Cukor challenges social norms and legitimizes divorce in 30s film

By Ghada Emish ’19

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One of the gems of 1930s cinema, The Philadelphia Story, directed by George Cukor, demonstrates the necessity of divorce in society. At a time when married couples could not obtain a divorce, the film argues for an open-minded consideration of the legitimacy of divorce. Cukor takes a rather sophisticated approach to divorce by emphasizing that even adults change over time and, thus, are subject to not being able to reconcile their differences after a period of being married. 

The film stars Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a recently divorced woman whose extreme appreciation of aesthetics leads her to denounce alcohol. Her ex-husband, Dexter—played by Grant, could not tolerate Tracy’s inability to accept his inclination to drink, and, as a result, his thirst for alcohol became more intense. This led to an increasing grudge between the couple, and the two divorced. Tracy is about to remarry when Dexter invites himself to her house with a newspaper writer, Connor—played by Stewart—and, Tracy’s worst nightmare, a photographer. Dexter finds Tracy’s future husband, George, quite an unfitting choice for Tracy in terms of the former’s personality and mind. 

Through the short yet reactive conversations that occur between Tracy and Dexter, it becomes clear that the latter has matured during his time away from his ex-wife. Dexter drinks less. He realizes that Tracy is suffering from an obsession with seeing herself as a higher entity that rejects human imperfection. He is not, however, back to face her with this fact in order to avenge himself. He goes back to face the reasons of their failed marriage with her. 

Tracy’s rejection of human imperfection is paralleled with society’s denial of a couple’s right to obtain a divorce. The film argues that the time Tracy and Dexter spent apart was quite necessary for them to have a constructive conversation. Thus, married couples should have the right to choose if getting a divorce is necessary to avoid a growing grudge that could drive them to irrevocably dislike one another. 

Cukor succeeds in presenting Tracy as a woman whose vanity is unmistakable in her elevated-shoulder clothes. Her manner of speech indicates her wit and confidence. It is outstanding to find a female leading character in a 30s blockbuster from one of the most brilliant Hollywood directors. 

Nowadays, I believe Hollywood lacks this kind of serious, socially-oriented production which revolves around a female character. This makes The Philadelphia Story a piece that modern filmmakers and audience should look up to. 

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