Wednesday, June 14, 2017
1940: The Philadelphia Story
Adapted from the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry
Socialite Tracy Lord is about to get married for the second time when she is beset upon by a horde of unwelcome visitors, including a reporter, a photographer, her estranged father, and her ex-husband.
This was an odd experience for me because this is my most-watched movie since I started keeping track, but I had never read the play until now. I was expecting it to be kind of like Pygmalion, with the play almost identical to the film, especially since I knew that Katharine Hepburn had originated the character on Broadway and was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen. However, while the basic story and many of the lines are the same, I was astonished at how many significant changes were made in the adaptation. Due to my unquestionable bias, I think most of the changes were made for the better, but I'm sure a devotee of the play would disagree.
When I encounter other people who have seen this movie and tell them it's my favorite, oftentimes I hear the same complaint: there's too much talking, and hardly any action. While I can't disagree, after reading the play I noticed a lot more action in the film, or, if not action, at least a lot more scene changes. The play is set entirely in the Lords' house - granted, in several different rooms, but essentially it's all in one place. Compare that with the film, which, while mainly set at their house, also has scenes at a magazine office, a library, and other people's houses. The film also explores parts of the Lords' house not seen in the play, like the stables and the pool. It's not surprising from a practical standpoint that the play would have so few settings compared to the movie, but I still found it intriguing how the story was altered to accommodate these extra locations. For instance, in both versions there's a big party at Uncle Willie's house the night before the wedding. In the play, we only hear characters discussing the party afterwards, whereas in the film, we see some of what happens at the party, which flows better into what happens later. Speaking of which, the swimming pool has an important role in both versions after this party, but in the film this is foreshadowed by setting an earlier scene at the pool, which was set elsewhere in the play.
The change of settings, while interesting, was kind of to be expected. The change that really surprised me was the omission from the film of a character who figures prominently in the play: Alexander "Sandy" Lord, Tracy's brother. In both versions, Tracy has a brother named Junius, who is mentioned but never makes an appearance. In the play, her other brother Sandy is the one responsible for bringing the reporter and photographer to the house to keep their publisher from running a scandalous story about Mr. Lord. Then later Sandy comes up with the idea to write a scandalous story about the publisher so no one has to write a story about either Tracy's wedding or their father. How could a character who facilitates such crucial aspects of the plot be completely eliminated from the story, you ask? Simple: the film gives these tasks to C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy's ex-husband. Personally, I think this was a stroke of genius, no offense to Sandy, or Philip Barry. The thing is, the play ends essentially the same way as the movie, but I feel like that ending makes way more sense if Dexter was trying to help Tracy from the beginning. We don't see Dexter very much in the play, and he's kind of under-developed. Similarly, while Sandy does a lot in the play, we don't get a very good sense of who he is either. But blending them into one character creates a new, multi-dimensional, realistic person who greatly enhances the story. I don't know how Donald Ogden Stewart came up with the rather bizarre idea of combining the brother and the ex-husband, but it works remarkably well.
Beyond this, there are a few other minor changes. Some of the lines are exactly the same, but the lines around them are different, slightly altering their meaning, which I found fascinating. Also, the play has several PG-rated swear words that were replaced with G-rated swear words in the film, which I assume was just to comply with the Hays code. Otherwise, the story and most of the characters are fairly consistent, and the inconsistencies mainly serve to make the movie stronger; thus this is the epitome of a well-adapted screenplay. But really, given how much I love this film, how could I think otherwise?
Another interesting tidbit: In 1956, The Philadelphia Story was remade into a musical called High Society, and while that version has many significant differences from the original story (it's not even set in Philadelphia, for one thing), I did notice that several lines from the play that were cut from the 1940 version made their way into the 1956 version. But there's no Sandy in the musical either.
Next up: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall. I haven't seen or read either of those, but I have seen the 1978 remake, so I'm excited to see how the original compares.