The Philadelphia Story is the type of movie that rarely needs an introduction. If you call yourself a movie buff, this movie has been on your watch list before. It is a film that earned 6 Academy Awards nominations and has been on numerous best movie lists of the 20th century. A movie filled with Hollywood legends delivering some of their best work. A movie so successful that it was recreated less than 20 years later as High Society, a big glitzy Hollywood musical starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly.
The Philadelphia Story follows the high society wedding of a divorcee, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and her stuffy new fiancé George Kittredge (John Howard). Her first marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) ended in a bitter divorce. Haven ends up crashing the wedding festivities as well as local journalist Mike Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Absurdity ensues with an intoxicating amount of intelligent and snappy dialogue.
The Philadelphia Story originally started its life as a comedic play written by New York playwright Philip Barry. Barry wrote it specifically for Hepburn, who was known at the time to be Box Office poison in Hollywood, she hadn’t had a hit film in years. She ended up not only starring in it but also financially backing it. The Philadelphia Story opened on Broadway in 1939 and was a hit, it ran for over 400 performances eventually with heavyweight movie studio MGM picking up the film rights for it with Hepburn to remain the star. She originally wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (this would have been her first film with her future partner and he was someone she had long admired) to play the two leading males. Tracy was unavailable and there were rumours that Gable wouldn’t be involved because George Cukor was attached to direct and he and Gable had history. Cukor had recently been fired from Gone with the Wind and it was well known that they didn’t get along. Cary Grant was signed on instead, but only on the condition that he was given top billing, even though he had fewer lines than the protagonist and wanted a salary of $137,500 which was to be paid directly to the British War Relief Society. In comparison, Hepburn received $75,000 and poor old Jimmy Stewart? He received a measly $3,000 a week which amounted to $15,000 by the time filming finished.
Production lasted for 6 weeks and came in 5 days under schedule at MGM Studios in Culver City. It was a relatively drama-free set (in comparison to Gone with the Wind anyway!) Some ad-libbing from Stewart and Grant made the final cut. When a drunk Mike Connor shows up at C.K. Dexter Haven’s house, Stewart decided to improvise a hiccup before beginning his lines. Grant, who was caught off-guard by the moment smiled and said, “Excuse me”, expecting the director to call cut and to reshoot the moment. But Cukor kept rolling, liking the natural moment between the two and kept it in the movie.
The Philadelphia Story was released on December 26. 1940 to rave reviews and broke box office records. Herb Golden of Variety Magazine said:
“For Miss Hepburn, this is something of a screen comeback. Whether it means she has re-established herself in pictures is something that can’t be said from this viewing for she doesn’t play in “The Philadelphia Story”; she is “The Philadelphia Story.”
While Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote:
“For Metro and Director George Cukor have graciously made it apparent, in the words of a character, that one of “the prettiest sights in this pretty world is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges.” And so, in this instance, will you, too.”
Hepburn finally had her label of box office poison removed. She would go on to win 3 more Academy Awards over her career and cement her place as one of the greatest actresses and movie stars of all time. The Philadelphia Story was nominated for 6 Academy Awards and winning them for Best Supporting Actor (Stewart) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Donald Ogden Stewart). In 1995, the film was considered “Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Liberty of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry.
“I don’t want to be worshipped,” Tracy tells George, “I want to be loved.” In my opinion, The Philadelphia Story manages to do both. If you have yet to watch this film, I insist you put it on your watch list. I don’t doubt for a minute that you will love it as much as I and millions of others do.