Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Two Adult American Comedies, Seventy Years Apart

By Lars Trodson

In 1940 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer spent a little money on an adult romantic comedy called “The Philadelphia Story.” It was, at least partially, a story of the very rich; the Lord family at the center of the farce was the kind of family that Grace Kelly came from. It’s the kind of family that probably still exists but doesn’t command the front page of the society section any more.

It was also a comedy aimed at adults. This was a mature comedy -- it wasn’t Andy Hardy or a Gene Autry western.

What got me thinking about “The Philadelphia Story”, oddly enough, was a movie that is about to be released called, simply enough, “She’s Out Of My League.” This is the story of a fella, we would call him a nerd, who suddenly finds himself vying for the affections of a very beautiful young woman.
Now Jimmy Stewart was no nerd, but he was not, at least in “The Philadelphia Story”, to the manor born. He was the fish out of water who, graciously, and almost successfully, vies for the affections of the beautiful and very rich Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn (who, in real life, was to the manor born, and in Pennsylvania, too).

So the parallel between the 70-year-old Oscar winner and “She’s Out Of My League” is not as ridiculous as it first seems. You’ve got two stories about two guys trying to win over the girl who is out of their league, only one is out of reach money-wise and the other beauty-wise. So it goes.

“She’s Out Of My League” is rated R, which signifies that it is a comedy for adults, just like “The Philadelphia Story” was. No one under 17 is supposed to be admitted to this film without a parent or guardian, but it looks, from the trailer, as though it would be excruciating for anyone over the age of 12.

The thing that is interesting is how we’ve redefined “adult.” An R rated film should be right in my bracket. But I would feel foolish and embarrassed to go see “She’s Out Of My League.” It actually would be a little creepy, if you think about it. What does this say about how we view “adult” today?

I just watched “The Philadelphia Story” a couple of weeks back, and it was as sublime and as beautiful as I remembered it. The only part I did not like -- and never have -- is when, at the end, Jimmy Stewart’s character rashly offers to marry Tracy after she has dumped her stuffy fiance. The problem is Stewart’s Macauley Connor is in love with the photographer he works with -- played by the gorgeous Ruth Hussey -- so this gesture seems rather cruel, actually, hardly romantic. But everyone recovers nicely.

At the end of “The Philadelphia Story”, the jilted fiance, George Kittredge, yells at Tracy and all the others that they’re “finished! You and your whole class!” He was talking about the old blue-blood money class, of course, which may or may not be finished. But he was also inadvertently talking about another vanished race - the adult American male who wasn’t a buffoon, a sap, a dupe, an idiot or a jackass. Where did they go?