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

MOVIEMAKING IS, BY AND LARGE, A MESSY BUSINESS, which perhaps is to be expected in an enterprise that melds huge egos, big money, and hyper-creative people who can be as exhausting as they are entertaining. The filming of The Philadelphia Story was far from stormy, but it held its own in terms of behind-the-scenes drama.

Hepburn almost didn’t star in the film at all; David O. Selznick had wanted it as a vehicle for Bette Davis, and MGM had it in mind for Joan Crawford. But Hepburn’s Seven Sisters education had taught her more than how to smoke artfully. Aware of the play’s potential as a film, she’d preemptively snapped up the movie rights while no one was looking. “I slept with Howard Hughes to get The Philadelphia Story,” she told Charlotte Chandler. Hughes bought the film rights for $30,000, presenting them to Katharine Hepburn as a gift. “He was a brilliant man, and going to bed with him was very pleasurable,” she said. “But the pleasure of owning The Philadelphia Story lasted longer.” 

So the message to the studios was clear: The film would be made with Hepburn or not be made. But she still needed good help. Her first choices for leading men were Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, but when both were unavailable, she happily took Grant, by then one of cinema’s biggest stars, and Stewart, fresh off his acclaimed turn in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. George Cukor, who’d made several pictures with Hepburn, would direct; well-regarded screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart would adapt Barry’s play; Gilbert Adrian, who’d designed Judy Garland’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, would do the costumes.

The movie would be shot on a Hollywood back lot, but Cukor, a fanatic for detail, pressed Philip Barry for specifics to ensure that he could pump the play’s aristocratic oxygen onto the silver screen. “It would be a great help to me if you could send me a description of precisely what you pictured the Lord house to be; its style, its scale, its furnishings,” he wrote to Barry before filming began in the spring of 1940. “Did you pattern it after any particular house near any particular town on the Main Line? I gather from the text that it is gim-cracky, slightly delapidated [sic], nineteen hundred and ten, but is it as grand for example, as a Stamford White Newport villa? Is it Bastard Norman, Italian or American colonial? What other peculiarities is it likely to have?”

In his response dated May 26, 1940, Barry suggested a Georgian house, “impressive, but not forbidding, handsome but warm, considerable displacement but welcoming and friendly.” He then pointed Cukor to three different estates for reference — including “the Montgomery house in Villanova.” And the Lord estate in the film does bear some of the stately characteristics that defined Ardrossan.