ex-husband Dexter shows up with a convenient piece of blackmail, forcing her to allow a news crew from a magazine an inside peek at her wedding.
Eventually, the film develops some sort of relationship between Tracy and three men: her ex-husband Dexter, her fiance George, and photographer Mike. Much of this is for dramatic or comical effect (often both at the same time), but there’s a point behind it as well. The reasons that each of these men are drawn to Tracy highlight her most attractive quality, which is also her greatest flaw. Each of these three characters calls her “a goddess.” They mean different things by it. While George and Mike mean it to describe how otherworldly her beauty and charm is, Dexter means it to describe her pride and attitude towards those she sees as flawed in some way. Both meanings, it turns out, are correct.
But it’s the pride that takes full focus here. Dexter says “she sees human imperfection as unforgivable.” To the audience, that seems particularly apparent when it comes to her father, whose adultery is a well-known fact. She confronts him about it, and doesn’t want him at the wedding. He justifies it, and chides her for being so proud. The role of a woman, as it’s communicated to her, is to be unconditionally forgiving and supportive. Modern audiences will say this is overtly sexist, and they’re not wrong; a perfect example of the film’s sexism is found when Tracy says, speaking of her divorce from Dexter, “Now I’ve got my dignity, but I haven’t a husband.”
But the film does not affirm all of those gender roles. Instead, it brings them into the conversation to challenge them. In the film’s Third Act, Tracy makes a terrible mistake, although it’s one that looks significantly worse than it actually is. George, in a rage, becomes extremely upset over her undignified conduct. In a stroke of humility, Tracy refuses to justify herself, but neither does she submit herself to George’s demands. At this point in the film she has certainly become forgiving – that’s abundantly clear from how she comes to treat her father – but neither is she fully supportive. Rather than follow her would-be husband, she decides their paths are best off separate. And a character more willing to let her be herself, faults and all, ends up with her in the end.
As relationship analyses go, this one is a mixed bag. There are certainly things about classic gender roles that are unchristian, and this film brings those to the forefront. That Tracy should be expected to look past her father’s adultery as a natural part of manhood is a gross injustice, not to mention the double standard when it comes to women that commit adultery. The idea that a husband ought to be willing to accept his wife’s flaws as well as her positive traits is also a noteworthy message. And yet, Tracy’s vices, serious though they should be, are glossed over for the sake of humor. Her momentary drunkenness and her flirting, occasionally done in a swimsuit, are treated as signs of her fiery and adventurous nature, not flaws that ought to be treated more seriously. It’s positive for the narrative to encourage loving a spouse in acceptance of their flaws, but it is wrong to downplay those flaws as flippant and laughable matters.
That leaves us with a film that’s witty, entertaining, heartfelt, and, in moments, serious and thoughtful, while also having some moral concerns. The script is quite adult for the time, and some of that risque content is still noticeable to today’s viewer. With that said, there are some valuable things to be garnered from the story, and the skillful trio of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart creates an ensemble that has rarely been matched by such a small cast. It has earned its place with the great films of history, even if that place does come with some concerns attached.