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

RELEASED IN DECEMBER 1940, The Philadelphia Story would become the second-highest-grossing movie of 1941 and earn six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It won a pair, for the two Mr. Stewarts: Jimmy Stewart for Best Actor, and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Screenplay. (Rebecca took Best Picture.) Upon accepting his prize, Ogden Stewart delivered one of the greatest speeches in Oscar history: “I have no one to thank,” he said, “but myself.”


Sixteen years later, another Philadelphia glamour girl with a big wedding on the horizon — Grace Kelly — would star in High Society, a jaunty Cole Porter musical remake opposite Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, though that version would be set in (sacrilege!) Newport. Barry’s original stage play was revived on Broadway in 1981; Hope and Edgar Scott were in the audience. Indeed, the film’s success forged a lifelong friendship between the Scotts and Hepburn. “You and The Philadelphia Story have almost made me famous!” Hope wrote to Hepburn in 1981.

The film’s legacy would extend far beyond the parochial confines of the Main Line. The movie was, of course, one of those rare cases of the stars literally aligning to produce something magical. But it was also revolutionary in its contrarian view of the rich. The Depression had been in full bore for more than a decade when The Philadelphia Story was released, and the 1930s had seen a bevy of movies in which the wealthy were portrayed as either clueless, entitled buffoons or avaricious, unfeeling snobs. (In an ironic twist, Hepburn lost the Academy Award for Best Actress to Ginger Rogers, who won for her title role as plucky, blue-collar Philadelphia department-store gal Kitty Foyle.) In The Philadelphia Story, it’s up-by-the-bootstraps George Kittredge who’s rigid and judgmental; rakish dilettante C.K. Dexter Haven is the guy who finally convinces the ice queen to defrost. In turn, Tracy teaches the jaded Mike that, gee whiz, the affluent just want to be loved. “The rich people in this film are often quite witty and charming and in some ways understanding as well,” points out John O’Leary, a professor and film historian at Villanova University. “Its gentle message is, ‘Let’s try and understand each other, and have tolerance for one another. That’s the way differences are overcome.’”

Years later, George Cukor talked about how the famous “drunk scene” — when Mike professes his love for Tracy — was one of the cornerstones that gave the story its resonance. His interviewer then quoted one of Stewart’s famous lines from the picture, about “the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Cukor replied. “And done with a light touch. And also done unaffectedly. … You believe those people are both rich and human; they’re not stuffed shirts.”