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

According to the original script, now stored in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, the opening of the film was to fade in with an aerial shot of three or four large estates outside Philadelphia. “We also pass over the Merion or some other Cricket Club where a cricket game or a horse show is in progress. These shots should always be from a sufficient distance to give the feeling of exclusiveness and inaccessibility to the candid camera.” Following this, an announcer would state in a voice-over: “Outside of Philadelphia which — you will remember — is on the Eastern coast of the United States, lies a district as unknown and inaccessible to the average American as though it were a strange kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Within this district, known as the ‘Main Line,’ lives that ultra-exclusive world — Philadelphia society.”

In the end, neither this opening — meant to portray the Main Line as a gilded universe of wealth and breeding, Brigadoon via Lancaster Avenue — nor many of the Philadelphia-centric references from the play made it into the finished film. But other touches did: The exterior of the Wayne library was used as a model for the one where Tracy goes to search for Mike’s book.

And really, did it matter? No. What mattered was preserving Barry’s sometimes salty (for 1940) dialogue and equally saucy point of view, a task that fell to Ogden Stewart and was then almost unraveled by film censor Joseph Breen, the notorious chief enforcer of what was known as the Hays Code, which ensured that films were of good moral value to the viewing public.

A film that begins with a shot of Cary Grant putting his hand over Hepburn’s face and shoving her to the ground wasn’t going to slip under Breen’s moral radar. Neither was one that displayed excessive drinking, a nude midnight swim, pinched buttocks, and intimations of a tawdry affair committed by the family patriarch. After reviewing the original play before its script adaptation, Breen sent a letter to Paramount Pictures in April 1939 outlining myriad objections and demands, which basically called for gutting the story. “Throughout the screen treatment,” Breen wrote, “there should be nothing that would reflect unfavorably on the institution of marriage.” Hmm.

Paramount eventually punted the project to MGM, which, undaunted, had Ogden Stewart draft a script. In June 1940, Breen weighed in again, in a four-page letter to studio chief Louis B. Mayer, declaring that the treatment “contains a number of items which are not acceptable, and which must be corrected in the finished picture.” Among them: no nude swim for Mike and Tracy; no suggestive dialogue; the drinking would have to be toned down; no butt-pinching; and no jokes made at the expense of the wedding minister. In addition, Breen strongly suggested that selected terms — among them “naked,” “louse,” “stinking” and “pregnant” — be deleted or changed. As the script was tweaked and production hummed along, Breen sent several more scolding, schoolmarmish letters, still harping on the use of “stinks” and too much champagne being imbibed. He began to close his correspondence with the same ominous warning: “You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based on the finished picture.”