George Cukor’s star studded romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story (1940), offers modern viewers a look at changing personalities in 1930s/40s American high society. The film stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and James Stewart in a clash of cultures centered around a wedding. Macaulay Connor (Stewart) is a reporter for tabloid like Spy Magazine, on assignment to write an expose on the marriage of wealthy Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) with the help of her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).
While all of the characters present go through a dramatic change of outlook, Connor’s is the most drastic. Macaulay Connor’s goal in life is to be respected for his writing. He works for Spy magazine and resents his position, as he feels it is undignified. Although he successfully published a book of short stories, it was thoroughly unsuccessful in sales. Based on the reactions of other characters to his work, it is intimated that the book is of high quality. The greatest obstacle in Connor’s mind is his social status and financial situation.
He feels he is forced to keep his job at Spy in order to have money. At one point, Connor plans to quit to avoid an assignment that involves attending a society wedding under false pretenses: “I’m a writer, I’m not a society snoop…. Let Kidd fire me! I’ll start writing short stories again; that’s what I should be doing anyway. ” Connor complains to Kidd’s face that the work is “degrading, it’s undignified,” and his girlfriend and photographer retorts: “so is an empty stomach. ” The two then proceed to question Kidd about the logistics of the job and there is no further discussion of dignity.
Aside from the obvious financial struggle, it is apparent throughout the film that Connor believes he has been cheated in life by being from the “lower class. ” He regularly comments on the lifestyle maintained by the rich and the ease with which they go through life. When asked by Tracy why he is not exclusively a fiction writer, “When you can do a thing like that book, how could you possibly do anything else? ”, his response is cutting: “Well, you may not believe this, but there are people in this world that must earn their living. ” Connor believes in the existence of social stratification.
He is continually resentful of the upper class for the superiority complex he expects the wealthy to have. In describing Tracy before learning anything about her, Connor asserts that she is “the rich, rapacious, American female. There’s no other country where she exists. ” Because of this view, he is very abrupt with anyone he considers “upper class,” regularly making observations on their lifestyle: “The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges. ”
Connor was raised in the small town of South Bend, Indiana, and suffered from “lack of wherewithal. The son of an English History teacher, Connor had little wealth growing up and even less upon reaching adulthood. He had one book of short stories published in his late 20s, and though “it represents 2 solid years’ work and it netted Connor under $600. ” He spent years working for Spy, where his boss as well as the people he wrote about treated him as an inferior. The only story he wrote that is directly referenced is from his book of short stories, titled “With the Rich and Mighty. ”
Connor notes that the title comes from a Spanish peasants’ proverb: “with the rich and mighty, always a little patience. Working for Spy, Connor wrote about the intimate lives of upper class people and is forced to regularly compare his life to those of the people he views as undeserving and be subjected to classist treatment. Walking around Tracy’s house, Connor is confronted with Tracy’s wedding gift table, dripping with expensive items. The butler, with the clear expectation that Connor will steal one of the gifts, watches him closely. While first meeting Connor and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), Tracy Lord’s goal is to appear as snobbish and stereotypically upper class as possible.
When asked about her wedding, she comments, “We aren’t allowing any reporters in, except for little Mr. Grace who does the social news. Can you imagine a grown up man having to sink so low? ” A little later in the same meeting, Tracy asks if Connor and Elizabeth are dating and receives only uncomfortable spluttering from the couple. Tracy then insinuates that Connor should have married Elizabeth if he loves her, at which Connor jerks and becomes uncomfortable. This moment exposes Connor’s emotional distance, an issue that continues throughout the film.
It appears that Connor is unaware of his emotional objectivity towards his girlfriend, Elizabeth, until the end of the film. When asked why she has not married him yet, Elizabeth responds, “he’s still got a lot to learn. I don’t want to get in his way for a while. ” While he is aware of his classism towards the wealthy, it is not until the end of the film that he recognizes that his prejudice towards the upper class is unfair. Connor is not aware of the extent to which he expresses his dislike of the upper class, in spite of being faced with examples that prove him wrong.
As the story progresses, Connor begins to realize that the wealthy are as dysfunctional as everyone else. They have personal dilemmas, trauma, and struggles. His view of Tracy, the epitome in his eyes of upper class snobbery, begins to change when he discovers her reading his book in the library. “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing? You know what happens when girls like you read books like mine: they begin to think. That’s bad. ”
The turning point in Connor’s view comes when he gets drunk at Tracy’s rehearsal dinner party. Heavily intoxicated, he leaves the party and visits Tracy’s upper class ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) with champagne; “I bring you greetings. It’s called Cinderella’s slipper: champagne. Champagne is a great leveleler… leveleler. It makes you my equal. ” Upon entering and perusing Haven’s bookshelf, Connor notices his own book and exclaims, “C. K. Dexter Haven you have unsuspected depth! ” At the end of the film, while discussing his changed perception with Haven, Connor says, “Well, I’ve made a funny discovery. In spite of the fact that somebody’s up from the bottom, he can still be quite a heel. And that even though somebody else is born to the purple, he can still be a very nice guy.
When Tracy’s marriage is called off as a result of her evening adventures with Connor, he attempts to do what he feels is honorable by asking her to marry him. When she rejects his offer, he notes that “I’ve never asked a girl to marry me in my life; I’ve avoided it. ” It is apparent that his unemotional facade has cracked as he retreats and holds Elizabeth. The film clearly delineates between the lifestyles of the upper and lower classes through apparel, taste in food and drink, and eloquence. However, the film as a whole works to show the common humanity evident in all of the characters, regardless of social strata.
They each have personal demons to work through, are faced with difficult decisions, and at times question the value of their friendships and their own worth. While Connor and Elizabeth frequently quip about the wealth of their hosts, the upper class characters never make comparative comments about the lower class characters’ lack thereof. Conversely, they regularly comment on the higher character of those like Mac, the night watchman, as compared to their peers. As Tracy asserts to the prejudicial Connor, “The time to make up your mind about people… is never. ”
January 9, 2018
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