In George Cukor s The Philadelphia Story, a definite class struggle is carried out in the pursuit of Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn). George Kitteridge (John Howard), a new-money industrialist with political aspirations, is engaged to Tracy. Upon the eve of their marriage, Tracy s old husband and childhood friend C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) comes back in order to requite his love. A third suitor, a poetic writer named MaCauley Conner (James Stewart), also engages Tracey s heart. But the real twist of The Philadelphia Story is its subtle commentary on the three backgrounds and classes that each of Tracy s suitors comes from. In failing to take Tracy s hand, George does not prove that a man in America cannot rise from one class to another to join the ranks of The Lords, quite the contrary he shows that in order to earn Tracy s love a suitor must be more than from the same class he must understand what she truly wants.
While the question of Tracy s desire lingers throughout the movie, the question of her needs is addressed immediately. In the opening shot of the film, we see Tracy throw C.K out of her house, breaking a golf club of his over her knee in the process. She is obviously assertive, not to mention rich. Her concerns in marriage are easily assumed to be not material in nature. We gain further indication of her personality as her little sister Dinah (Virginia Walker) comments of Tracy s wedding day, It won t rain Tracy won t stand for it. As the preparations for the wedding day continue, we can see that Tracy is the man of the house , accented by her wardrobe of masculine-cut suits and slacks. She has even advised her mother to take a stand against the infidelities of her father, and has subsequently taken his place at the head of the house. It seems that Tracy has wealth, power, intelligence and respect; all the things that any self-respecting Lord would have.
So, how does George fit into the world of the Lords? Our indication at the beginning of the film is that he doesn t. Tracy first interaction with George is quite odd, as she throws him to the ground and smears dirt upon his newly purchased riding clothes. Tracy comments that he looks like something out of a shop window indicating that while he may have the money to buy riding clothes, he certainly does not look like he rides a horse. This point is made clearer by his inability to mount a horse a few moments later. The scene depicts George, a former coal miner, as an outsider to this debutante world, despite the fact that he owns a controlling stake in Mr. Lord s mining company. He even expresses an interest in Spy magazine, hoping to see new of his wedding and the publicity an article would bring. It is clear that this notion of living inside out, this filthy notion as Tracy calls it, is a point of contention between the two. We realize that George has political aspirations, and possibly political motivations for marrying Tracy, which runs quite opposite to her desire to have no publicity in her home.
Publicity comes up again, in that it serves to lay the boundaries of the various classes in this movie. In the office of Spy s publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell), MacCauley (Mike) makes it clear that he despises being a hunter of buckshot in the rear , but he still acts as the very agent of Spy s intrusion into the home of Tracy Lord. His dilemma of having to compromise one s own beliefs or dreams in order to simply to simply make ends meet can be seen as prototypically middle-class. It is in this same scene that we are introduced to C.K., as an anecdote of his honeymoon with Tracy is told. We learn that he took the liberty of smashing all the cameras that attempted to photograph him and his wife, an act that shows his reproach of Spy magazine is on the same level as Tracy. This reproach and isolation from publicity is what sets C.K. apart from Mike and George and establishes him as a social equal of Tracy.
But as a social equal, is C.K. predestined to remarry Tracy? In examining the lecture that C.K. gives her, we can see that it is not economics, but disparity of mind and spirit , as C.K. says, that precludes both Mike and George from being Tracy s husband.
When C.K. confronts Tracy at the pool house, we see him accuse Tracy of being beyond reproach. This may seem odd, as he is from the same society as she, but his criticism is of her interpersonal isolation. As Sidney Kidd describes her earlier in the movie, the always unapproachable Tracy is criticized for her inability to accept another s faults. You were a scold, as Dexter says, you find human imperfection unforgivable. This is the first time in the movie that Tracy is criticized for her personal strength. It is this very quality, her aura of importance, which initially attracts all three men to Tracy. But, as we see, only Tracy s father and C.K. dare to transcend this aura and confront Tracy on the level of a person.
The contrast between the feelings of C.K. and George towards Tracy is seen immediately in the next scene. When Tracy says to George To get away, to be useful in the world, she is giving an indication of her desire to renounce her society life, her unimportant aristocracy . It is in George s reply to this cry for help that we truly see how he differs in mind and spirit from Tracy: Useful? You Tracy? I m gonna build you an ivory tower with my own two hands! He fails to realize Tracy s desire to escape her idleness and instead offers her a life of simply more of the same. Upon her protest of the idea, he meekly asks, You mean, you ve been in one too long? It is in this scene, the only one in which they are alone together in the whole movie, that George shows his inability to have an intimate understanding of Tracy. His views of her as a goddess are so firmly fixed that he cannot see her but from afar. You re like some marvelous distant, well, queen I guess, so cool and fine, and always so much your own. There s a kind of beautiful purity about you Tracy, like a statue it s Grand, it s what everybody feels about you, it s what I first worshiped you for. His idea of marriage to her is idolatry, to bring his worship a little closer.
Mike sees Tracy on this same pedestal. While Mike s mind may be on the same level as Tracy, as indicated by her description of his writing as beautiful and poetry , his spirit sees Tracy as a prize. When a girl is like Tracy, she s one in a million she s sort of like a a radiant, glorious queen. You can t treat her like other women. Even though Mike takes care not to call Tracy a goddess , he still does not see her at a personal level. While he understands the flaws in George s confusion of love and desire, he too fails to separate his own feelings of love and admiration towards her.
So what, then, is the implication of Tracy s lone equal finally winning her hand? Are we to believe that the background of both Mike and George is what keeps them from loving the person within Tracy, and subsequently marrying her? I would argue that the careful portrayal of Mike and George as fascinated with Tracy s aura actually leaves open the possibility for a man like Mack the night watchman to marry her . It seems that in giving each of these two suitors a flaw by which they cannot truly love Tracy, we are given a reason other than class as to why they fail. George s failure can be taken as a failure, not of the idea of marriage across social classes, but marriage as a vehicle for publicity and self-promotion. This idea is only strengthened by Mike s failure to separate his lust for her aura and his love for her spirit. As C.K. says, my relationship to her was a high priest to a virgin goddess, chaste and virginal. He too once suffered from the same affliction that George and Mike have. But, in confronting Tracy, he shows that the only true way to love her is to denounce her hated position as a goddess, not to worship it. In marrying her, the idea of marriage as an understanding between two people seeking a haven from the world s false perceptions is truly realized.