The story of The Philadelphia Story.

Posted on July 13, 2011


When they discover my passion for film, people often ask me which is my favourite. This is, of course, an impossible question to answer, however, seeing as I am so regularly asked, I decided it would be a good idea to think of one. So now I always answer that it is The Philadelphia Story, which invariably returns the reply: “Is that the one with Tom Hanks?”

They don’t write dialogue like this anymore.

Well, to set matters straight for those who are interested, The Philadelphia Story is not the one with Tom Hanks. Rather, it is one of the most charming, witty, romantic and engaging films ever made, and boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled. Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn all make star turns under the accomplished direction of George Cukor and the film’s producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, perhaps best known as the Oscar winning director of All About Eve.

The film revolves around the forthcoming marriage of Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) to the nouveau riche George Kittredge, an aspiring politician, and the attempts of her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) to undermine the wedding in order to create a tantalizing story for Spy magazine. Spy have also managed to secrete reporter and budding novelist Mike Conner (Stewart) and photojournalist Liz Imbrie (Hussey) into the household, under the guise of friends of Tracy’s estranged brother. Eventually, Tracy finds her affections torn between Mike, Dexter and George, despite their different motives and notions of class.

The Philadelphia Story starts out playing as something of a romantic comedy of errors, but soon reveals much greater depth. Whilst the narrative is intricate and at times convoluted, often leading in one direction only to rapidly veer off in another, it at no time feels confusing or anything other than entirely genuine. In fact, it is its ability to confound expectations that make the film so enjoyable and fresh, and it never feels predictable, as so many Hollywood films these days tend to do.

This is helped no end by the truly staggering amount of acting talent on display here. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart each give a layered, multi-dimensional performance, and, despite their powerful personalities, they never upstage one another, each allowing the other’s performance to shine. There is tenderness and fragility, indignation and anger, and frivolity and humour in their performances, sometimes all at the same time.

However, the film might not have come into being at all if it weren’t for determination, tenacity and shrewd business sense of Katherine Hepburn. The Philadelphia Story started out as a Broadway play, which had been specifically written for Hepburn by playwright Philip Barry and was based upon Barry’s friend and Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. As it turned out, Hepburn ended up backing the play with her own money, even forgoing her salary in return for a percentage of the play’s profits. The gamble paid off and the play went on to be very successful. However, prior to this, Hepburn had found it difficult to gain acceptance by the mainstream American audiences. So much so, that, after a run of flops (including Bringing Up Baby, which is now considered by many to be a classic,) Hepburn was famously labelled “box office poison”.

Hepburn hoped to capitalise on the play’s success by turning it into a film, which she hoped would allow her to finally make her mark on America. With the help of Howard Hughes, she acquired the film rights to the play, which Hughes then gifted to her. Hepburn then went on to sell them to Louis B. Meyer for the modest sum of $250,000 in return for an unprecedented degree of creative control of the film.

With this control, Hepburn was able to secure the talents of Grant and Stewart, although they were not her original choices. Hepburn had wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, but both were tied up with prior commitments. It was probably for the best, as Gable had not seen eye to eye with George Cukor on Gone With The Wind, and had the director replaced. Cary Grant only agreed to be involved if he could take top billing, and demanded an unprecedented salary of $137,000. Grant then donated his entire salary to the British War Relief Society.

Unbelievably, the film was shot without a single retake and came in five days under schedule.

One of the funniest scenes from The Philadelphia Story, with the exceptional Virginia Weidler showing of her precocious talent.

Hepburn never had to worry about being labelled “box office poison” again, as in the opening weeks of general release, The Philadelphia Story went on to break box office records and for third-billed James Stewart it meant an Oscar for Best actor. In fact, the film was nominated for a total of six Academy Awards in 1940, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

So beloved was The Philadelphia Story that it was remade just a few years later in 1956 as the musical High Society, starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and has gone on to be regarded as something of a classic itself.

My, she was yar.

In 1995 The Philadelphia Story was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry after being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.

“Yes you am, are you” – Hepburn and Stewart shine.

Despite these achievements, The Philadelphia Story seems relatively unknown by audiences, and it rarely ranks highly on those lists of the Top 100 films of all time. Perhaps it’s because people are more familiar with High Society, or perhaps because it is still confused with a Tom Hanks film with which it shares a common word. Whatever the reason, it is a shame more people haven’t seen the film that firmly established the great Katherine Hepburn, which gave James Stewart his only Academy Award for Best Actor, and that only seems to improve with age.