The Philadelphia Story (1941)
The Philadelphia Story (1941) is a charming comedy that holds a unique place in cinema history, mostly because of its notorious star. It was based on a 1939 play by Philip Barry, who wrote it with Katharine Hepburn in mind. This was great timing for the actress because in 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America after her last few films flopped. (For more on that, head over to Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Holiday (1938).)
Since Hepburn’s film career wasn’t going well, she bought out her contract with RKO and went back to the stage to star in Barry’s play. Fortunately for her, The Philadelphia Story was a hit! It premiered on March 28, 1939 and ran for 417 performances before closing in March 1940. She would later headline the touring production, too.
But even after a successful stage run, Hepburn knew that she might not get to star in the film version of The Philadelphia Story because of her recent movie misfortunes. So when her admirer Howard Hughes bought the film rights to the play and gave them to her as a gift, she accepted. Then she sold the rights to MGM on the condition that she star in the movie and get veto power over the major behind-the-scenes and onscreen talent.
On Broadway, Hepburn had starred with Van Heflin as Macauley Connor and Joseph Cotten as C. K. Dexter Haven. Both of these actors went on to great careers in film, but they weren’t A-list yet, so Hepburn went looking for new co-stars. (Cotten would rocket to movie fame in Citizen Kane (1941), and Heflin had just made a splash in Sante Fe Trail (1940)).
MGM offered Grant the role, and h agreed to star provided he receive top billing and a salary of $137,000 (a huge amount at the time.) But he donated the entire amount to the British War Relief Fund–good for you, Cary!
Grant’s casting made The Philadelphia Story the last of four films he and Hepburn made together. Their first was Sylvia Scarlett (1935), followed by Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Holiday (1938), which they started filming just eight days after Baby premiered. Fun fact: Holiday was also based on a Philip Barry play. I wish that Grant and Hepburn had made more films together. It always looks as though they are having a marvelous time onscreen.
Grant’s wasn’t the only familiar face on this project. Hepburn and the screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart, went way back, too: before he turned to writing, Stewart played Nick Potter in the Broadway production of Holiday in 1928. Hepburn was an understudy for Linda in that play, and a few years later, Stewart adapted Holiday to the screen with Hepburn as Linda. (Edward Everett Horton was Nick in this version). Stewart would go on to write two more Hepburn films after The Philadelphia Story: Keeper of the Flame (1942) and Without Love (1945).
This film also reunited Hepburn with director George Cukor. They worked splendidly together over two decades starting with her first movie, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). They would go on to make seven more movies together, including Little Women (1933), Holiday, Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952).
To the film! We open on a beautiful, serene house.
But what happens on the threshold is not beautiful nor serene. C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) carries some bags out to a waiting car while Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) follows with his golf clubs. She breaks a club over her knee, and Dexter pushes her down before leaving.
You can watch it here. Fun fact: this opening scene was filmed on the MGM backlot at the “Lord Home” set. As you can tell from the name, the house was built for this movie. But it stood for years and appeared in many other films. Another fun fact: when MGM re-made The Philadelphia Story as High Society (1956), the studio used the set once again as the Lord house in a few brief scenes, though the somewhat grander “Southern Mansion” set was also utilized as the family home. (This information comes from a great book called MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan.)
Anyway, after this ugly spat on the steps, the movie jumps two years in time and cuts to a newspaper article. The “social world” awaits the wedding of Tracy Lord, “former wife of C.K. Dexter Haven,” and George Kittredge on Saturday at the Lord house. (For more on getting married at home, visit History Through Hollywood: Love.)
The news appears in the “Rotogravure Section,” which may sound familiar if you know Easter Parade (1948). The title song includes the lyrics “the photographers will snap us, and you’ll find that you’re in the Rotogravure.” “Rotogravure” is a printing system used to print magazines, but it also referred to the inserts in newspapers and magazines with photographs of special events and people, basically the celebrity or social sections.
At the Lord home, Tracy, her sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler), and their mother Margaret (Mary Nash) open wedding gifts. But really Tracy and her mother open gifts while Dinah complains about Tracy’s new fiancé and how much she misses Dexter.
Tracy is tired of this routine and makes a sisterly suggestion:
Then Tracy dashes off to change, leaving Dinah and Margaret to discuss Tracy’s refusal to invite her father to the wedding. He had an affair and she can’t forgive him. Plus, Tracy hates publicity and fiercely guards her privacy, so the fact that her father’s misstep has opened the family to gossip infuriates her. Backstory!
We then meet George Kittredge (John Howard), a coal mine executive. Unlike Tracy and her family, he hails from a “normal” background, not ancient, Philadelphia blue-blood stock. This distinction is emphasized by his unfamiliarity with horses (he clearly didn’t grow up with stables! pauper) and his unseemly interest in publicity. He thinks that it might be nice if their wedding was featured in some magazines, whereas his fiancée finds it all very vulgar.
Speaking of magazines…we cut to the offices of a particularly vulgar tabloid called Spy. The editor, Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell, who was also in Holiday), summons one of his writers, Macualey “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and a photographer, Elizabeth “Liz” Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to a meeting. Joining them is none other than C. K. Dexter Haven, who took a job with Spy‘s Buenos Aires outpost after his divorce from Tracy.
Kidd wants an exclusive story about Tracy’s super-private wedding, but the Lord family would never allow it. So he’s gotten sneaky and asked Dexter to introduce Mike and Liz as dear friends of Junius Lord, Tracy’s brother. Since Junius (what a snooty, high class name!) works at the Embassy in Argentina, he won’t be at the wedding to blow their cover. Mike and Liz can then give Spy the exclusive scoop for a story Kidd first calls “The Unapproachable Miss Lord,” before changing it to “The Philadelphia Story!” It’s all very distasteful, but Mike and Liz can’t afford to quit, so they head off for their undercover assignment. You can watch the scene here.
At the Lord home, Mike almost immediately gets into trouble when he stumbles into the wedding present display room and has to prove he’s not a thief!
Meanwhile, Dexter tells the family about their new house guests. It’s an odd story, and Tracy sees through it immediately. She guesses that “Junius’ friends” are really reporters and she is about to throw them out when Dexter shows her a particularly nasty article about her father and his mistress. Spy has it ready to go, but if Tracy lets them cover her wedding, they won’t publish it. So that’s why Dexter agreed to the wedding story plot–he is trying to save Tracy and her family from this humiliation. It’s a tidy bit of blackmail, and it works. Tracy says that Mike and Liz can stay. But they don’t know that the family knows they’re from Spy…you can watch the scene here. Fun fact: Dexter calls Tracy “Red” or “Redhead” frequently, though her hair color is lost in the black and white.
Tracy and Dinah concoct a plan of their own. They decide to give Spy a “story that will stand their hair on end,” so they dress up as empty-headed, ridiculous socialites. Dinah greets the guests in ballet shoes and an enormous diamond necklace, babbling bad French and singing “The Tattooed Lady” at the piano.
She also delivers this gem as an introduction:
Then Tracy arrives, informs Dinah that she has small pox (in French, naturally), and then greets Mike and Liz with over-the-top, artificial kindness. Mike’s reactions are amazing. He had decided long before he met Tracy that she is a “young, rich, rapacious American female,” and he is disgusted by her and her socialite ilk. So this only confirms his prejudices.
It’s a wonderful scene: Tracy is obnoxious, rude, and condescending all in a terribly polite, frank way, and Mike and Liz just try to keep up.
But it lacks my favorite line about Dinah from the same scene in High Society:
After this whirlwind of parody, everyone adjourns to the terrace for pre-lunch sherry. (As one does.) George arrives and Liz gets a candid shot of the engaged couple. Which Tracy despises, of course.
Then Dexter shows up, and naturally Liz captures this awkward moment, too. She’s very good.
But Tracy gets the last laugh. She “accidentally” kicks over the table holding Liz’s camera, and the film is ruined. 1 point to Tracy. You can watch it here.
Things get even wilder when Tracy pretends her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) is her father, Seth Lord, and then gets an unpleasant shock when her dad actually shows up. So then she pretends that her father (John Halliday) is Uncle Willie! Here they are filming the scene:
After lunch, Tracy disappears to the local library to find Mike’s book of short stories. (He’s only working at Spy because short stories don’t bring in the cash.) Tracy is mightily surprised by how wonderful the book is, and he is mightily surprised that this dizzy-headed heiress appreciates his work. Or can read at all, probably. And so their relationship begins to thaw.
They stroll home together, but Liz (who snuck off for a manicure) isn’t thrilled when she sees how chummy they’ve gotten. She and Mike are a couple, though he moves glacially slow when it comes to proposing.
Fun fact: someone else got a manicure while making this movie! It could be the same manicurist? For more on men getting manicures, visit my History Through Hollywood post.
Another fun fact: I’ve always found Tracy’s hat a little strange, but apparently the elongated elf-look (or a “Portuguese Fisherman’s cap) was all the rage in 1940! Adrian designed the costumes for this movie, and put Hepburn in chic trousers, streamlined dresses, and odd chapeaus.
Anyway, Tracy invites Mike to swim with her, and as she changes into her stunning Grecian robe, she offers him the use of one of her houses. He could live there for free and write more books–isn’t it perfect? But Mike sort of unkindly tells her that the idea of a “lady patroness” has sort of “gone out.” His refusal hurts her feelings. But much worse is still to come, Tracy!
Here they are between takes with George Cukor:
Dexter shows up at the pool and doesn’t take Tracy’s gentle hints to get lost:
Instead of leaving, he hangs around to criticize her for being so rigid, for finding “human imperfection unforgivable,” and for refusing to help with his alcoholism. He began drinking heavily as their marriage disintegrated, but after their divorce, he spent time at a sanitarium and now he’s doing much better.
Tracy answers his attacks with one of her own: she claims that his “weakness” (alcoholism) was disgusting and that it was his problem and his alone! But he says that she expected him to be a high priestess to her goddess, and he didn’t want that role. He wanted to love her, not worship her. Whew. She looks impossibly lovely in this scene.
You can watch the scene here:
Although she hates to admit it, Dexter’s criticism stings. But at least she is wearing a fun striped suit underneath her goddess robes!
Fun fact: this pool was built on the backlot in 1935.
This was perhaps its most famous scene until a certain swimmer arrived at MGM. Esther Williams filmed so many scenes here that it was later renamed the “Esther Williams Pool.” You can see it in many of her movies, including Easy to Wed and Dangerous When Wet, (though without the swanky changing rooms and statues).
Anyway, Dexter finally leaves a shaken Tracy to swim. Then George arrives and unwraps Dexter’s wedding gift. It’s a model of the “True Love,” the yacht that Dexter designed just before he and Tracy got married. They spent their honeymoon on the “True Love,” which makes it a strange wedding gift. But seeing it floods Tracy with happy memories. (In High Society, we get a flashback and a song, but nothing like that here.)
Tracy is on a rollercoaster of emotions, and her ride continues when George praises her for the same qualities that Dexter just criticized. George gushes about how Tracy is so “cool and fine,” and says she has a “beautiful purity like a statue.” Then he rushes away to change for the party, leaving Tracy to gaze quietly at the “True Love.”
Fun fact: Helen Rose used a very similar Grecian-style cover-up for Grace Kelly in High Society. The style really brings home the “goddess/statue” theme of the preceding scenes. Hepburn wore a similar pleated affair in the stage version, too.
Anyway, on her way to the house, she runs into her mom and dad. They’re having a lovely time, which drives her crazy. After all, she wants her mother to throw her father out of the house, not enjoy pre-party cocktails with him on the terrace!
Unfortunately for Tracy, her dad jumps on the criticism bandwagon and echoes Dexter’s remarks on Tracy’s cold, unforgiving heart. He also blames her for his affair because when a man gets older, he naturally goes in search for his youth. If he has a good daughter, he sees some of his youth in her, and she comforts him. If he has a bad daughter, then of course he will have an affair. His logic is messy and gross.
No wonder Tracy downs several glasses of champagne once everyone leaves. This is a big deal, as she generally avoids alcohol.
That evening, Uncle Willie throws a party for the bride and groom. Tracy gets wasted on buckets of champagne. Meanwhile, the family tells Liz and Mike that they know who they really are, the Uncle Willie/Seth Lord identity puzzle gets straightened out, and almost everyone over-indulges in bubbles.
Tracy’s dress is a knockout, and so perfect for Hepburn. She wears a long bolero necklace that accentuates the deep-V neckline, too.
As the party winds down in the wee hours of the morning, a very drunk Mike arrives at Dexter’s house. Through his hilarious hiccups, he tells Dexter a very damaging story about Sidney Kidd, and they decide to use the information as blackmail to get Kidd to drop the wedding story and the Seth Lord piece. Then Dexter sends Mike home while he and Liz type it up. You can watch the scene here. Stewart is so cute when he plays drunk.
Meanwhile, Tracy and Mike find some champagne and a radio. What more can you want? They dance and tipsily flirt in the moonlight, and Mike tells Tracy that she’s not a cold, distant statue, but a vibrant woman brimming with passion and fire. It’s just what she needs to hear.
The magic moment continues with a kiss and the perfect line “Put me in your pocket, Mike.” Then the pair dash to the pool for a swim. You can watch it here:
As the two lovebirds/drunken fools swim, Dexter and George arrive at the house. Dexter notices Tracy’s jewelry and the champagne glasses and gets a bad feeling. Then Mike appears out of the darkness singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with a very happy, very drunk Tracy in his arms.
It doesn’t look great, and George assumes the worst.
Mike drops Tracy in her room, and then returns to the patio. Dexter punches him (so that George won’t attack him first), and a furious George strides off into the night with his bad thoughts.
But Dexter thinks the whole situation is kind of funny. And Mike is so drunk he has no idea what’s happening.
You can watch this great scene here:
The next morning, Tracy has a hangover and big gaps in her memory.
But Dinah knows it all. She’s an excellent snoop. She drops little clues until the previous night comes trickling back to her older sister.
Costume appreciation break. Tracy’s wedding dress is floaty but odd. I don’t understand the rough tummy patch and thick laces on such an ethereal gown. Also, the lapels are out of control, and the sleeves seem too long. The wedding dress in the stage play was very similar down to the waist detailing.
As Tracy remembers more and more of the previous night’s indiscretions, Dexter attempts to comfort her. He loves that she let her guard down and did some foolish things. It’s what he has been waiting for. But she feels utterly broken.
Then Mike shows up, and together he and Tracy try to piece together the affairs of last night. They’re both really hungover though. And Mike has a bruised jaw but he can’t remember why.
Then George sends a letter canceling the wedding. He also stops by to tell Tracy how disappointed and disgusted he is in her loose morals.
But when Mike explains that his “affair” with Tracy consisted of exactly two kisses and a swim, George isn’t sure what to do.
But Tracy knows. She doesn’t want to marry someone who immediately jumps to the worst conclusion and shows so little mercy for a mistake. So she calls off the wedding and banishes George. Mike, Liz, and Dexter are delighted!
But what to do now? The wedding is about to begin. And the backyard looks gorgeous. Mike foolishly proposes just to get Tracy out of the mess, but fortunately she gently turns him down.
She decides to address the guests waiting for the ceremony, but as she stumbles for words, Dexter proposes to her in a very roundabout way.
Once she realizes what he is saying, she accepts very joyfully and soon walks down the aisle to marry her ex-husband all over again! But an uninvited guest, Sidney Kidd, snaps a photo just as they get to the altar. (Dexter’s blackmail plot worked, but I guess he still wanted something from Tracy’s wedding!) The End!
This movie was in production from early July to mid-August, 1940–a short eight week schedule that the veteran actors and director stuck to beautifully. In fact, the movie required no retakes. It opened in New York in limited release on December 27, 1940, though many, including AFI, give this movie a 1941 premiere date because the big release came in January. So that’s why I’ve labelled it 1941.
Fun fact: Variety‘s review of the film on November 27, 1940, explains that the December/January release dates were due to an agreement with the Theatre Guild. The stage version of The Philadelphia Story, with Hepburn in the lead once again, was touring that fall and winter, and the Guild didn’t want the movie taking away business. So MGM agreed to hold off on general release until January 10.
The Philadelphia Story was a popular and critical success. Audiences rushed to see it and the movie broke Radio City Music Hall’s box office record by bringing in $600,000 in just six weeks. The response erased Hepburn’s reputation as box office poison, and she went on to an astoundingly successful career.
Critics were very kind. Photoplay called The Philadelphia Story a “perfect honey of a picture,” and Variety agreed, though much of its review was about Hepburn. The paper called it “Katharine Hepburn’s picture just as it was her show, but with as fetching a lineup of thesp talent as is to be found, she’s got to fight every clever line of dialog all of the way to hold her lead.” The review singled out Virginia Weidler, Ruth Hussey, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Roland Young as particularly excellent “thesp talent.”
The trade paper noted that the film was “something of a screen comeback” for Hepburn, but couldn’t state whether or not she was truly back, as
she doesn’t play in The Philadelphia Story: she is The Philadelphia Story. The perfect conception of all flighty but characterful Main Line socialite gals rolled into one, the story without her is almost inconceivable. Just the right amount of beauty, just the right amount of disarray in wearing clothes, just the right amount of culture in her voice–it’s no one but Hepburn.
Overall, Variety was highly positive about the movie. It’s a “laugh provoker from way down,” though the discussion of Tracy’s flaws slows it to “a toddle.” But the “picture is dressed like only Metro can do,” and it’s a “slick picture” that “every suburban mamma and poppa must see–after Junior and little Elsie Dinsmore are tucked away.” But the review predicts that the “smarties are going to relish [the movie] a lot more than the two-bit trade…”
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times praised the film in no uncertain terms, “All those folks who wrote Santa Claus asking him to send them a sleek new custom-built comedy with fast lines and the very finest in Hollywood fittings got their wish just one day late with the opening of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ yesterday… For this present…has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script derived by Donald Ogden Stewart out of Philip Barry’s successful play; the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers headed by Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant.”
Like Variety, Crowther lavished praise on Hepburn:
Truthfully, the psychology of the story is as specious as a spiel, and, for all the talk about the little lady being “a sort of high priestess to a virgin goddess,” etc., she is and remains at the end what most folks would call a plain snob. But the way Miss Hepburn plays her, with the wry things she is given to say, she is an altogether charming character to meet cinematically. Some one was rudely charging a few years ago that Miss Hepburn was “box-office poison.” If she is, a lot of people don’t read labels—including us.
He concluded that the movie is delightful with a great cast, and predicted excellent box office.
The Academy agreed and nominated The Philadelphia Story for six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Hepburn for Best Actress, and Ruth Hussey for Best Supporting Actress. The only winners went to Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Screenplay and James Stewart for Best Actor. (Rebecca took Best Picture, John Ford Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, Ginger Rogers won Best Actress for Kitty Foyle, and Jane Darwell won Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath.)
Fun fact: Stewart doubted his chances and didn’t plan on attending the ceremony, but he received a tip that he should be there. So he put on his suit and showed up in time to accept the award. But he was shocked and admitted that even he voted for Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath! Although he is great in this movie, some think his award was the Academy trying to make up for not giving him the Oscar for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
In 1942, the cast reunited to record a “Victory Theatre” radio broadcast of the movie, which you can listen to here:
Then a year later, Robert Taylor, Robert Young, and Loretta Young starred in another broadcast–it was a popular story! In 1950, the NBC show Robert Montgomery Presents put on a live TV version starring Barbara Bel Geddes as Tracy Lord, Leslie Nielsen as Dexter, and Richard Derr as Mike.
Then in 1959, The Philadelphia Story appeared on TV. Diana Lynn played Tracy, Gig Young played Dexter, Christopher Plummer was Mike, Mary Astor was Margaret Lord, and Don DeFore played George. And finally, a Broadway revival in 1980 closed after 60 performances.