The New Year is a time for rejuvenating, reinvention and restoration. For most, it is a positive time for new inspiration. In that spirit, it may be hard to believe, but 80 years ago legendary actress Katherine Hepburn was in an early career slump and it wasn’t until she participated in director George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) that she rebounded.
The late 1930s was a terribly hard time for Hepburn. After making the wonderful Howard Hawks comedy “Bringing up Baby”, she lost her RKO Studios contract—because her films had been losing money and she was labeled by executives as “box-office poison.” In Hepburn’s 1991 autobiography “Me: Stories of My Life”, she even noted that author Margret Mitchell sent her “Gone With the Wind,” thinking she’d be right for Scarlett O’Hara in the planned movie. Even original director George Cukor wanted her for the part, but producer David O. Selznick said no.
So she packed up and moved east for a while, accepting the part of Tracy Lord in a Broadway play written for her in mind by Phillip Barry. Barry’s play was “The Philadelphia Story” and became a stage hit for the 1938-39 season. When MGM assigned George Cukor to the film, his only choice was Ms. Hepburn—box-office poison or not.
Producer Louis B. Mayer wanted to make the movie a big hit and hired Donald Ogden Stewart to adapt the play to the big screen. According to Hepburn biographer, Alvin H. Marill, Stewart “added several scenes in the style of his good friend Phillip Barry, to focus on Hepburn’s unique personality.”
This delightful story concerns a Philadelphia society gal named Tracy Lord (Hepburn) who is about to discover the meaning of “true love” as she plans to remarry; this time to a stable, wealthy George Kitteridge (John Howard). She divorced her first spouse due to his drinking and physical cruelty. But on the eve of the wedding, nothing will be smooth sailing as her ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) reappears and with him a younger tabloid reporter from Spy magazine, Macauley “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) who’s sent to cover the social event of the season, and he too soon falls in love with Tracy.
The film’s first few minutes begin like a silent slapstick comedy, with an angry husband (Dexter) storming out of his home with a pair of suitcases and his wife (Tracy) following with a bag of golf clubs and a smoking pipe collection. Before her husband can depart she drops the pipes and cracks a golf club over her knee. In return, the husband clenches a fist to hit her but uses the other hand to push her abruptly to the ground.
All this is accompanied by a lively Franz Waxman score that neatly transitions to two years later and a newspaper announcement of the society marriage of that same woman. Yet as Tracy plans for reception of over 500 wedding guests, her mother wonders why she refuses to invite her philandering father, and her younger sister Dinah wonders why she ever left Dexter in the first place.
Much of the social humor evolves from Dexter persuading Tracy’s family to accept the Spy reporter Connor and his photographer Liz Imbrie as guests, pretending to be friends of brother Junius, so that Spy won’t publish a scandalous story about Mr. Seth Lord and a New York dancer. The Lords pretend to be more flamboyantly wealthy with the more working-class reporters.
Yet Dexter is even touched with a bit of jealousy telling Tracy, “He’s not the man for you, Red.” Hours later Tracy begins to realize this when fiancé George professes his love telling her, “I’m going to build you an ivory tower.”
Tracy replies, “Like fun you are…I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved, really loved.” And she begins rethinking her image of being the cold goddess.
Hepburn is so confidently elegant and magnificent as Tracy–at times a bit tomboyish, and yet uniquely feminine as she charms her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) and her playful banter with her ex-husband Dexter. He lovingly calls her “Red.” One her better wisecracking putdowns aimed at Dexter goes with a snide grin, “You haven’t switched from liquor to dope, by any chance, have you, Dexter?”
Cukor’s film would provide Hepburn with her much needed career boost. His film would receive six Oscar nominations, including ones: for best picture, director, screenplay adaptation (it won), best-supporting actress—Ruth Hussey, actor—James Stewart (which he won), and best actress—Katherine Hepburn. Shortly thereafter, Hepburn began a series of popular comedies with Spencer Tracy, starting with “Woman of the Year” (1942) and she never looked back.
The film was so successful that a musical remake was made by director Charles Walters in 1956 called “High Society,” starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, featuring music by Cole Porter.