My local PBS station has discovered something every parent of a two-year-old knows: We love to hear the same story over and over. As adults, of course, we prefer that the actors be changed from telling to telling and the plots varied ever so slightly. But the formula holds true nonetheless, and PBS has come to realize that it isn’t necessary to show more than a handful of old movies (they would call then “classics”) week after week with a regularity that would do the Ministry of Truth proud in Orwell’s 1984.
No standards of artistic taste need be applied. They aired The Barefoot Contessa, two (or was it three?) weeks running. But the choice of films is more dependent, I suspect, on the narrow stock in their cupboards than on the bad taste of the program managers. Some of the films are actually well-made, the Hepburn films, for instance.
Recently, in fact, they put on one of these old war horses, The Philadelphia Story, the original Hollywood version with Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. And I’ll say one thing for the film: It holds your attention, if for no other reason that it depends so much on dialogue, a dying if not dead art in contemporary movies.
The movie opens with Tracy Lord, Hepburn’s character breaking one of her soon-to-be-divorced husband’s golf clubs over her knee (this was 1940 when shafts were still made of wood). In retaliation her husband Dexter, played by Cary Grant, draws back his fist as if to slug her, then changes his mind and gives her a violent push that puts her on the flat of her back. The force of the push is exaggerated by speeding up the action, running a few frames at double or triple speed, either to save Ms. Hepburn from having to withstand the full force of the blow were it to be applied in real time or to accelerate the fall. Either way the scene, just a few seconds long, is shocking to witness in 2006. In real life she would likely have broken a bone or suffered a concussion.
If the film were being made today, the rest of its footage would be devoted to man’s inhumanity to woman, with a sympathetic male character thrown in or at least an opportunity in the script for the misogynistic (but irresistible) male lead to redeem himself by raising his consciousness under the loving but firm guidance of his better half. Not so in this George Cukor version of the Broadway play that preceded it. Tracy is the one at fault, we are expected to believe, starting with the wife-battering with which the film opens.
The time line cuts forward to her wedding a few years later. She is engaged to marry an up-and-coming working class man with political ambitions and, we learn as the film progresses, a contempt for the upper classes (did I mention that Tracy is stinking rich?) that hints at Bolshevik sympathies. In the twenty-four hours prior to the wedding Tracy is confronted by her ex, her fiancé and even by her father and told by each that she is, in effect, a frigid woman. They use words like “virgin goddess,” “cool,” “queenly,” to accuse her of being unfeeling, aloof, but the meaning is clear. In no sense, by the way, is it established for the audience by the character’s own words and actions that any of this is true. We have to take the men’s words for it. Her father even goes so far as to blame his sexual philandering on his daughter’s lack of warmth!
Only alcohol, we are told by Dexter, the ex who insists on hanging about during the preparations for the nuptials, can turn this ice queen into a normal woman with normal desires, citing not his own achievements oiling her up but an instance when she stood naked on the roof like a daughter of the Moon after tying one on. One wonders why he didn’t just slip her a mickey.
Tracy does decide to get drunk on the eve of her wedding, driven to it by the shame she feels as a result of all the male criticism she has been subjected to. The result is she has a little dalliance with one of the reporters sent down to cover the wedding by a corrupt publisher for his own nefarious purposes. It only amounts to a few kisses and a midnight swim, but it is enough to scotch the marriage to the ex-coal miner and finally show Tracy that it is Dexter she belongs with—the fellow who knocked her on her back in the first few seconds of the first reel.
What is the PBS audience to make of all this? Is the obvious misogyny to be discounted as merely period prejudice? If it were African Americans or Jews being vilified would we be expected to overlook that abuse? Or does the script’s patent misogyny go unnoticed or become automatically minimized in the eyes of the viewer because it is Katherine Hepburn playing the lead role, and her characters, whatever the reality of the times, supposedly stood for women’s rights and equality?
The folks who run PBS are no dodoes. They may not know much history or geography, but they know the demographics of their viewership. They know the kind of bedtime story it takes to keep that audience watching and the member dollars flowing into the station. If they show The Philadelphia Story as their prime-time Saturday offering, you can rest assured that movie is what makes the viewership happy—or at least pacified. And yet, without having access to the economic and social breakdown of that audience, we have to assume that it is educated better than the average as well as better off financially—supposedly the sort of audience that cares about civil, feminist and gay rights.
Or is this giving too much credit where it is not due? And if so, what does that say about the intelligence of the audience, by which I mean intelligence in the larger sense, to include not just academic degrees and job status but a mind with content, an ability to think critically, some breadth of experience? The general dumbing down of public TV and radio in recent decades doesn’t speak well for the condition of this intelligence. There is very little on those airwaves to challenge or even simulate. And during the frequent fundraisers, instead of putting on the best of what they have aired over the years, they broadcast endless doowop and infomercials.
What is the difference between this state of affairs and the situation in a closed society like the former Soviet Union, except that here we need no thought police? We succumb willingly to the party line—the “line” in our case being pabulum and ignorance. If the educated middle class doesn’t know when it’s being lulled to sleep with nostalgia, kitsch and self-helpism; when it even demands these things, thinking it is advancing not just its own cause but the cause of art and the greater public good, does it deserve anything better than a government that lies to their faces and a media that tells them more about the private lives of celebrities than it does about why its politicians take them to war and reduce their social services?