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! ...how?
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. :)