Playwright Phillip Barry wrote a play called The Philadelphia Story specifically for Katharine Hepburn to star in. After it was a success, Hepburn bought the movie rights to the play and sold it to MGM for the relatively small sum of $250,000 in return for her being able to pick the producer, screenwriter, and costars. She chose Joseph Mankeiwicz to produce (and many decades later his great-nephew Ben Mankeiwicz would inform me of all this trivia in his introduction to this Fathom Events showing), George Cukor (with whom she had worked with in A Bill of Divorcement and Little Women years before) to direct, Donald Ogden Stewart to write, and James Stewart and Cary Grant to be her costars. She had originally wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy (before she had even met, much less fallen in love with the latter) but both had prior commitments. Grant only agreed to star if he was given top billing and would be paid $137,000 (which he later donated to the British War Relief Society).
Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a rich socialite who is about to marry George Kittredge (John Howard) a down-to-earth sort who has only recently become rich and has political ambitions. The day before the wedding her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) comes to her house along with reporter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) on assignment for Spy magazine in hopes of getting an article for the gossip columns. They try to trick her at first, pretending Connor and Imbrie are friends of a friend, but Tracy figures it out pretty quick. Haven then uses some photos of Tracy’s father fooling around with a model to blackmail her into letting the reporters stay.
Madcap hilarity ensues. The script is filled with quick, hilarious one-liners and the cast delivers them superbly. There’s romance, too. Connor is a true writer at heart, who is working for Spy only to keep food on the table. When Tracy reads some of his short stories, she realizes there is more to him than she thought. Haven isn’t as bad as he initially seems, having only taken to the drink during their marriage because Tracy was so exacting in what she wanted from a mate, but he’s got a good heart.
There is a depth to the story that is usually lacking in madcap romantic comedies. Tracy is cut to the quick when numerous people tell her that she is a goddess or a queen who only wants to sit on her throne and be worshiped. Bits of feminism sprout up as both Tracy and her mother have left steady marriages to be on their own.
It's a good script and the directing is fine, but it's the cast that has made this an enduring classic. Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart are simply the best. They play off each other in magnificent ways. Ruth Hussey is terrific too as kind of the fourth wheel and Virginia Weidler gets some of the best lines as Dinah, the younger sister of Tracy.
As much as I like the film, and I do like it very much, there’s something that’s always put me just a little bit off about it. I’ve seen it several times and I can never quite put my finger on it. It's something about how the relationships pan out. Maybe it's how Ms. Imbrie is so often put upon by Connor (he’s supposedly in love with her but spends most of the film cooing over Tracy) but always brushes it off with a smile and a quick joke. Or maybe it's something else entirely. Whatever it is, I don’t love The Philadelphia Story as much as everyone else does.
And everyone else does seem to love it. The packed audience I saw with applauded both at the start and conclusion of the movie. It was nominated for six Oscars and won for Best Actor with James Stewart and Best Screenplay for David Ogden Stewart.
It is the perfect film to see with your sweetie just a few days after Valentine’s Day. Fathom Events is showing it on the big screen for one more day, February 21, and you can buy tickets on their website. Next month's showing is the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo.