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Film Friday: "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)

In this first ever «Film Friday» I thought I would tell you about the film that introduced me to the wonders of both black & white cinema and James Stewart.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) revolves around the high-society wedding of snobbish socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and pompous self-made man George Kittredge (John Howard). In return for suppressing a scandalistic article about Tracy's estranged father, Seth (John Halliday), her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven (Gary Grant), makes a deal with magazine editor Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) to introduce a reporter, Macaulay «Mike» Connor (James Stewart), and a photographer, Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey), into the Lord household for an exclusive story on the wedding. To protect the reputation of her family — which includes her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and her sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) — Tracy reluctantly agrees to let them stay.

Tracy gradually becomes interested in Mike and even takes the trouble to find his published stories in the local public library. For his part, Mike sees his antagonism for the rich dissolving before a growing love for Tracy. Liz, who believes that Tracy and Dexter are still in love, begins to get jealous when she realizes that Mike is starting to fall for the socialite. The night before the wedding, Tracy and Mike get drunk together, declare their passion for one another and take an innocent swim in the pool. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterward, he thinks the worst. The following day, he tells her that he was shocked and demands an explanations before going ahead with the wedding. Offended by George's lack of faith in her, Tracy breaks off the engagement, before she realizes that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike offers to take George's place at the altar, but Tracy graciously turns him down, declaring that Liz and his writing are what he really wants. To the relief and approval of her family, who had always liked Dexter, Tracy ends up walking down the aisle a second time with her ex-husband.

Macaulay «Mike» Connor: There's a magnificence in you, Tracy. A magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice, the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You're lit from within, Tracy. You've got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.

The daughter of a urologist and a feminist campaigner, Katharine Hepburn began her acting career as a student at Bryn Mawr College, a women's liberal arts university near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Soon after graduating in June 1928, she made her Broadway debut in Katharine Clugston's These Days, although the play closed within days due to negative reviews. While appearing in Julian Thompson's The Warrior's Husband in late 1931, Hepburn was spotted by talent scout Miriam Howell, who asked her to test for the part of Sidney Fairfield in the upcoming RKO melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Impressed by her talent, producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor offered her the part, which turned Hepburn into an instant movie star. Her third film, Morning Glory (1933), was another success for the actress, earning her the first of four Academy Awards for Best Actress.

Following a lead role in Cukor's hugely popular Little Women (1933), Hepburn's career inexplicably took a sharp downturn, as she starred in a series of commercial failures, including The Little Minister (1934) and, most notably, Bringing Up Baby (1938). This sudden decline led to her being labeled «box-office poison» by the Independent Theatre Owners of America, along with other stars such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. With her reputation at a low, the fiercely independent Hepburn decided to take action to create her own comeback vehicle. She bought herself out of her contract with RKO and headed to Broadway, commissioning playwright Philip Barry to create something for her. The result was The Philadelphia Story, a comedy in three acts centered on a Tracy Lord, a snobbish socialite whose forthcoming wedding plans and thwarted by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, and a handsome tabloid magazine reporter, Mike Connor.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn
Barry first had the idea for The Philadelphia Story during a visit to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he heard of a local criminal enterprise in which prominent wealthy families were blackmailed with threats of exposing personal scandals. When he mentioned the idea to his wife Ellen, she suggested the Main Line area of Philadelphia, the city's most fashionable location, as a setting for his story. Barry agreed and began writing using their lifelong friend Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, whom Vanity Fair once called «the unofficial queen of Philadelphia's WASP oligarchy,» as a model for his heroine.

Born into an «old money» family from Philadelphia, Hope Montgomery was officially introduced to high society as a debutante in 1922, at the age of 18. The following year, she married 24-year-old Edgar Scott, a railroad heir and an old classmate of Barry at Harvard University. Generally described as «the society wedding of the year,» the event was covered in minute detail by the press, who even took notice of the orange blossoms that decorated the church. «When Phil told me he had written this new play, and that Katharine Hepburn would play me, I thought it was great fun, but I really didn't pay that much attention,» Mrs. Scott said years later. «I don't really think Tracy Lord was like me, except that she was very energetic and motivated.»

Hepburn was so impressed with The Philadelphia Story that she not only agreed to star in it, but also finance part of the stage production herself, foregoing a salary in return for a percentage of the play's profits. Co-starring Joseph Cotten as Dexter, Van Heflin as Mike and Shirley Booth as photographer Liz Imbrie, The Philadelphia Story opened at the Shubert Theatre in New York on March 29, 1939 to great critical and financial success, running for over 400 performances. Sensing that the play could renew her Hollywood stardom, tycoon Howard Hughes, Hepburn's partner at the time, bought her the film rights before it even debuted on stage. When The Philadelphia Story became a sensation on Broadway, several of the major studios approached Hepburn to produce a screen adaptation of the play. She agreed to sell the rights to Louis B. Mayer at MGM for the modest amount of $250,000 on the condition that she play the lead and have the authority to chose her own director, screenwriter and leading men.

George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn on the set
To helm The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn naturally chose George Cukor, one of her closest friends and a key supporter of her film career. Cukor began his Hollywood career as a dialogue coach for Paramount in 1929, before the studio offered him the opportunity to co-direct Grumpy (1930) with Cyril Gardner. The following year, he made his solo directorial debut with Tarnished Lady (1931), a melodrama starring Tallulah Bankhead. In 1932, he left Paramount to work with David O. Selznick at RKO and then at MGM, quickly earning a reputation as a «woman's director,» a title he apparently resented. Besides A Bill of Divorcement and Little Women, Cukor had previously directed Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Holiday (1938), the latter also based on a play by Barry.

To adapt The Philadelphia Story to the screen, Hepburn selected Donald Odgen Stewart, who had also written Holiday. A graduate of Yale University, Stewart started his literary career after serving in World War I, becoming a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table — a group of New York writers, critics, actors and wits — in the early 1920s. He was friends with Barry and other prominent figures such as Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, who based the character of Bill Gorton in his novel The Sun Also Rises on Stewart. Accepting a screenwriting job at MGM, Stewart moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s and went on to pen a series of acclaimed films, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938) and Love Affair (1939). In 1950, during the anti-Communist purge in Hollywood, Stewart was blacklisted and subsequently moved with his wife to England, where they remained until their deaths in 1980 (they passed away within two days of each other).

Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart
Regarding her choice of leading men, Hepburn later said: «There were 20 million people I wanted to cast for it. With MGM I wanted [Clark] Gable and [Spencer] Tracy. Even they came up after I'd already talked about Gary Cooper with Paramount and Errol Flynn at Warners. As far as I was concerned, the main thing was to get two marvelous actors who were also stars. That's why Cotten and Heflin did not figure into it. They both had exceptional careers subsequently, but at the time they didn't have the popularity I was looking for. I had that Heflin, especially, was annoyed about being passed over. I'm sorry about that, but you can't always please everybody.» Both Gable and Tracy declined a role in The Philadelphia Story; Gable thought the script was too wordy, while Tracy was more interested in starring opposite Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner in Victor Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), a remake of the 1931 film of the same name. Hepburn did get Tracy a year later for Woman of the Year (1942), which marked the beginning of a 26-year love affair between the two actors.

With Gable and Tracy out of the running, Hepburn approached Cary Grant, her friend and previous co-star in Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby, for the role of C. K. Dexter Haven. Aware that he did not have the best part in the film, Grant accepted the offer on two conditions: first, that he received top billing over Hepburn; and second, that he receive a salary of $137,500, an extremely generous amount at the time. Interestingly enough, the Bristol-born Grant donated the entire fee to his war-afflicted homeland through the British War Relief Fund. To appear as Mike Connor, Hepburn chose James Stewart, who has caught her attention with his Oscar-nominated performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Stewart reacted with surprise that he was being given the «meaty role» of the tabloid journalist. «When I first read the script, I thought I was being considered for that fellow engaged to [Hepburn],» he said, referring to the role eventually played by John Howard. «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.»

Ruth Hussey and James Stewart
The role of cynical photographer Elizabeth Imbrie was given to relative newcomer Ruth Hussey, a former summer stock actress and radio fashion commentator. In 1937, while appearing at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles with Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End, Hussey was spotted by MGM talent scout Billy Grady, who signed her to a contract with the studio. She made her screen debut in Sam Wood's Madame X (1937) and went on to appear in such films as Another Thin Man (1939), The Women (1939) — also directed by Cukor — and Susan and God (1940).

To play the stuffy George Kittredge, the studio cast John Howard, who had recently achieved recognition portraying adventurous detective Bulldog Drummond in a series of seven films for Paramount Pictures. When the United States entered World War II, Howard enlisted in the U.S. Navy, participanting in landing operations during the early days of the Italian Campaign and later in the invasion of southern France. Like Stewart, who served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, Howard was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his actions. 

Filming on The Philadelphia Story took place between July and August 1940 at the MGM studios, requiring no retakes. According to Hepburn, neither the romantic nor the comic scenes came easily to Stewart. It was English playwright Noël Coward who ultimately helped Stewart overcome his insecurities, when he unexpectedly visited the set one day. Hepburn recalled: «Jimmy was doing the scene. [...] 'You've got hearth fires banked in you, Tracy, hearth fire and holocausts.' And George said to him, 'Now, Jimmy, just do that scene in a romantic way. But don't do it as if you were just about to run away to the circus. Don't paw the ground with your feet, just say it.' [...] So Jimmy was struggling with this thing [...] it's a bit fancy to say. And just before he did it, Noël Coward stepped onto the set and Jimmy nearly died. So he did the scene, and Noël in one second could see what was going on, and immediately stepped up to Jimmy and told him how devastating he was. And George said, 'Roll 'em,' and took advantage of that moment of flattery and Jimmy got a wonderful take.»

John Howard and Katharine Hepburn
The Philadelphia Story opened at the prestigious Radio City Music Hall in New York on December 26, 1940 to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, noted that the film «has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have — a witty, romantic script [...]; the flavor of high-society elegance [...] and a splendid cast of performers.» Herb Golden, the film critic for Variety, was particularly impressed by Hepburn's performance as Tracy Lord, writing, «She doesn't play in The Philadelphia Story; she is The Philadelphia Story. [...] the story without her is almost unconceivable. Just the right amount of beauty, just the right amount of disarray in wearing clothes, just the right amount of culture in her voice.»

The picture was also hugely popular at the box-office, breaking house records around the country, including at Music Hall, where it beat the venue's previously all-time highest-grossing film, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The extraordinary commercial success of The Philadelphia Story finally allowed Katharine Hepburn to erase her label of «box-office poison,» proving that she knew how to deliver a hit when given the opportunity. «I understood Tracy Lord; I knew what made her tick,» she later said. «I gave her life and she gave me back my career.»

James Stewart with his Oscar
At the 13th Academy Awards ceremony held in February 1941, The Philadelphia Story was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Supporting Actress (Hussey) and Best Adapted Screenplay. The frontrunner for Best Actor that year was Stewart's old friend Henry Fonda for his career-defining role in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). When Stewart did win, there was a knowing consensus that he was being honored as compensation for having lost out with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the previous year. The actor himself never disputed that notion: «I never thought much of my performance in The Philadelphia Story. I guess it was entertaining and slick and smooth and all that. But Mr. Smith had more guts. Many people have suggested that I won it as a kind of defered payment for my work on Mr. Smith. I think there's some truth in that because the Academy seems to have a way of payment its past debts. But it should have gone to Hank that year. That was one helluva performance he gave in The Grapes of Wrath.» Donald Ogden Stewart received the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but was not so modest in his winning speech, declaring simply: «I have no one to thank by myself!»

Although The Philadelphia Story was not the first black and white film I ever saw — it was actually A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which I had to watch for an English Literature class I had in my third year at university — it was really the film that cured me of my aversion to black and white cinema. And all because of a lanky dork that went by the name of James Stewart. The scene that got me was the one that starts with Jimmy shouting «OH C. K. DEXTER HAAAAVEEENNNN!» which, believe it or not, was partially ad-libbed. In that scene, Jimmy's character is drunk and suddenly he stars hiccuping. Since the hiccup was not scripted (Jimmy thought of that all by himself), you can see that Grant was surprised and on the verge of breaking out laughing, but he quickly composed himself and played along beautifully by turning to Jimmy and saying, «Excuse me.» You can clearly see that they are both amused by their own little improvisation, which I love. That scene required only one take and was kept exactly as they filmed it the first time around. It is basically a masterclass in acting, that is what it is.

Cary Grant: A Biography by Mark Eliot (Three Rivers Press, 2004)
James Stewart by Donald Dewey (Sphere, 1996)
Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (Random House, 1991)
«The Real Philadelphia Story» by Ian Irvine (originally published in Sunday Telegraph, April 16, 1995)


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