Audiences quickly grew to adore it, too. It soon broke a box office record at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City and went on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of 1941. Its place in cinematic history was firmly secured just a month after its wide release, when Jimmy Stewart picked up his first and only best actor Academy Award statuette for his performance as reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor.
He is just one of Katharine Hepburn's suitors in The Philadelphia Story. Her socialite character Tracy Lord is due to marry the wealthy George Kittredge (John Howard), nuptials that Stewart's Connor and Tracy's ex-husband CK Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant, look to disrupt.
Over the subsequent decades, its reputation has only grown, too. By 1956, The Philadelphia Story had already been remade into the smash hit musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, in her final film role. In 2008 the American Film Institute named it the fifth best romantic comedy in Hollywood history, while it has proven to be so critic-proof that it still holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Eighty years after its release, The Philadelphia Story's grace, wit, and sheer romanticism doesn't just mean it stands out as one of the best films to emerge from the classic Hollywood era, but that it also might be the definitive romantic comedy, too. That's if it's even a romantic comedy in the first place.
As Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, the author of Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre, explains, some people believe that The Philadelphia Story is a screwball comedy, rather than romantic comedy, as it uses various tropes of the sub-genre, including "warring lovers" and has some elements of overlapping dialogue. Even that's up for debate, though. By the start of 1941 the screwball genre was already in decline, as the tastes of audiences were changing thanks to World War Two. At the same time, The Philadelphia Story's dialogue is much less quickfire, and it has a sentimentality, sincerity – and, some might even say, sophistication – that sets it apart from other screwball films.
Theodora Gets Wild, His Girl Friday, and My Favorite Wife followed this structure, but no film did so with the subtlety of The Philadelphia Story, which genuinely leaves you wondering whether Lord is going to end up with Connor or Haven. Jeffers McDonald believes the "palatable" manner with which The Philadelphia Story explores themes like "identity, love as play or fight, divorce, adultery, and frustration" are why it has endured over the decades.
Patrick McGilligan, who wrote the biopic George Cukor: A Double Life about The Philadelphia Story's director, says it has had "a lasting impact as an adult exemplar of the genre", especially when compared to its peers from the same period.
Of course, the entirety of The Philadelphia Story is "elevated by its classy cast", which just so happens to include arguably the most beguiling trio of actors in cinematic history. But while Stewart and Grant excel, it is Hepburn that pre-eminently shines throughout The Philadelphia Story.
Return to stardom
At this point it should be pointed out just how vital The Philadelphia Story was to Hepburn's career. By the end of 1938, Hepburn had been labelled "box office poison". Some of the Hepburn films to perform poorly during this period included Mary Of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, and, despite its legacy as a stone-cold classic now, even Bringing Up Baby. With her career in freefall, Hepburn, who by this point had already won her first best actress Academy Award for 1934's Morning Glory and been nominated in 1936 for Alice Adams, decided to buy herself out of her contract with RKO.
Hepburn retreated to the theatre. Her close friend, the playwright Philip Barry, already had the idea for a play and a character that he knew she’d be perfect for. Tracy Lord was inspired by the Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, once labelled by Vanity Fair magazine "the unofficial queen of Philadelphia's WASP oligarchy". Barry had become close friends with her through Edgar Scott, the heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune, his former classmate at Harvard and her husband.
At the same time, Barry had become fascinated by speculation that wealthy families were being blackmailed by increasingly prominent and Machiavellian tabloid newspapers, so that salacious gossip about them would be kept secret. Premiering in March 1939, The Philadelphia Story play quickly became a smash hit on Broadway, where it grossed more than $1 million in sales before making another $750,000 when it toured nationally. Hepburn starred in and backed the play financially, giving up a salary and taking a cut of its profits instead.
So it was little surprise, then, that she saw it as the perfect piece of material to launch her back to Hollywood stardom. Hepburn even got a helping hand from Howard Hughes, her ex-lover, who helped her pay for the film rights so that she could have more creative control. Her deal with MGM for the film meant she could veto any potential producer, director, or co-star.
This decision proved to be a masterstroke. Hepburn's complex portrayal of Lord, who is as aggressive as she is vulnerable, nervous, charming, and hilarious, immediately made audiences more sympathetic to her. "When the film was released, most critics and audience members believed Tracy was a portrayal of the 'real' Hepburn," says Jeffers McDonald. "She had spent most of the 1930s being seen by the press, especially the movie fan magazines, as pretentious and awful."
"Playing a character like Tracy, who was similarly rich, privileged and annoying, Hepburn can be seen enacting a public apology for past bad behaviour. Having Tracy knocked off her pedestal by her dealings with men, becoming more humble and pliant, Hepburn could remake her own image and it is very noticeable that she started becoming popular with audiences after this."
In A Scott Berg's biography on the actress, Hepburn recalls not wanting to "make a grand entrance" in The Philadelphia Story for this very reason, explaining, "Moviegoers haven't seen me in over a year, and they already made it clear that they think I'm too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face." Thus, the opening scene of The Philadelphia Story, which sees Grant push Hepburn on to the floor, was born.
When it came to her co-stars, Hepburn dilly-dallied over whether Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy should play Dexter and Mike, before rightfully deciding on Grant and Stewart. George Cukor was always going to be one of her first choices as director, though. He was the one who "discovered her for Hollywood from the stage", says McGilligan, leading to Hepburn's first role in 1932's A Bill of Divorcement.
They remained close friends until his death in 1983, with Cukor directing Hepburn in eight films and two TV movies. "He had a feminine sympathy or consciousness, he deeply understood Hepburn on and off the screen, and was her most frequent director over time – because he was her favourite," says McGilligan. "He had the same deep communion with Barry and Stewart. What they all believed in was performance above cinematic tricks, humanity in characterisation, and the integrity of the play transferred to the screen."
With The Philadelphia Story, according to McGilligan, Cukor obtained a "humanity that would have not come from a lesser director". It also helped that he had previously paired Hepburn up with Grant in both 1938's Holiday, another adaptation of a Philip Barry play, and 1935's Sylvia Scarlett. Two more rom-coms that were deemed box-office flops, despite some impressive reviews.
The Philadelphia Story gave Cukor, Grant and Hepburn, with the help of Stewart, another chance to correct this trend. "There is a looseness, a naturalness to the comedic repartee," says McGilligan. "And the film becomes – as I think it must have been also on the stage – a kind of auto-critique of Hepburn's hauteur that she joins in while also taking stock of Grant's character in a way that is more critical than other screwball comedies. So Cukor also brings out the mistakes in their relationship, the bitterness in their characters, in a way that is more adult than other screwball comedies."
Cukor also allowed Hepburn's character to have sexual tension with both those played by Grant and Stewart. "It's a double love story," says McGilligan. "There is the one between Hepburn and Grant, which is over with but simmering beneath the surface, and the one between Hepburn and Stewart, which makes headway in the story." This meant that audiences didn't know who Hepburn's character would end up with. "The viewer is probably torn between who should get Hepburn, just as she is torn. As Cary Grant is probably Hollywood's all-time romantic icon – Stewart less so – he is the odds-on favourite. But his devious means of winning her back keeps the audience guessing until the surprise end."
This element of intrigue and surprise would be replicated over many other romantic comedies for decades to come. From Casablanca to Sabrina, as well as Broadcast News, Clueless, 500 Days Of Summer, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and especially Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated and Something's Gotta Give.
But Cukor and The Philadelphia Story's influence doesn't stop there. He set the standards of "taste and intelligence," says McGilligan, who believes Cukor subverted the genre and its tropes, especially when it came to how male and female characters were depicted. "Cukor himself was gay. So what makes his films unique is that he is depicting his own ideas about romance and love through the prism of this genre, using strong women (like Hepburn) as his alter ego, and making the men (like Cary Grant) less absurdly masculine, in various ways." So while The Philadelphia Story's genre might be up for debate, what's for certain is that it was decades ahead of its time.
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