Feature: The Story Behind “The Philadelphia Story”

Seventy years after its release, it remains the greatest Philadelphia movie ever — an intoxicating cocktail of snappy dialogue and delightful characters perfectly capturing the old-money Main Line. But the tale of how “The Philadelphia Story” came to be — from Kate Hepburn’s steely determination to save her own career to Hope Montgomery Scott’s earthy joie de vivre — is as rich as anything that made it onto the screen

Katharine Hepburn saved the telegrams.

There were certainly enough of them, from all over the Hollywood and Broadway strata. It seemed like almost every day in late 1940, another Western Union messenger was delivering yet another kudo, all telling her what she already knew: The Philadelphia Story had once again made her a star.

From her producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who a decade later would achieve worldwide fame as the writer/director of All About Eve: “Picture previewed for press yesterday and the notices are simply sensational particularly for you. Which delights me beyond words.” From Ed Sullivan: “I saw your picture in a projection room last night and you are grand. If you aren’t the Best Actress on the screen I’m crazy.” From Joan Crawford: “Saw Philadelphia Story last night. You are superb. I don’t know of anyone whose success is more deserving than yours.” One of the best came from director Garson Kanin, who cabled simply: “My God. G.”

That The Philadelphia Story would go on to be a roaring screen success — it would break box-office records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and net Hepburn an Oscar nomination as Best Actress — came as no surprise to her. When Philip Barry’s play of the same title had bowed on Broadway a year before, she had played Tracy Lord, the icy Main Line bride who slowly melts to once again discover her own humanity, to fawning reviews from theater critics. But in bringing her own career off life support — she had earned a reputation as a difficult, if not impossible, actress, and had been labeled “box-office poison” after a string of movie bombs — Hepburn had done more than merely make a hit film. She had captured the imagination of America with the definitive portrait of Philadelphia’s most mysterious and glamorous ribbon of real estate. As critic Elsie Finn would note in her review in the Philadelphia Record, “Without a single shot of Billy Penn’s hat, the film draws a picture of Main Line society that requires no label for identification.”

Much of the reason why The Philadelphia Story was deemed brilliant — and why, on its 70th anniversary this month, it still is — was its patina of authenticity, its sense of place, even if it was all gift-wrapped in stardust and snappy drawing-room dialogue worthy of Noel Coward (who actually dropped by the set). That was the result of several factors, not the least of which were stellar acting performances by Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and the spectacular Barry play from which the film was adapted. But its true guiding light was Hepburn, whose affair with billionaire Howard Hughes allowed her to obtain the rights and who then used her own Main Line story — and that of Hope Montgomery Scott, the real-life Villanova socialite who would become her lifelong friend — to create a picture that today ranks 44th among the American Film Institute’s list of the 50 greatest U.S. movies ever made.