Few movies bring such star power together as The Philadelphia Story did in 1940. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and director George Cukor seem to have been made for their part in this MGM classic screwball comedy. Even eighty years later, the performances and screenplay (by David Ogden Stewart) remain some of the best in Hollywood history.
In the movie, Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is upon her second wedding, an anticipated social event considering her shocking separation from wealthy man C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) two years earlier. Her new fiancé, George Kitteridge (John Howard), couldn’t be more different from Haven. He worships Lord like a goddess and bends at her every whim.
The wedding is disrupted when Dexter sends in Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), writer and photographer for a tabloid magazine, to cover the affair. Tracy has to welcome the two strangers into her celebration or they will publish a damning story about her father’s infidelity. Dexter also invites himself into the mix, and soon Tracy questions whether divorcing him was a good decision or if she should find love somewhere else.
Hepburn read Philip Barry‘s original 1939 play and instantly fell in love. She signed on to star in the Broadway show, which became an absolute hit. The film adaptation would be the vehicle for her comeback in Hollywood and a career-defining performance. Hepburn had control over much more in the production than any other actress at the time, which is probably why there was no room for mediocracy. Like her character, Hepburn expected perfection, and she got about as close as you can get to that on screen.
Hepburn chose her collaborators behind the camera wisely. She picked MGM producer and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz to oversee the adaptation. He was well into his career in Hollywood by this time, but he was fairly new as a producer. However, his track record early on was very impressive. He produced several Joan Crawford hits of the 1930s, including Mannequin, Love on the Run, and The Bride Wore Red. He was also behind the classic Fritz Lang thriller Fury, which starred Hepburn’s longtime partner Spencer Tracy. Mankiewicz ensured the production would get the best of the best MGM could offer, which was as sophisticated as you could get in Hollywood at the time.
For the screenplay, Hepburn chose David Ogden Stewart, who had previously adapted Barry’s play Holiday for the screen with a favorable critical response. Along with the adaptations that he wrote himself, Stewart had an often-uncredited hand in several movies we consider to be classics today. He wrote additional dialogue for Jean Harlow hits like Red Dust and Dinner At Eight and also contributed to Manhattan Melodrama and The Women, but without recognition at the time.
Cukor was Hepburn’s obvious choice for director. The two were frequent collaborators. Even though some of their films failed at the box office, Cukor never blamed the failure on Hepburn’s acting ability like everyone else did. Before 1940, the two had made A Bill of Divorcement, Little Women, Sylvia Scarlett, and Holiday together. Cukor had a unique touch for films about women, and Hepburn knew Tracy Lord would need Cukor’s respectful consideration.
It’s hard to consider Cukor’s work on The Philadelphia Story the best in his career when his filmography is full of absolute stunners (he would go on to direct such films as A Woman’s Face, Gaslight, A Star is Born, and My Fair Lady), but it can certainly be argued that way. He brought out the best in all of his cast and was able to use the camera in ways that distracted from the stage play origins of the story.
The only time Hepburn didn’t get exactly what she wanted in the production was when she did not get her first choices to play the roles of Dexter and Mike. Some say MGM head Louis B. Mayer refused to give her Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, offered Cary Grant and James Stewart instead as a safety net in case Hepburn didn’t bring in the audience she hoped for. Others say Tracy and Gable were simply unavailable and she sought out Grant and Stewart herself as the “second best” choices.
Either way, Hepburn embraced the involvement of Grant and Stewart wholeheartedly. She had worked with Grant in Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, and Sylvia Scarlett. She was comfortable working with him, and Grant had recent success within the screwball genre, especially Topper. Hepburn was impressed with Stewart after his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Grant was the perfect fit for Dexter. He was on a roll in the screwball genre and a natural for the comedy in The Philadelphia Story. He needed to be a little wily but still posh enough to fit into high society as the slightly-alcoholic ex-husband. Dexter spends most of the film waiting for Tracy to change her mind on her wedding day, requiring the kind of actor that doesn’t fade into the background even if he doesn’t have the most lines.
When he does speak, the jabs Dexter takes at Tracy come out like words of loving advice rather than a downright roast. After all, his view of her needed to be much different than the other men who simply worship her for what they think she is. Dexter sees through the perfect façade she uses to mask her unhappiness.
The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is a huge improvement here from the dynamic they have in Bringing Up Baby. Hepburn had been out of her comfort zone in that zany role, but now they were both in roles they seemed to be made for.
Grant also had significant chemistry with the rest of the cast as well. He and James Stewart were very different in their personas, but they play off one another in this movie like they had been friends for years. When Stewart improvised his drunken scene without telling his co-star what he’d be doing, Grant composed himself in order to get the best take. You can see him almost break into full laughter when Stewart hiccups between lines, though. By the end of the movie, Grant makes Dexter the obvious choice for Tracy.
Conner sounds like a typical James Stewart role at first: working-class, down to earth, and realistic. However, Stewart was weary of where the character ends up in the latter half of the film. There are scenes that required what his other roles never did. Stewart’s roles up until this point included his iconic parts in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You. Audiences were used to seeing him in a specific kind of role, one that could be romantic while staying wholesome, and critical without being cynical. His performance in The Philadelphia Story would challenge that a bit.
The remarkable garden scene where Tracy and Mike drunkenly slow dance required Stewart to deliver lines that are much more overtly sexual than he was used. While shooting the scene, Stewart could not say “You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.” It doesn’t seem as explicit by today’s standards, but the meaning that is implied is hot and heavy.
Hepburn and Cukor needed to patiently coax this line out of Stewart, but the result was an Oscar-winning performance (his only such achievement, despite how much he continued to evolve as a performer, with his Alfred Hitchcock movies, in particular, further challenging his all-American persona). Stewart delivers so well on the romantic aspect that it’s hard not to hope for Mike to sweep Tracy off her feet, even though everything else points towards a reunion with her ex-husband.
Hepburn orchestrated her comeback in the role that was tailor-written for her. It’s remarkable to watch her embrace the vulnerability of the character of Tracy Lord and the complexities of her journey in the film. Hepburn broke all kinds of rules in her career, and this performance is no exception. She conveys the restrictions put on “the modern woman”: the pressure for perfection and the loneliness that can come from independence.
There is a perfect balance of screwball comedy and impressive drama in Hepburn’s performance, showing off everything she’s capable of as an actress. She didn’t win the Oscar she was nominated for, but her role as Tracy Lord will always go down as her very best achievement.
The supporting cast is just as legendary as the trio of leading stars. Hussey had been a player in several phenomenal films the year before The Philadelphia Story came out; her seven movies released in 1939 alone include The Women, After the Thin Man, and Fast and Furious. She’s a delight as Liz Imbrie and one of the few allies for Tracy in the movie.
Along with Liz, the other female characters sympathize with what Tracy goes through. Mary Nash as Tracy’s mother is the perfect uptight but understanding maternal figure in this rich family. Virginia Weidler is hilarious as the conniving younger sister Dinah Lord.
Roland Young had charmed audiences in Topper just a few years prior to his performance as Uncle Willie. He’s creepy and inappropriate, but a product of his time. The leading stars of the film could not have pulled off a perfect film without these great supporting performances.
Eighty years later, we continue to revisit The Philadelphia Story because it brought together the absolute best of the best of all time. The actors and filmmakers had impressive careers before and after, but never again would they come together to make such a perfect film as The Philadelphia Story. Thanks to this talent, we’ll be laughing and tearing up to Tracy Lord’s story for years to come.