The Philadelphia Story: A Fine, Pretty World

The Philadelphia Story was as sweet a comeback as any Hollywood actress was ever granted. In life, and even sometimes in movies, not all of us find that one special person, but all real stars have that one special role. For Katharine Hepburn, it was the imperious, impetuous heiress Tracy Lord. And how could it not have been? Tracy all but sprang fully formed from that expansive Hepburn forehead.

Made at MGM, the monarch of Hollywood studios, The Philadelphia  Story somehow magically has all of MGM’s good qualities and few if any of its bad—the studio’s elite production values and ingrained dislike of anything low-down or gritty having met the perfect subject matter. Based on the play that had brought Hepburn back from career collapse, the film was a rising tide that lifted everyone associated with it. Here is the genius of the Hollywood system—and director George Cukor, and Hepburn, and everyone else involved—at its peak, brought to bear on a sympathetic story of the entitled superrich, a concept that was almost as hard a sell in 1940 as it is now.

Just a few years earlier, Hepburn had been enduring a string of flops at RKO, which culminated in 1938 with Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby. Nowadays, Baby is beloved, but at the time, ticket buyers weren’t much interested in seeing Hepburn’s dizzy heiress drive Cary Grant’s professor nuts. Her next movie, Holiday, made on loan-out to Columbia Pictures, was a project she’d long wanted; she had understudied the lead role of Linda on Broadway ten years earlier. Like The Philadelphia Story would be, it was an adaptation of a Philip Barry play, costarring Grant, and it was directed by her best friend in Hollywood, George Cukor; indeed, it was Cukor who talked Columbia into letting him have Hepburn. The result: Holiday was almost as good as Bringing Up Baby, and its box-office receipts were even worse. Shortly before its release, a trade-paper ad labeled Hepburn “box office poison.” The excellent company in that category of stars, which included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford, was no comfort. Neither Hawks nor Cukor blamed Hepburn for the poor Baby and Holiday ticket sales, but the industry most certainly did. Hepburn was already pondering the future; a little more than a week before the ad ran, she had used her own money to buy out her RKO contract.

While her modern image revolves around her supposed disdain for celebrity artifice, Hepburn cared passionately about her stardom, and no one was a better steward of it. As Hollywood began the process of writing her off, she went back to Philip Barry. Barry was a witty and cultivated man who had made his name with comedies that some compared to the work of Noël Coward. He, however, was coming off his own dry spell. The onetime youthful wonder of Broadway was now over forty, and his last four plays had closed with a thud—three of them after fewer than twenty-five performances.

And so, with Hepburn advising him, Barry created Tracy Lord, drawing in part on the horse-loving, high-living socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, who was married to a Harvard pal of Barry’s. On Tracy the playwright bestowed a house and estate clearly modeled on the Scotts’ legendary Ardrossan, one of the jewels of Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Otherwise, the character echoed Hepburn in nearly every particular: the patrician bloodlines, the fiery intelligence, the disdain for the press, the relentless high standards that got on people’s nerves—even the busted first marriage to a scion of the Main Line. (Hepburn had married Ludlow Ogden Smith in 1928 and became a housewife in Strafford, Pennsylvania, for, oh, about two weeks, although the marriage lasted six years.)

When The Philadelphia Story opened on Broadway in 1939, it ran for over four hundred performances and a couple of hundred more on tour, and thanks to a canny contract, Hepburn reaped almost half the profits. The film rights to the play were a gift to her from Howard Hughes, her beau at the time, and Hepburn refused to sell them to anyone who didn’t want her in the bargain. In the end, MGM head Louis B. Mayer agreed to Hepburn’s terms and handed over the breathtaking sum of $250,000, almost $4.5 million in today’s money: $175,000 for the play’s rights, $75,000 for her services as star. (Producer David O. Selznick had ponied up $50,000 for the massive international best seller Rebecca just a couple of years before—and people told him he’d overpaid.)

Hepburn chose Cukor to direct; he probably needed the break. As the forties dawned, Cukor was only a year or so past being fired by Selznick from Gone with the Wind, a humiliation that would dog his résumé to the end of his career; his next film, Susan and God, with Joan Crawford, failed to recoup its costs. On a roll, Hepburn asked Mayer for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as the two male leads—and heard the word no for the first time. In any event, Grant and James Stewart were no hardship, and Hepburn even agreed to let Grant have top billing. (For his part, Grant was shaking off an irredeemable Revolutionary War flop, called The Howards of Virginia, that caused him to swear off costume pictures for almost twenty years.)

As Otis Ferguson wrote in his review for the New Republic, “You know the story, and Philadelphia too.” Tracy has divorced the right man, C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant), over his alcoholism. She is about to marry the wrong one: George Kittredge (John Howard), self-made and self-satisfied, who has bootstrapped himself up to managing one of Tracy’s father’s companies. The chatterbox tabloid Spy magazine is determined to cover “the wedding of the year,” and its publisher, Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell at his oiliest), has found a way to get his employees inside the gates: blackmail. Dexter—who still loves Tracy—persuades Kidd to withhold a scurrilous story about Tracy’s father, Seth (John Halliday), and a chorus girl. In return, Dex will help proletarian reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth “Liz” Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) crash the wedding.

Nothing about the scheme goes right, starting with the fact that Tracy sees through the setup almost as soon as the snoops arrive. Tracy has disinvited her father from the wedding, so she drafts lecherous Uncle Willie (Roland Young) to pretend he’s Seth, a lie that becomes a major nuisance when the real Seth shows up. Dexter makes a push to show Tracy she was too hard on him, and plants the idea that she will run roughshod over George. But the sudden, powerful attraction that arises between Mike and Tracy is the messiest complication of all, especially after a grand party on the eve of the wedding, during which they get gloriously drunk on champagne and each other.

Cukor made ten films with Hepburn; no director understood her methods better or knew more about filming the sharp, sculptural planes of her face. Hepburn was never before and never again as beautiful as in The Philadelphia Story. While squabbling with her teenage sister, Dinah (Virginia Weidler), telling off Dexter, or listening to her supremely obnoxious father blame her for his infidelity, Tracy does look rather like a statue, as both Dex and her father accuse her of being. Only when she’s showing warmth and vulnerability, such as during the ineffably romantic garden-and-pool tryst with Mike that forms the climax of the movie, does Cukor move in for close-ups that make Hepburn flesh and blood once more. That midnight flirtation is also the apex of Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography, with night that really looks like night, and Stewart and Hepburn so alluring that the audience falls for them both at once.

The Philadelphia Story is a wordy film, but Cukor’s direction of stars was always easy and natural. He follows the flow of Hepburn’s impossibly slim, tall body moving around rooms and lawns that Tracy has known all her life, and the rattle of all that dialogue flows right along with her. Then, too, Cukor knows how to keep still and give his audience the joy of picking up on the actors’ business. This is especially evident in the scenes where Mike and Liz, newly arrived at the Lords’ labyrinth of a mansion, pick up objects and put them down again and again, dumbfounded at a life that involves so much bric-a-brac. Later, as Mike walks through the room where the wedding presents are displayed (it’s Tracy’s second wedding, but she has received enough housewares to supply the Waldorf-Astoria), he picks up a spoon—probably not to pocket it, but we do see the thought cross his face. And Cukor’s camera moves as though on tiptoe to show that the butler has silently entered to smother such thoughts with the power of his glare.

Handsome young Stewart still had the lightness of touch he wouldn’t show as often after the war. Mike is funny from the minute he turns up, giving the upper classes the fish-eye but admitting they have their allure—specifically, that Tracy Lord does. He starts by needling her but never inserts the stiletto the way the other male characters do, instead declaring abruptly, “You’re wonderful.” Mike sees the magnificence in Tracy, and what a relief their love scene is after all the time we’ve spent hearing Hepburn blamed for her father’s infidelity, her fiancé’s weakness, and her ex-husband’s drinking. It’s often said that audiences wanted to see Katharine Hepburn—too upper-crust, too haughty, too smart—taken down a peg or two, and that The Philadelphia Story obligingly did just that. But if that is true, it’s also true that Tracy’s redemption is spurred by a man who sees “hearth fires and holocausts” burning in her eyes.

Hepburn had been turned down for the role of Scarlett O’Hara partly because Selznick thought she lacked sex appeal, but Stewart’s scenes with her here help show what nonsense that was. Equally delightful is the chemistry Stewart has with Grant. Dexter is perhaps best summed up by the way he suddenly heaves into view, as Cukor’s camera tracks Mike and Liz through the Spy offices, mere inches behind them. He knows all the angles, because he set them up himself. The plot is a matter of watching Dexter get his way, and thus The Philadelphia Story is one of the few times you get to see a man succumb to the charm of Cary Grant. In the middle of the party scene, even as he has quite a rapport going with Tracy, Mike leaves to go see Dex, determined to find out what it is he wants. Stewart’s bellowing of “Oh, C. K. Dexter Haaaaaven!” may well be the best line delivery of his career, followed by the moment when, informed that Dexter has read his book, Mike locks eyes with his new friend and says, “Why, C. K. Dexter Haven. You have unsuspected depth.”

It was a fortunate thing for the movie that there were two male leads for Stewart and Grant to play. In the Broadway version, Mike Connor was by far the larger part. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz was the one who rid the script of Tracy’s brother and combined his role with Dexter, as part of a thorough treatment that he handed screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. (Mankiewicz also conceived of the freeze-frame that ends the movie, which he later liked to boast had come well ahead of the device’s use in The 400 Blows.)

Mankiewicz attended the play and made careful note of where the laughs were; Donald Ogden Stewart thanked him but wisely decided this was no way to compose a screenplay. Instead, he gracefully opened up the play’s two sets of sitting room and porch, adding other sites that emphasize the Lords’ wealth, such as the stables, located at such a distance that Tracy and Dinah take a limo to get there. Stewart (reportedly with help from an uncredited Waldo Salt) also added dialogue that at times out-Barryed Barry, while keeping the play’s best lines, such as Mike’s remark, as he sprawls in a lawn chair, that “the prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”

According to biographer Kenneth L. Geist, Mankiewicz contributed one other idea to the movie: the famous, wordless opening scene showing the main couple’s tempers in full flare. First comes Dexter, stomping out the front door of Tracy’s home, suitcases in hand. Tracy, still dressed in a flowing nightgown (did she throw him out when he returned at dawn?), follows. With one hand, she holds his pipe rack, which she impassively lets crash to the ground. With the other, she is dragging his golf clubs. She pulls out one (surely his favorite) and breaks it neatly in half over her knee. She stalks back toward the door, Dexter follows and taps her on the shoulder, she turns, he makes as though to sock her, then puts his hand over her face and sends her sprawling. It’s a daring move, and another benefit of fortunate casting; only Grant could get away with that, and make it funny.

The Philadelphia Story was a smash, repaying Mayer’s extravagant purchase many times over; it broke the Radio City Music Hall record previously held by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The two Stewarts, James and Donald, won Oscars. Hepburn did not, losing to Ginger Rogers. “My prize is my work,” she told reporters, after remarking that she’d turned down that role in Kitty Foyle; this was the sort of thing that contributed to her haughty reputation in the first place. It was, of course, also true. No statuette is as valuable as a part like Tracy Lord. The Philadelphia Story was turned into a musical in 1956, with Grace Kelly, no less, and while the other version (released as High Society) has its pleasures, it never had a chance to supplant the original. “I don’t want to be worshipped,” Tracy tells stuffy old George, “I want to be loved.” The Philadelphia Story manages to be both.

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