Category Archives: Theology

“High Society” and the theological divide

The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story

As ever, this post started life as a Facebook status, and if someone hadn’t gone “Huh? What you blethering about?” it would probably have remained as one. Facebook is bad for my writing, it really is. Anyway.

Today, I watched High Society for the umpteenth time. The film is essentially a remake of the pre-war classic The Philadelphia Story, which is a better film, but doesn’t have the songs. Much of the script is lifted, word for word, but it loses some of the depth, in order to fit in Frank, Bing and Louis Armstrong displaying their jazz wares.

In both movies, we have the rich, beautiful, uncompromising Tracy; the ex-husband and neighbour from her brief first marriage, Dexter; George, the fiancĂ© whom she plans to marry the following day; Seth Lord, Tracy’s father, who has lately separated from his wife to pursue a liaison with a dancer in the city; and the two society reporters, Mike Connor, a cynical Angry Young Man with a chip on his shoulder, relating largely to being too poor write serious literature, and his long-time girlfriend, Liz, who has not yet married him because he “still has a lot to learn. I don’t want to get in his way for a while.”

At the beginning Tracy is angry – angry at Dexter for the failure of her marriage to him, angry at her father for running away with the dancer. She is criticised by both for her unfeeling, uncompromising expectations, both of herself, and of those around her. Indeed, her father subjects her to a speech in which he blames her lack of affectionate understanding of him for his affair. George, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about how “untouched” she is by her previous experiences, and sees her as unblemished and worthy of his adoration.

During the course of the film, and on the eve of her wedding, Tracy gets extremely drunk, and pretty much throws herself at Mike, the reporter, who has, in turn, become somewhat infatuated with her. She resents George’s attempts to cover for her inebriation as intrusive and fun-less, so sneaks out of the party with Mike, back to the house, where they talk passionately, kiss, and go swimming, before she passes out, and he brings her back to the house.

Waiting at the house are Dexter and George. Dexter has guessed enough of the developments to seek to shield Tracy from being discovered by her fiancĂ©, knowing that she would be unlikely to remember events in the morning, in any case. George is mystified, and a little worried, by Tracy’s disappearance from the party, and is looking to reassure himself of her safety. Discovering her in a dressing gown, being carried back to the house by Mike, scandalises him, and he is unable to reconcile himself to her apparent indiscretion.

High Society
High Society
The following morning, Tracy remembers nothing of what happened, but finds enough clues to suggest to her that she might have (must have?) indulged in a one-night-stand with Mike. George, when he arrives, clearly believes the same thing, and is very angry. After a while, Mike proffers the information that nothing happened, save for a kiss and a swim – Tracy, still smarting from earlier criticisms, asks if she was too cold and unattractive for him, but he insists he was very attracted, and was instead prevented by a sense of honour, in recognition of the fact that she was drunk.

George, at this point, sees Tracy’s honour as restored, but she points out that her sustained chastity is due to Mike’s honour, not hers, and as such offers her no credit. That George accepts her because he sees her as still unspoilt, she says, is worth much less than his willingness to accept her as spoilt would have been. She assures him that she is not good enough for him, since she now realises that she cannot live up to his standards for her, any more than she could live up to her own. George leaves, and Dexter steps into the breach, again demonstrating his willingness to both accept her in her fallen state, and to work to help her in that state. She remarries Dexter, promising to be more understanding and accepting of the human weaknesses of both of them.

So, that’s the story. It took longer to summarise than I anticipated, but never mind. The thought that struck me, as I watched it, was that the ultimate lesson of the film appears to be that people are fallible, and should be held to low standards. The scene between Tracy and her father particularly irritates me – how dare he suggest that SHE is to blame for HIS infidelity? It’s not even that he blames his wife, in the classic “My wife doesn’t understand me” mold – he blames his adult daughter for failing to pander to his vanity, his inner need to be thought wonderful by a pretty young girl. It’s all a bit icky, when you think about it, to say nothing of entirely unfair. But ultimately, Tracy comes around to this point of view, and marries the man whom she considers fallible, but who loves her in her own fallibility.

Then I started thinking about the Church. Historically, the Church has fallen into two main theological camps – the “evangelicals” and the “liberals”. Traditional evangelicalism has tended (gross generalisation coming up, bear with me) to value “righteousness”, or sinlessness, very highly, and to tend towards an intolerance of sin, and consequently of the sinner. It’s a stereotypical image, isn’t it, of the stern Free Churchman, preaching against the evils of cinemas, and alcohol, and of playing football on a Sunday? The liberal end of the church, upon which the evangelical wing has been inclined to look with disdain, have more of a history of acceptance of such things (catholic churches are likely to own bars, rather than condemn them), and therefore of people who indulge in them. It comes down to balance. The bible advocates a need for righteousness, for the renunciation of sin, but it also advocates a need for love, for compassion, for forgiveness. Every Christian has, at some point, to work out how to manage the tension between those two essentially contradictory positions. It’s fairly safe to say that in 2000 years of Christianity, no-one has quite got the balance completely right – everyone leans slightly too far in one direction or the other.

So how is that the 1956 musical romantic comedy is playing out these eternal tensions? And, ultimately, the film comes down on the side of 1 Corinthians 13 – “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Love is a word of complex connotation, in Hollywood, but they use words like “compassion” and “understanding” instead, and they mean the same things. They mean the acceptance of people for who they are, not for who you think they ought to be.

Which makes the film a good deal deeper than I’ve previously given it credit for.