Subtle Symbolism in The Philadelphia Story

Whenever I watch a film for the second time, I notice even the most subtle of details or symbolic elements that I had previously overlooked, and The Philadelphia Story was no exception. Despite the fact that I had to resort to re-watching select clips on YouTube (the movie was not available for free online in its entirety), I was able to glean several instances of notable mis-en-scene and cinematic choices that I had not picked up on before. While some may be more obvious or plausible than others, I wanted to share my findings.

My first realization is associated with the first scene of the movie (above), and I am very surprised how I initially missed this distinct cinematic choice. In this scene, Tracy and Dexter have a falling out, and we can determine that their altercation signifies the end of their first marriage. What I had failed to notice before was the complete absence of conversation in their interaction. In fact, it is filmed in a manner very similar to that of early silent movies — with dramatic music and exaggerated actions and emotions. Given one of the central themes of this film, this style make sense. The film’s primary takeaway is the importance of meaningful conversations within a successful marriage in which both parties understand each other’s faults and ask probing questions to help each other grow; the fact that this scene includes absolutely no conversation shows how Tracy and Dexter were previously incompatible and the extent to which they both needed to experience a period of learning and growth to establish a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship.

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My next observation is associated with the screenshot above, which was pulled from the scene where drunken Macaulay is interrogating Dexter about his feelings for Tracy. Right as Macaulay inquires, “Do you still love her?”, we obtain this view of Dexter’s house, which displays a model of a ship and the shadows of what seem to be a miniature woman and man in the background. As we learn throughout the film, boats represent the relationship between Dexter and Tracy. In fact, at the end of the film, we learn about a boat that Dexter had named “True Love,” which is “only comfortable for two people” and is described by the two as “yar.” Boats obviously represent a significant aspect of their previous relationship and allow Dexter and Tracy to speak in their common language. Perhaps the boat and shadow figures in this scene represent the couple and their “true love” and allow the audience to draw a conclusion on their own to Macaulay’s question, “Do you still love her?”

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While I have to admit that my next observation may be a bit of a stretch, I decided to share it, as I find it incredibly interesting. When Macaulay and Dexter are conversing at Dexter’s house, the background displays three animal heads mounted above a fireplace along with three trophies –one of which is noticeably larger — on the mantel. While I had dismissed the idea that these objects held any type of significance at first, I decided to explore this mis-en-scene further when I saw that Macaulay literally pauses in conversation to stare at these animal heads. Perhaps these three animals represent the three men “going after” Tracy. Throughout the film, it becomes apparent that one of the men (Dexter) is more fit for Tracy, followed by Macaulay and then George. Does the larger trophy next to the animal head on the far right represent Dexter and his victory in establishing a marriage with Tracy in the end? Is it purely coincidence that there are three animals, three trophies, and three men? Everything is placed in a scene for a reason, right?  Just some food for thought.

Ultimately, while the plausibility of some of my findings may be questionable, I definitely think there are intentional and subtle details in The Philadelphia story that are very easy to overlook. Even after replaying these scenes several times, it did take me a bit of time to take notice to these details and establish these inferences. I can only imagine how many other symbols and cinematic choices I would take notice to if I had the ability to study the entire movie in this level of detail.

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