Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On Old Hollywood, YA, and Love Triangles...

I spent my weekend with Cary Grant. After watching The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Notorious in back-to-back succession I sent Lauren @ Love is Not a Triangle the following tweet:
And after that, I just couldn't stop thinking about these films. Why was it that these love triangles on screen translated so poignantly? I despise even the slightest hint of a love triangle in literature--and I usually despise love triangles in films too--but Old Hollywood just nailed it! 

I've found that all three of these films do, in some form or the other, contain a love triangle. During Grant's era of Hollywood, "screwball" comedies were all the rage; usually involving intriguing insight into the gap between the social classes, hilarious scenes, and romances in which a divorced (or about-to-be-divorced) husband and wife couple fell back in love together. Needless to say, this romantic set-up practically calls for a love triangle and His Girl Friday represents a quintessential scenario: Grant is still very much in love with his recently divorced wife who is engaged to another man and in order to break apart their engagement, he resorts to a series of hilarious events all while showing her just how integral both he and the journalism business are to her lifestyle. It is primarily a social commentary on journalism, with comedic tid-bits and an underplayed romance, which is I why I hesitate to label it as a love triangle. You don't feel the tension between the contenders for the heroine's heart--and in this case, that's perfectly fine. His Girl Friday isn't meant to be nearly quite that dark and as a "screwball" comedy, it's certainly worth the watch. 

The Philadelphia Story, on the other hand, yet another "screwball" comedy, is a film I fell in love with. Katharine Hepburn plays the role of a rich society heiress about to marry a self-made man whose rise to wealth and politics is admirable. Grant, her ex-husband, returns after two years in South America to attend Hepburn's wedding--bringing with him two newspaper reporters to cover the event. Now, the intricate details behind this set-up are ones I'll leave for the movie reviewers to explain but the film, featuring James Stewart as one of the newspaper reporters, engages in a truly captivating love triangle. In an early scene in the film Hepburn is told by Grant that she is a goddess; cool, aloof, and in a station above all others. Next, she is told by her current fiance that he worships her--even when she tells him that she wants to be loved, not worshiped. Lastly, her own father tells her that she is made of bronze--once again re-iterating the theme that both her ex-husband and future-husband have mentioned.

Critics will tell you that The Philadelphia Story was a breakthrough film for Hepburn and, seeing her performance, it isn't hard to see why. She nails the self-righteous, independent Tracy in such a manner that we come to perfectly understand the goddess-like image she holds for Grant while also viewing the flesh-and-blood human she is underneath. Stewart, a newspaper reporter whose station in life is far below that of Hepburn's in the film, becomes fascinated by the rich woman when Hepburn reads and appreciates his novel. At first, the two strike an easy friendship--Stewart never sees the sharp edges of Hepburn's character that the men who know her most intimately do see--but their affection blossoms quickly into a romance. It's that moment--when I found myself on the edge of my seat, utterly distraught over the fact that Hepburn might wind up with Stewart and not Grant--that I even realized there was a love triangle at play here. 

Yet, the reason The Philadelphia Story works is because the film's focus is firmly on Hepburn's character. Each of the men in her life, just days before her wedding, begin to show her what she truly wants, not only from a life partner but from her own existence as well. Whether it be her fiance, who is riveted by Tracy's status more than he is by her, or James Stewart, who feeds her pride without understanding her world view, or even Cary Grant, who sees her for the woman she is and finds it in himself to forgive her--but still love her despite it all--the love triangle in The Philadelphia Story makes the tale all-the-more rewarding. What's more, Stewart is Grant's best man by the end of the film when Hepburn and Grant re-marry, neatly avoiding the angst and drama that seems to accompany any literary love triangle. Moreover, the subtle threads binding them all to one another are never spelled out, the way they seem to be in modern-day romantic comedies with the hero confessing "I love you. I forgive you. I can't live without you...marry me!" in a melodramatic manner. Instead, the leap from seemingly distant to true passion lies in the undercurrents of conversation and is up to the movie-goer to watch, interpret, and process. 

Hitchcock's Notorious is a far cry from "screwball" comedy and, instead, serves to place Grant in a much darker role. Grant, taking on the role of American agent Devlin, hires Alicia, played by Ingrid Bergman, as an American spy. Although Alicia's father has recently been arrested for treason, having worked as a German spy during WWII, Alicia herself is loyally American. Yet, following her father's sentence, Alicia drinks, parties, and conducts improper behavior with men. Devlin, upon first meeting her, is both enchanted by her beauty and repulsed by her actions. After hiring her, however, the two fall in love in Rio. In Rio, Devlin learns that Alicia's assignment is to seduce Sebastian, a German, and infiltrate his network. Alicia's duty throws a wedge in their romance and as Alicia eventually marries Sebastian, neither she nor Devlin profess their true love for another. 

It's a tragic love story, acutely felt as Devlin and Alicia are their own hurdles. Devlin, spurning Alicia for taking on the job, and then Alicia, taunting Devlin as she is "with" another man. It isn't an easy film to watch, precisely because of the acerbic quality of their interactions at times, but the talent with which the movie is shot and the quality of the acting is unparalleled. Sebastian, who serves as the third wheel in this love triangle, is ironically the better of Alicia's two options. Not only is he madly in love with her, but he defies his mother by marrying her, fighting her at every instance in order to give Alicia reign over his household and shower her with every luxury. Moreover, he never once doubts that she may be marrying him for his money or his contacts; he simply believes in her. In contrast, Devlin hears of Alicia's task and assumes that her promiscuous past leads her to take the job. Bergman's famous line--"You don't think a woman can change?"--essentially drives forward the entire broken romance. Devlin cannot trust himself--or Alicia--after such a brutal war and Alicia, who needs to be seen for who she is, opposed to her past, similarly won't settle for a man who sees her as the sum of her sins the way Devlin does. 

What I love most about this film, and its love triangle, is that Sebastian's presence drives forward the entire plot. Notorious is, at its heart, a love story and the spy plot threads serve as a mere backdrop. It certainly amps up the tension and allows for brilliant cinematic shots, but the true tale to be told is the one between Devlin and Alicia. As Alicia grows from a "lush" to a courageous woman; as Devlin learns to shed his veneer of cynicism and finally allow himself to love Alicia, especially when that means leaving the shadows he knows--the love triangle, once again, focuses on the characters. 

I find that in YA or NA, a "bad boy" persona such as Devlin's would be explained away by a tragic past--perhaps his parents perished in war, his brother was deported to a foreign land, etc.--but Hitchcock allows us to become so embroiled in the love story he tells that such extraneous information is never necessary. I found myself inching closer and closer to the television screen as the film noir played on and, by the end, I wanted to hit rewind and live in the bubble of suspense, thrill, and romantic tension that Hitchcock had built. 

From seeing and analyzing these two classics, it is evident that where Young Adult falters is in its molds. Whether it be the mold of a trilogy--which forces authors to add tension where otherwise unnecessary--or the mold of genre, these qualities spell disaster for love triangles, authors, and readers alike. We most often see love triangles emerge in dystopian or fantasy settings and, quite simply put, the romantic entanglements take away from the world-building and plot tension at hand. We, as readers, find ourselves anticipating sequels not to see where the plot is going but rather to see who the heroine winds up with. Moreover, these literary love triangles destroy the female protagonist, putting her in such a position that she acts out in silly, un-admirable ways. 

Yet, Bergman and Hepburn's characters in these Old Hollywood films are classic, touching, and poignant. We feel for them, we understand their situation, and we root for them, by the end, Grant's handsome face be damned. (I take that back, I love you Cary Grant!) 

Lauren sent me the tweet on the right, responding to my tweet above and remarking that love triangles in films just weren't as difficult to deal with. Admittedly, she is right. Not only are love triangles in movies limited by time, but they also don't feature cliffhangers or sequels. Instead, the tension is maintained for a bearable amount. It doesn't drag for hundreds of pages, it doesn't linger in our minds for a year, it doesn't re-emerge for another hundred pages, only to ferment in our minds for another year, before we finally gain closure. It just doesn't happen with a movie and the two mediums, vastly different, are that way for a reason. 

Certainly Notorious, if it were ever to be immortalized by the written word, would lose much of its sinister appeal and impeccable atmosphere (not to mention Cary Grant's gorgeous face!). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the decisive choice to include a love triangle in a certain work, whether it be cinematic or literary, is one that must be made after considerable thought--and Old Hollywood somehow has me wanting to see more love triangles, not less. It never occurred to me that a love triangle could work in such an effective manner, perhaps, and seeing these directorial takes on a plot point I despise simply have me looking at the love triangle in a different format altogether. 

Well, that's all I have to say on the matter, but I'd love to hear from you! Do you enjoy love triangles more on screen than on the page? Do you believe that literary love triangles are all doomed? Or can YA and NA somehow manage to imitate these black-and-white classics? 

I'd also love any novel or film recommendations on what books and movies you think I must read/watch before heading off to college in less than three weeks! You can leave a comment below or--better yet--just respond to my frantic tweet if you have any recommendations. :) 


  1. Love triangles ALWAYS work better for me on screen, Keertana. There's something about them that's a little less oppressive and a little more socially acceptable, in my opinion. I think my problem with it in novels is that the love triangle tends to overshadow the plot a lot, and in films, I find that it's more cleverly woven throughout the story - creating a better balance. I absolutely love your take on this, and I think it's awesome to see you dive so deep into it :)

  2. I never thought about it but they DO work for me in movies. Strange, they just do, they work better. But then they work better for me in adult books too, than in YA

  3. Ha! I love any old movies, and Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors. Another one I've always loved is "Now, Voyager" with Bette Davis. It's an uncommon coming of age tale of a spinster (who is an adult), and plus, a scene of it was featured in another much newer, movie, P.S. I Love You. The best thing about old movies is the magnificent costumes, and Now Voyager (and the Philadelphia Story, as well) don't disappoint.

  4. "Not only are love triangles in movies limited by time, but they also don't feature cliffhangers or sequels. Instead, the tension is maintained for a bearable amount."

    YES! This. I can deal with love triangles in movies WAY better than I can in books, and you're so right, much of that is due to time. I know that by the end of the movie, a romantic decision will more than likely be made, so I don't have the same stress I do in books - wondering if the triangle that went away in book 2 might pop back up in book 4. Such a great post!

  5. I haven't watched either of these and I love old Hollywood! I need to watch these.

  6. I took a whole class on Hitchcock films, and yet I can't remember if I watched Notorious. I know I haven't seen either of the other two though. I think you're right that love triangles can work better in films because the time is limited. Of course, a lot of romantic comedies have love triangles and those can be a bit annoying because you KNOW who she will choose, you know? Besides that though, I think movies can do it better. Of course, I'd love to see more novels handle love triangles well and not just use the cliche for added drama or whatever. I can't think of any movies you NEED to see...I'd say some other Hitchcock would be great. I really love "Rope" and "Strangers on the Train."


  7. You are so right about them being fine in movies in comparison to books. You also hit the nail on the head as to why! This is a brilly post and it is making me want to watch some classic films. :)

  8. I forget how much I like Katherine Hepburn until I watch one of her movies -- that woman was awesome. And, you're completely right. The triangle translates well on screen, versus being more eye-roll-worthy on the page.
    On a side note, they don't have triangles but have you seen The Thin Man movies? Love the dynamics onscreen between the leading lady and her man.

  9. I haven't seen any of these movies, but I might just have to check them out! I have to agree that love triangles are much better in movies than in books, when they're well-done in movies that is. I guess I would count Pretty in Pink as one where I enjoyed it, as it's an amazing movie! And then X-men has a good one too. Wonderful post, Keertana! Very thought-provoking!

  10. Wow. College in three weeks Keertana?! Best of luck with that! What are you going to do?

    Hmmm. I don't personally think love triangles will be forever doomed in young-adult literature, they just need to steer away from adding them in because they feel the need to add tension or conflict. I feel like if they didn't take up the plot line, but they were worked in, in a way that the main character progressed because of relations and was not led to make stupid decisions.

    However, I definitely think they tend to work better on the big screen. Something about them being acted out and usually, the actors inflecting the characters with their own style, usually helps to kind of give a better feel I think.

    These old classics definitely sound fantastic though! I like the sound of Notorious best, I have a little bit of a Hitchcock love after watching Rebecca, and just loving the whole black and white film. I am in definite need of more classic films, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled to get a hand on this.

    Great post! :)

  11. I have never seen any of these (I know am an ignorant fool and everything) but I really don't enjoy all school movies. I'm more for Marvel and Disney stuff. I'm still waiting to enter my "I love black and white movies" phase. Anyhow I was thinking about this and really you're right, movies don't have as much space as books and then again there are no sequels so yeah love triangle seems more logical somehow. Anyhow, these really sound great. Great post, Keertana :)

  12. I love that you've been watching so many classic films (and Cary Grant specifically) lately! I'm a big, big fan of CHARADE and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, as well as lesser known ones like ROOM FOR ONE MORE. I think the reasons you noted for love triangles being palatable on screen are good ones, although I feel like it's usually much more clearly telegraphed which one is the eventual winner if there is one. I can't even think of any recent love triangle examples on screen, except in films where they are romances/romance thrillers with a jealous husband.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  13. I LOVE The Philadelphia Story!!!

    OK Basically you need to watch any film with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in - Bringing up Baby and Holiday are my favourites - not so much Sylvia Scarlett.

    Other good old time movies are The Ghost and Mrs Muir, The Shop Around the Corner, It Happened One Night, An affair to Remember...

    I think the main reason love triangles don't work so well in YA is because they are so cliche and frivolous. They're almost always accompanied by insta-love and as you say, the female protagonist looses all/any agency and suddenly becomes all about which boy she will end up with - which is almost always clearly signposted from the beginning. It makes for very dull reading.

    Amy @ Turn the Page

  14. I am always impressed with the way your mind is constantly on alert thinking an analyzing. I've watched and enjoyed many an old Hollywood movie, but I haven't really thought about them as you do. I definitely stand by my claim that triangles are much easier on film, but I never thought about why that was. But now I am. I think the reasons you say are very true, but also, when I watch a movie, I don't usually think about all the off screen things going on, and my mind paints a much fuller picture when I'm reading a book. I think if I read some of these stories in a book, I'd feel much more emotionally traumatized, instead of just enjoying them unfold. And the comedy aspects of the film also help to lighten the mood. However, I think that triangles in YA are often just contrived for tension, and they follow similar patterns, so much that it gets old quick. AND, you're right that they can drag out for several books, which is just too much. Philadelphia Story by comparison takes place over a much shorter time. I love that you're taking time to enjoy these movies before you go to college, and I love that you've latched onto Cary and attacked his work like the scholar you are. Makes me want to start watching old movies again.


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