Director: George Cukor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 112 minutes. Released December 1940. Filmed 1940 MGM studios.
Producer: Joseph Mankiewicz; screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt (uncredited), from the play by Philip Barry; photography: Joseph Ruttenberg; editor: Frank Sullivan; sound: Douglas Shearer; set decorator: Edwin Willis; art directors: Cedric Gibbons and Wade B. Rubottom; music: Franz Waxman; costume designer: Adrian.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn ( Tracy Lord ); Cary Grant ( C. K. Dexter Haven ); James Stewart ( Macauley Connor ); Ruth Hussey ( Liz Imbrie ); John Howard ( George Kittredge ); Roland Young ( Uncle Willie ); John Halliday ( Seth Lord ); Virginia Weidler ( Dinah Lord ); Mary Nash ( Margaret Lord ); Henry Daniell ( Sidney Kidd ); Lionel Pape ( Edward ); Rex Evans ( Thomas ); Russ Clark ( John ); Hilda Plowright ( Librarian ); Lita Chevret ( Manicurist ); Lee Phelps ( Bartender ); Dorothy Fay, Florine McKinney, Helene Whitney, and Hillary Brooks ( Mainliners ); Claude King ( Uncle Willie's butler ); Robert de Bruce ( Dr. Parsons ); Veda Buckland ( Elsie ).
Oscars for Best Actor (Stewart) and Best Screenplay, 1940; New York Film
Critics Award, Best Actress (Hepburn), 1940.
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* * *
The Philadelphia Story is one of the most successful and best loved screwball comedies of the classical Hollywood era. It is based on the 1939 Broadway production of Philip Barry's play which starred Katharine Hepburn. The film employs the 1930s screwball plot device of the idle rich whose wealth has blinded them to the simple joys of life and the worthiness of middle-class values. Tracy Lord is the arrogant Philadelphia socialite who is planning her wedding to a stuffy social climber when her ex-husband, C. K. Dexter Haven, arrives at the mansion. Haven is a charming millionaire who openly displays his love of life and his disdain of pretentiousness while he secretly longs for the reunion with his ex-wife. Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey are the reporters from the scandal sheet Spy Magazine who have been assigned to cover the wedding. Anti-romance, verbal and witty relationships, and the tendency to poke fun at the rich are all in abundance providing humorous distractions and obstacles to Tracy's and Dexter's final reconciliation.
Director George Cukor here shows his preference for understatement in romantic comedies through his emphasis on plot and performance. Following Frank Capra's example in It Happened One Night and his earlier success Holiday , Cukor employs a screwball comic style which avoids explicit romance between two leading characters. He instead pits them against each other, creating romantic courtship through character tensions.
Because the audience knows that the characters are Hepburn and Grant, two movie stars who have been paired before in Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett and Holiday and Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby , the audience is predisposed to want them to get together. Cukor plays with this expectation throughout the film but especially in the famous opening scene: Grant is tossed out the front door; Hepburn appears at the door where she breaks one of Grant's golf clubs; she tosses the clubs after him and slams the door; Grant returns to the door and rings the bell; when Hepburn answers, he pushes her in the face.
Not a single word is spoken in this scene. Its comic success depends as much on Hepburn's star image as on the superb timing. During the latter 1930s, Hepburn headed the list by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of "box-office poison" movie stars. Critics found her grating, "mannish," or too intense. Cukor, who had directed Hepburn in five previous films, said that she was unattractive to audiences in the late 1930s because she "never was a 'love me. I'm a lovable little girl' kind of actress. She always challenged the audience, and . . . they felt something arrogant in her playing." In The Philadelphia Story , Hepburn and Cukor capitalized on these aspects of her image, turning them to Hepburn's advantage by establishing Tracy as a haughty, inflexible snob who becomes lovable when she exposes her underlying vulnerability and fragility.
The Philadelphia Story broke attendance records at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The critical and popular success of the film was especially sweet to Hepburn, who had selected the film as a vehicle for her return to movies after a two year hiatus. After Holiday and Bringing Up Baby had brought her additional negative reviews, she angrily left Hollywood. Hepburn vowed to return only if the role and circumstances were right. The Tracy Lord character in The Philadelphia Story not only provided the right role, but it afforded Hepburn the opportunity to create the right circumstances. During her Broadway stint in the play, she acquired the movie rights which she then sold to MGM in a deal that guaranteed her the movie role of Tracy Lord and choice of director and co-stars.
The Philadelphia Story' s success led to its remake as a film musical in 1956. Though High Society features music and lyrics by Cole Porter and stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, it lacks the sparkle and comic tautness of the original.