Habitrail Critic: I Take This Movie

So, back on the ol’ recumbent cycle, and back to the movies. This time, I found myself watching an odd, lesser-known Spencer Tracy/Hedy Lamarr romance called I Take This Woman (1940). It is not, on the whole, a truly brilliant piece of filmmaking. Apparently, it went through several directing, casting, and writing changes, and Tracy and Lamarr were not particularly –ehem — chummy as costars. Just the same, there are things about the thing that are absolutely arresting and worthy of comment.

The plot (taken from Charles MacArthur’s short story “A New York Cinderella”) is…curious. Georgie (Lamarr), who has just been dumped by the married man she’d been dating, is prevented from throwing herself off of a cruise ship by Dr. Karl Decker (Tracy). Not exactly a meet cute, but still a meeting that affects both characters rather profoundly. When they arrive in New York, Georgie, unable to return to her life because of the ruin her relationship problems have made of it, seeks out Karl for help. He takes her back to his neighborhood clinic (in his “other New York”, the bit that isn’t Manhattan or Long Island) and prescribes meaningful work for her ills. 

They are both fascinated with each other, but for very different reasons. To Georgie, there is clearly something paternal and saintly and safe about Karl. She doesn’t understand him, and sees in him some odd sort of ideal — a man of meaningful life and warmth quite different from the inhabitants of her style-driven upper class world of cold idleness. He is real in a way that nothing else in her life can be. To Karl, there is something magical and untouchable about Georgie — “She’s like something you see in a jeweler’s window. A single, flawless gem on a piece of black velvet. You take one long look and then you pass on.” She is also tragic and broken and lost, and his healer’s instincts are just as engaged by that as his heart is by the diamond in the window. 

After a day spent at the clinic, making use of Georgie’s talents (especially her gift for languages), they are clearly connected to each other, but in spite of the assumption of others around them that she is (or will be) his wife, they are not yet in love. One of the fascinating things about this story is how long it really takes for that to happen. When Karl asks Georgie to marry him at the end of that first day, and she says “yes,” she is still in love with the jerk who dumped her, and he…he is still torn between worshipping a diamond and healing something fallen. The scene in which he proposes — in the middle of a bustling subway station, in which they are constantly pulled apart and brought back together again by the movement of the crowd — becomes a kind of visual metaphor for their entire relationship. His giddy infatuation is, he knows, foolish. It is matched by her sad wish that is also foolish. They are constantly pushed together and then pulled apart by the flood of humanity.

It’s an interesting path for a relationship to take. He knows that she’s still hung up on someone else, and he expects nothing of her. She can’t quite understand that, but needs it, terribly; his willingness to ask nothing of her encourages her to give what she can, and to discover that she has much to give. They are married long before they are ever on the same page, emotionally speaking. In his context (much humbler than hers), she becomes capable of growing and changing, and they are mutually honest in ways that are healthy and refreshing. There is still a sort of poison in it, though — as healing and healthy as his treatment of her and their honesty with each other can be, Karl’s idealized notion of what Georgie is or ought to be ultimately corrupts his understanding of her. It moves him to enter her context, her artificial high society world, and the results are unfortunate. Where his context gives her the strength to transcend her old life and limitations, her context takes his virtues from him. By the time she realizes she loves him and is able to break free (with the help of what he taught her) from her past self, he is incapable of trusting her success, precisely because he cannot imagine himself worthy of his idealized version of her. Only when Karl is able to accept his own failings and return to his original context — the neighborhood clinic — can they meet again.

Only then do they actually meet as they are, finally and genuinely connected and whole.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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One Response to Habitrail Critic: I Take This Movie

  1. Glenn says:

    Isn't it dangerous to ride the bicycle around town while watching movies? I tried it once and it was bad!

    Sorry Laura, couldn't resist.


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