Philadelphia Story: From Box Office Poison to Bankability

BROADWAY’S HOWLING YEAR-RUN COMEDY HIT OF THE SNOOTY SOCIETY BEAUTY WHO SLIPPED AND FELL – IN LOVE!

philadelphiastoryThe Philadelphia Story became a tour-de-force for Katharine Hepburn in more ways than one. In the late 1930s, she had been labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America after a string of failures. She needed a comeback badly and saw an opportunity in a Broadway play by Philip Barry. When the time came to make a movie out of the story, the rights ended up in Hepburn’s hands and she was free to choose producer, director, screenwriter and cast. She was in charge, but the gamble paid off – The Philadelphia Story was a hit. Her performance in the film is also one of her best.

The Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) under anything but amicable circumstances. Now she’s set to marry again, this time a nouveau riche, George Kittredge (John Howard). A gossipy tabloid magazine is eager to cover the wedding in spite of Tracy’s refusal to invite them; the editor comes up with the devious idea of persuading Dexter (who still carries a grudge against Tracy) to take a reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), and a photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), with him to the Lords. Tracy does eventually agree to welcoming Mike and Liz as guests after learning from Dexter that the magazine has a story on her philandering father that they might consider not to run.

Tracy is certainly not happy about the arrangement, but she has bigger problems. Even though she spends a lot of time arguing with Dexter, there’s no denying that there’s still feelings between them… and suddenly Mike is beginning to look attractive to her as well.

Sophisticated dialogue
This movie has become perhaps the most classic high-society comedy, not so much for the story or big laughs, but on account of the cast and the sophisticated dialogue. Grant is perfect as the reformed alcoholic who is unable to put his marriage behind him and hides his real romantic feelings behind a dapper, charming but also inevitably bitter façade. Stewart plays against type as a cynical reporter who has no interest in either the lives of the rich and famous or their spectacular weddings, but can’t help find Tracy just a wee bit attractive.

And then there’s Hepburn who’s funny and touching as Tracy, a young woman who’s tired of living up to the preconceived notions that her father and ex-husband seem to hold of her. She delivers a magnificent performance as her character goes on a (part drunken) journey that finally leads up to the moment when she knows what to do. Of course, Stewart is also a lot of fun, especially in that sequence where he’s drunk and tries to have a serious conversation with Grant (who’s trying hard not to laugh at his co-star).

The movie is shot on a soundstage in Hollywood, but it’s easy to think of the sets as part of a Main Line Philadelphia family’s mansion. Adding to the general sophistication of the movie, they are perfectly in sync with the witty, sharp dialogue spoken between grown-ups who harbor childish attitudes toward each other and always carry their emotions on their sleeves. Still, had they not, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the proceedings as much.

There’s a real story behind the film. The character of Tracy Lord was inspired by the Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, whose outlandish behavior made her a talked-about party regular in the 1920s; she is said to have once talked Edward VIII into standing on his head and reveal what was beneath his kilt. You won’t see that in The Philadelphia Story. But you’ll get a kick out of other glorious displays in this piece of box office gold.

The Philadelphia Story 1940-U.S. 112 min. B/W. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart. Play: Philip Barry. Cast: Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven), Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), James Stewart (Macaulay “Mike” Connor), Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young… Henry Daniell.

Trivia: Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy were allegedly considered for the parts of Dexter and Mike. Remade as High Society (1956).

Oscars: Best Actor (Stewart), Screenplay.

Last word: “When I first read the script, I thought I was being considered for that fellow engaged with [Hepburn]. As I read it, I thought to myself, ‘Oooh, that reporter part is a good one, but I’ll be happy to play the other one.” (Stewart, “James Stewart”)

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