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

For Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story also represented the meshing of her own steely personality with the Main Line playground she knew all too well. After all, she had found her true self as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, taking up smoking and once splashing naked in the cloister fountain after a long night of studying. In 1928, she had married Ludlow Ogden Smith, scion of an old-money Philadelphia family, only to turn her back on the lawn-party life he offered to follow her passion for acting. And she had engaged in a long, clandestine affair with Laura Barney Harding, a Main Line heiress and niece of the co-founder of the storied Smith Barney brokerage firm.

All of which helped her turn The Philadelphia Story into something not just wildly entertaining, but also believable. And, perhaps, the greatest Philadelphia movie ever made.

, pure and simple, and felt luck was with him when his Harvard roommate turned out to be Philip Barry, son of an affluent Rochester, New York, family and himself an aspiring dramatist who’d already had one of his works staged at Yale. Alas, young Edgar’s dreams of a career working with Barry were quickly dashed. “It turned out that my father absolutely could not create dialogue,” recalls his son, Edgar Jr. “It was always stiff.”

The young men dissolved their partnership, but not their friendship. Edgar met a vivacious young socialite named Helen Hope Montgomery — her father had made a fortune in the Baldwin Locomotive Works — at a dinner party, and married her in 1923. The young couple settled in at Ardrossan, the Montgomery family estate in Villanova, where Hope, as she was known, quickly established herself as one of the Main Line’s most lively and witty young hostesses. Barry became a frequent visitor to Ardrossan, and amid its fizzy atmosphere developed the idea for a play about a madcap Main Line heiress. “I think it’s what you might call magnified a little bit, and shown in a rosy glow,” Edgar Jr., today an 85-year-old retired investment banker residing in Unionville, Chester County, says of what became The Philadelphia Story. “But life at Ardrossan was pretty much like that.”

The plot of The Philadelphia Story goes thusly: Tracy Lord is a bratty socialite getting married for the second time, to a self-made business executive named George Kittredge. Her first marriage, to wealthy rogue C.K. Dexter Haven, ended in bitter divorce. (He drank. A lot.) Unfortunately for Tracy, her father, Seth, has been caught philandering with a New York dancer, and in order to suppress the scandalous story, her brother (a character excised in the film version) makes a Faustian bargain with the editor of a tabloid magazine to allow a grumbling reporter, Macauley “Mike” Connor, and a photographer, Liz Imbrie, to cover her wedding. Haven crashes the prenuptial festivities, aided and abetted by Tracy’s impish teenage sister. Wackiness ensues, all power-boosted by firecracker dialogue.

Indeed, Philip Barry’s play is such a delicious confection largely due to its zinging repartee, a verbal Charge of the Light Brigade from first scene to final curtain. Take the scene where Tracy is introducing everyone to an increasingly befuddled Mike and Liz: “Miss Imbrie — Mr. Connor — my former husband, whose name for the moment escapes me.” Dexter remarks that she should have stuck with him. “I thought it was for life,” Tracy retorts, “but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.” Later, on her wedding day, Tracy remarks on the weather, asking Mike, “Have you ever seen a handsomer day?” “Never,” he replies. “What did it set you back?”