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Love and Marriage in “The Philadelphia Story” Film


The film industry has played a critical role in society by not only entertaining but also educating and positively criticizing social evils within the community. Films before 1945 played a significant role in society, especially those produced during the Second World War. The society was going through a transition, and the filmmakers were keen on capturing this transition in the best way possible. During this period, the United States of America was experiencing an economic boom following the end of the Great Recession. The social systems such as the institution of marriage and love were some of the most important themes during this period.

According to Fischer, the institution of marriage was still considered very important, just as it was in the past (78). However, women were getting increasingly independent during this time. One of the great films that portrayed the issue of love and marriage as it was in American society in the 1940s was ‘The Philadelphia Story’. It was able to capture fundamental issues about love and relationship in a very candid manner. At that time, some of the social trends such as divorce were talked about in hushed tones even though they were becoming very common in society. The filmmakers took the challenge to talk about this issue and how it impacted people in different ways. In this paper, the researcher seeks to explain the historical significance of the issue of love and marriage based on the film ‘The Philadelphia Story’.

Historical Significance of Love and Marriage

According to Gerben, many artists have often focused on many socio-economic and political forces in society when developing their works of art (1). The topic of love has remained one of the most sensitive topics in the world of art for a very long time. Petrie attributes the popularity of this topic to the fact that love is a force that affects so many people in society in different ways (28). It creates happiness and pain almost in equal measures. Diane once stated that love is the force that drives society and individuals towards doing good or bad things (221).

One would be willing to go the extra mile in helping those whom they love. At times it may mean hurting those whom they feel are hurting their loved ones. It is for this reason why the film, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ gained massive popularity because it focused on something that affects so many members of society. In the film industry, love has often been one of the central themes, even in stories that focus on other topics such as politics or economy. In one way or the other, love has historically proven to be a topic that is central in the film industry. It is a kind of glue that makes stories stick together and be captivating. The audience always wants to see what the hero and the villain act to protect their loved ones. It was the case in the past and it remains a popular theme in modern films.

Marriage is another central theme in this film. Historically, marriage is often seen as an institution that brings people into the most basic social unit of a family. It is through families that communities are created. As such, the family is a highly valued social unit. As shown in this film, marriage is a highly celebrated ceremony because it makes the beginning of a relationship that ensures the continuity of a community. In the 1940s, men and women had their roles and responsibilities in marriage clearly defined. A husband, as the head of the family, was expected to be the sole breadwinner. On the other hand, women were expected to take care of their homes. Women were expected to fully rely on their husbands for economic provisions as long as they were in the marriage. Men who worked hard helped their families achieve success. On the other hand, men who failed to work hard would force their families to live in poverty and misery. This is what was presented in this film.

According to Rosendorf, divorce is one of the factors that were not celebrated in American society in the era before 1945 (58). Women were not expected to leave their families despite the pain and suffering they faced. Periodical separations from one’s spouse would be tolerated, but not divorce. However, a new trend was emerging in American society where women were becoming more liberated both economically and socially. Women were getting into the corporate world with great success and this was an awakening call to the society that women could also play a significant role in economic development. Economic liberation also led to social liberation in most marriages. Women were becoming less tolerant of verbal and physical abuse from their husbands. Those who felt unhappy in their marriages would easily consider quitting the institution altogether instead of withstanding the abuse. As such, divorce that was still an unacceptable practice at that time was becoming more common than it was the case before.

The society talked less about divorce despite the increasing rates. It is at this stage that the stage that filmmakers played a critical role in talking about this phenomenon. As shown in this film, divorce is not a social evil. It may be an undesirable eventuality, but it offers people a second chance at happiness and love. Through films, society can look at both sides of the coin when it comes to the issue of divorce. The film explains why a woman deserves a divorce and why it may also be important to a man.

The film also explains challenges associated with the process and reasons why people should not be happy about it. According to Diane, American society currently is very tolerant of divorce (223). People are no longer criticized or discriminated against because they decided to leave their first or subsequent marriages. However, this freedom that Americans men and women currently enjoy was brought about through work or art, and filmmakers played a significant role. The more people watched films like ‘The Philadelphia Story’ the more they realized that everyone deserves a second chance in life. The society realized that one can get a second chance to love and be loved if one is allowed to divorce their first or subsequent partners.

How ‘The Philadelphia Story’ Film Portrays the Issue of Love and Marriage

The film ‘The Philadelphia Story’ is an American romantic film produced in 1940 by Joseph Mankiewicz and directed by George Cukor (Lucia et al. 45). Starring in the film were Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart among other characters. At the time of its production, World War Two had just begun, and like it was in World War One, the United States of America was not deeply involved in the war at the initial stages. The country had declared that it shall remain neutral throughout the war, and that had a positive impact on the country’s economy. The warring nations greatly relied on the United States for weapons, food, and clothing among other basic things. As the economy grew, the film industry started experiencing massive success unlike during the Great Recession period. It was at this time that this great film was produced and it had a massive impact on society for various reasons. It is important to look at how this film approached issues of love, marriage, promiscuity, and divorce.

Love, Marriage, and Divorce

In this film, the concept of love and marriage is brought out clearly as it was during the 1940s. Tracy Lord fell in love and got married to Dexter Haven. The marriage started well, but Tracy had a very high expectation of her husband. Having come from a family of the rich, she expected things to be done as per her desire. However, her husband did not give in to her demands and the marriage started experiencing problems. The strained relationship soon ended up in a divorce. At the time in history when this film was produced, divorce was not common and women would look for good reasons to leave their husbands. However, the film takes a completely different angle. It shows the audience that women can also set standards that must be met by their husbands and if they fail to measure up, then they can call off the marriage. The film considers marriage as an institution that does not imprison women or condemn them to a life without happiness.

It passes a message that marriage can only exist when there is love. When love is gone, then marriage makes little sense both for men and women. This was something that the society at that time had not accepted. Being an easy-going lady keen on getting what she wants, Tracy falls in love again with George Kittredge. Soon there are preparations for the wedding of these two people. What is unique is that the society in this film is not perturbed by Tracy’s divorce and planned marriage to another man. She is getting a lot of support from family and friends. Everyone but her former husband is happy. It was a milestone that American society had not achieved at that time. However, the film portrays this issue as normal and one that society needs to embrace for the sake of everyone’s happiness.

Prostitution and Promiscuity

According to Ritesh, promiscuity and prostitution are topics that have often been discussed in hushed tones not only in the United States and many other societies around the world (1356). In the history of American society, prostitution and promiscuity have been considered undesirable vices that cannot be associated with good members of society. ‘The Philadelphia Story’ focuses on these vices based on the views of the society at that time and what the director feels should be the moral standards. Promiscuity has never been an acceptable practice although it is more common than the society may be willing to admit (Fischer 78). In this film, Tracy’s father is portrayed as a very wealthy but promiscuous man. In fact, at the beginning of the film, we see Tracy and her mother talking about making wrong choices during their first marriages.

Tracy decided to move out of her first marriage, but the mother decided to stick to her promiscuous man. As seen in this film, she is not happy in this marriage, something that is very normal in a societal setting. However, the actual emphasis of how disgusted the society is about promiscuity comes when Tracy is blackmailed by her former husband about exposing the immorality of the father to the media. Tracy was not planning to allow the media to cover her second wedding. However, the former husband gives her two options. She either allows the media to cover her wedding or the media will focus on the promiscuity of the father. This was a difficult choice but Tracy clearly states that the affairs of her father should not be exposed by the media. The society, as presented in this film, may tolerate divorce and remarriage but not promiscuity or prostitution. People are expected to remain faithful to their partners as long as they are in a marriage. In case they opt to quit their marriages, the film shows that they are expected to find stable partners.

Role of Social Class in Relationships

Historically, social class played a major role in the relationship as people were expected to date and possibly marry those whom they were with, in the same social class. Tracy comes came from a very rich socialite family. Her father was a successful businessman. In her first marriage, she had to settle with a man of a class the same as hers. Dexter was also a successful yacht maker. According to Ritesh, social class was a very important determinant of a marriage partner than one would have in the olden days (1352). There was a deliberate attempt by the rich to ensure that their wealth is protected. The best way of doing this would be to ensure that the rich married the rich. That effectively stopped the poor from climbing the social ladder through marriage. In modern society, social class is currently playing a less significant role in defining the possible marriage partner of an individual. However, Petrie says that the social structures that were put in place by the previous generations, as shown in this film, have ensured that the rich would marry the rich (18).

One such social structure is the schooling system. Many people meet their future marriage partners in school, especially in college. However, the system is set in a way that the rich and the poor cannot share the same schools. Premium schools are meant for the rich who can pay high school fees. On the other hand, the poor are expected to attend local community schools where they pay very minimal amounts in school fees. The society also has social amenities meant for the rich and that for the poor as a way of minimizing the rate at which the rich and the poor interact. As such, the limited interaction makes it almost impossible for the rich and the poor to meet, fall in love, and then marry. This is portrayed in the film.

Tracy is planning to get into a second marriage with George. George is a man of means loved by society because of his philanthropy. It is a clear message that in the society of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ the rich always marry the rich and the poor are expected to marry the poor. This way, the wealth is retained at the top. The film does not present this as an immoral practice. Instead, it seems to support the idea that those who work hard get rewarded for their work, a true spirit of capitalism. It is the American society that had been created where a wealth of the nation was controlled by the rich. It is the practice that is still entrenched in American society to this day. This capitalism has been spread to many other countries around the world. In this movie, it is presented as a practice that propels people to work hard because one’s success is primarily based on his or her work.


‘The Philadelphia Story’ was a successful film that was produced in 1940. The film focuses on the life of a lady called Tracy Lord and the people around her. It focuses on the issue of love, marriage, divorce, and social class. Most importantly, this film talks about the liberation of women in American society. Women, as seen in this film, are empowered economically and socially. They no longer have to stay in marriages where they are not happy. They can divorce their husbands if they feel unhappy and seek new relationships.

Works Cited

Diane, Williams. “The Philadelphia Story.” Conjunctions, vol. 42, no. 7, 2004, pp. 221–223.

Fischer, Lucy. American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Gerben, Bakker. EH.Net Encyclopedia, 2008, Web.

Lucia, Cynthia, Roy Grundmann, and Arthur Simon. American Film History: Selected Readings. Cengage, 2016.

Petrie, Joe. “The Philadelphia Story.” The National Academies of Science, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 12-30.

Ritesh, Mehta. “Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 8, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1350–1357.

Rosendorf, Neal. “Hollywood in Madrid: The Franco Regime and the American Film Industry.” Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 2014, pp. 48-79.

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