Philadelphia Story and the Art of Characterization

Characterization is one of the most integral elements of film, and for me, excellent characterization can make any film great, no matter the quality of its other aspects. It’s pretty clear I value characterization since my favorite movie of all time is Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is almost entirely an exercise in the characterization of three principal characters.

Philadelphia Story is the first movie we have come across this semester where I really found the characterization to excel. I usually have a main criterion that separates good characterization from bad: moral ambiguity. Compare Philadelphia Story to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In Mr. Smith, it is pretty clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Some viewers may enjoy this clarity, but from a critical standpoint, there is very little to analyze about Jefferson Smith or Jim Taylor. The ideas that each character represents are obvious. But with Philadelphia Story, you cannot simply categorize any character into “good” or “bad.” When you start looking closely at each character, you see that everyone has both good and bad qualities. Try to think about your reaction to each character and how your view of them changed throughout the movie. I know that personally I did not respect either Tracy or Dexter at the beginning of the movie as they both seemed a bit full of themselves and resentful. I also initially saw nothing wrong with George as he seemed like a fine, unobtrusive husband. All these ideas changed and shifted throughout the film. This is what I mean when I say “moral ambiguity”; there is complexity behind the characters.

Now, first of all, it is very important to point out that a more complex characterization is not only in line with the theme of the movie, but necessary to back it up. C. K. Dexter Haven throughout the movie talks about how people must tolerate others’ flaws and be cognizant of their own. Both Tracy and Mike need to come to the realization that nobody, including themselves, is perfect. People have flaws. This paradigm that C. K. Dexter Haven espouses is consistent with reality as we know it, and this is why characterizing people with flaws and moral ambiguities can be so poignant. No one in real life is just a good or bad person. Everyone is some unique mixture of different qualities. Movies have the power to explore many unique and different characters that are neither good nor bad, but both and neither, that are undeniably themselves and no one else. That’s why this sort of complex characterization is so interesting to me; I’ve seen my fair share of Jefferson Smiths and Jim Taylors but never a Tracy Lord or C. K. Dexter Haven.

I was very pleased to see a romantic comedy that explored such interesting ideas. Professor Jordan is right that I cannot think of any other romance movie that really brought up the idea that lovers should challenge each other and accept each other’s flaws.

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