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

The censor’s mirthless missives weren’t the film’s only hurdle. By this time, Hepburn’s reputation as an on-set diva was well established in Hollywood, and part of the reason so many were thrilled to see her set on her (high) heels, scrambling for a comeback. “Cukor’s next job is ‘Philadelphia Story,’” the Associated Press reported in July 1939. “And that means his next problem is Katharine Hepburn.”

Mounting a diplomacy offensive worthy of the Congress of Vienna, Hepburn welcomed on-set reporters in a gracious lady-of-the-manor style that eerily echoed Tracy’s sweeping, disingenuous greeting to the Spy magazine reporters crashing her wedding. She treated the cast and crew to ice cream, and brought an impish sense of humor to the set, once picking up a dead skunk from the side of a road, placing it inside a satin-lined box, and presenting it as a gift to the script clerk; the prank netted her glowing gossip-column inches extolling her spirited “high-jinks.” She also issued quotes soaked in humility during filming, such as, “In fact I can say in all truthfulness that I’m running a poor third behind Grant and Stewart.” The press gobbled it up, dutifully dispatching news of the new, Francine of Assisi Hepburn to the masses. Los Angeles Examiner columnist Dorothy Manners called her “an angel dropped right out of heaven on the ‘Philadelphia Story’ set.”

There are so many reasons why The Philadelphia Story shouldn’t have worked, the main one being that more or less this same merry crew — namely Hepburn, Grant, Cukor and Ogden Stewart — had made another film, also based on a Barry play, two years earlier. Titled Holiday and also revolving around a high-society wedding gone awry, it was a talky, flat, stagy comedy of manners oddly bereft of wit, a dour dry run of The Philadelphia Story. And it was a box-office disaster.

Yet The Philadelphia Story would end up as one of the greatest drawing-room comedies ever put on celluloid, a nearly flawless confection of snap and sparkle that barrels on for 112 frothy minutes, hugging the curves as it goes. Grant, Hepburn, Stewart and the oft-overlooked Ruth Hussey (as Liz) shine, Adrian’s gowns glitter, Franz Waxman’s whimsical score of tinkling piano and romantic violins enchants, and Mayer, Ogden Stewart and Cukor worked around censor Breen’s finger-wagging to preserve the film’s boozy charm. Grant, who donated his entire salary to the British War Relief Fund, later explained why he thought the movie struck a chord. “When I go to the movies,” he said, “I want to forget the dirty dishes in my sink, and what’s on my mind. I want to forget my troubles, get out of myself. I want to laugh a little.”