The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Rating:   (bomb)

Maps of the Heart Nutshell: Subservience Boot Camp for Women

The Philadelphia Story: in which a woman survives a concerted scorched worth policy on the eve of her wedding.  Emasculated for standing up for herself, she is finally broken and promises to be “yare,” a sailing term meaning “easy to handle.”   Perhaps most frightening because the film is so beloved, and so convincing because of the uber-A-list actors who serve as handsome and genial window dressing for a series of pontificating lectures on how a woman should be subservient to her husband (“her lord and master”) and philandering father, who has left the family for his mistress.   Katherine Hepburn has made the egregious error of standing up to him, and in return, she is constantly berated – on the eve of her wedding, no less…

As the title credits roll, we get a brief flashback to two years previous, as Cary Grant, with bags packed, leaves Katherine Hepburn in a huff.   She breaks one of his golf clubs and he pushes her (by way of her face) to the ground.  So much for quid pro quo.

We learn Hepburn’s father has left his wife and children and gone away with his mistress, a New York dancer, well known in the gossip pages.  They know he’s about to put up $100,000 (1940) dollars to “display her shapely legs.”  Everyone else knows, too, because their family is part of Philadelphia’s high society, and now their father is part of those same gossip pages.

Hepburn’s mother, already duly subservient, takes the blame, noting to Hepburn that “neither of us has proved to be a very great success as a wife. Hepburn replies “we just picked the wrong first husbands, that’s all.” Of course, she will go back to her first husband, Grant, as will the mother with her (still philandering) husband, so the mother’s observation is proved “right” in the end. The mother also laments that she took a stand for her self-respect, and now has her self-respect but no husband.  (Fair warning to any woman who dares to stand up for herself!)

Hepburn has decided to stand up to her father, and consequently is considered cold and heartless by pretty much everyone. The conversations dwell on Hepburn’s vices, not her father’s. Her mother sadly says Hepburn has set high standards that others can’t live up to, and Hepburn’s young sister agrees. They also agree it’s “stinky” that Hepburn doesn’t want her very-publicly-philandering-father-who-left-the-family at the wedding.  (Why the mother would want her publicly-philandering-husband-who-left-her at the wedding is not considered.)  This continues ad nauseum, and Hepburn gets a series of lectures about how cold, hard and unforgiving she is.

Cary Grant, now her ex-husband, gives Hepburn a long, pompous searing speech. We only know that he was an alcoholic, and she didn’t stand by her man. This may be true, but we aren’t given details. If he was abusive, or “cruel” as Hepburn’s young sister mentions she read in the papers, it would have been understandable, but the intimation is, cruelty or not, Cary Grant is a Helluva Great Guy, and Hepburn is a Mean B*tch for standing up for herself. He lectures her sternly, that she could be the finest woman on earth, but she’ll never be a first class woman unless she’s learned to have some regard for human frailty. Her sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow herself to slip up, this goddess must and shall remain intact, etc. After finishing with her, Grant launches into the same lecture on behalf of all women in this category, a “special class of married maidens.”  Yikes.

Hepburn’s father and the entire family are about to be disgraced by an article on the affair in a big gossip magazine that will stop the story only if Hepburn agrees to host a writer (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) to cover her wedding – the last thing she wants, but she does it for her father and family. (Doesn’t sound very Mean B*tch-y to me.)  Then the father shows up unannounced and uninvited, the day before the wedding, and is immediately superior and condescending, calling Hepburn “justice with her shining sword.” (Methinks thou dost protest too much.)

Her father acts like nothing has happened, and begins another lecture against her, on this, her wedding eve. When Hepburn says he’s come back acting like nothing has happened, he says that’s the truth. Nothing has happened!  The subservience role-model mother rallies to her husband’s side and says his affair doesn’t concern her (!). The husband congratulates her as if she has just correctly recited her ABC’s, saying she is very wise, and that “What most wives fail to realize is that their husband’s philandering has nothing whatever to do with them.” (!)  He goes on to say it’s about a reluctance to grow old, and how a father needs the support of “the right kind of daughter.” “A devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his.” …”without her, he might be inclined to go in search of his youth.” That is, he was forced into his affair because his daughter wasn’t affectionate enough, wasn’t “full of foolish, unquestioning, uncritical affection.” It is all Hepburn’s fault!

The father goes on (and on), saying she lacks being a woman because she doesn’t have an understanding heart, and might as well be made of bronze.  He even compares her to “a prig or a perennial spinster.” The wife says that’s too much, and he disagrees, says “it’s not enough – nothing is!”  Her efforts to stand up for herself make her “sound as if she’s a jealous woman”, and he walks off in a huff, arm in arm with his successfully subservient wife. All this because she stood up to her father’s leaving the family and running off with his dubious mistress, while spending a fortune on said mistress and getting it splashed across the papers, while saying it’s all Hepburn’s fault.  Wow.

Hepburn is left in tears, but it’s okay, because like a wayward horse or army recruit at boot camp, they’ve finally broken her. She’s finally realizing what a worthless person she is because she had the nerve to stand up for herself and her mother.  She becomes completely self-deprecating. She apologizes to her father (!), and says she’s sorry she’s a disappointment to him. Of course he doesn’t apologize for anything. THEN she apologizes to her ex-husband. Tells him “I’m such an unholy mess of a girl.” Cary Grant says that sounds very hopeful.  (Ah, yes, would that all women despised themselves!)

Of course not only Hepburn and her mother are showcased as subservient role models. There is also the news photographer, Ruth Hussey, girlfriend to newsman Jimmy Stewart.  When Stewart seriously flirts with Hepburn and is obviously falling for her, Ruth just shrugs it off. At one point Cary Grant asks Ruth why she doesn’t marry Stewart, and she repeats the subserviently-correct line that he’s still got alot to learn, and she doesn’t want to get in his way. Whatta gal!  But it just gets worse for her. Stewart asks Hepburn to marry him, right in front of Ruth, and she doesn’t even blink.  She dutifully  shrugs it off like a slight blip on the radar screen.  When Hepburn says no to Stewart, Ruth just looks grateful, but says nothing, like the subservient role-model she is.

Of course we have the “happy” ending. Hepburn has seen the subservient light and is prepared to be obedient to both her father and her husband, who is her “lord & master.” She promises to be yare – a sailing term which she has already described, referring to a boat that is “easy to handle.” Her father says he is “proud” of her and takes her down the aisle.

Their Map: See, women?  You can be married to a Helluva Great Guy, too, if you only quit standing up for yourself, lose all self-respect and become yare!

Maps of the Heart: no one’s goal in life should be to become yare.  “Easy to handle” is for boats, cars and power tools.


One response to “The Philadelphia Story (1940)

  1. Pingback: Hollywood Women Speak Up, Part 3: Katherine Heigl « Maps of the Heart

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