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The International Writers Magazine: FILM

The Legend of the Philadelphia Story
The Saving of a Screen Icon’s Career
Rick Neal


Who is the greatest Hollywood star of all time? Ask six different people and you’ll get six different answers. Names like Garbo, Cagney, Garland, and Tracy are invariably found on any "best of" list, and all are worthy candidates. In 1999 The American Film Institute resolved to settle the issue when they compiled a list of the 50 Greatest Movie Legends.

Humphrey Bogart was ranked as the #1 male star, while Katharine Hepburn was chosen as the top female. That same year she was also voted Best Classic Actress of the 20th Century in an Entertainment Weekly online poll.

A quick scan of Hepburn’s acting achievements makes it difficult to argue with her selection as "Greatest Ever." In a career that spanned over six decades, she received a total of twelve Academy Award nominations, a record that stood until 2002 when Meryl Streep received her thirteenth nomination for Adaptation. Hepburn is the only four time Oscar winner for a lead role, taking the honour for Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981), a record that may never be broken. She starred in no less than six of the films found on AFI’s list of Top 100 U.S. Love Stories, another record and one she shares with frequent co-star Cary Grant. They played opposite each other in two of the films, the classic screwball comedy Bringing up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Yet, as difficult as it is to believe now, this screen icon’s career almost came to an abrupt end only a few years after it began. Born into a wealthy New England family in 1907, Hepburn embarked on a successful stage career after graduating from college. She broke into movies in 1932 after RKO Studios signed her to a lucrative contract. In her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), she was cast opposite the legendary John Barrymore. The movie was a hit. She won the Oscar for Morning Glory, only her third motion picture. When her next, Little Women (1934), broke box-office records around the country, the young starlet seemed on her way to a long and successful Hollywood career.

Then rumours began to surface about her arrogant off-screen behavior. She was un-cooperative with the press, refusing to grant interviews or pose for publicity photos. She appeared only in pants and spurned makeup. Once, when someone in the costume department stole her slacks she reportedly walked around the studio in her underwear until they were returned. Such raucous behavior appalled audiences at a time when movie stars were expected to be exemplary role models. Her fans began to desert her. From 1935 to 1938 nearly all of her movies were financial flops. The low point came when Photoplay magazine labeled her "box office poison." RKO wanted to relegate her to a supporting role in her next film. Frustrated, she bought out the rest of her contract and decided to return to the stage.

Hepburn then approached playwright Philip Barry (she had starred in the film version of his play Holiday two years earlier) and asked him to write the lead character in his next play with her in mind. Barry based that character on the public’s perception of Hepburn at the time. The result was The Philadelphia Story, a fast-paced, sophisticated romantic comedy about love, marriage, individual development, and the American class system. Tracy Lord (Hepburn), a haughty socialite, is about to marry wealthy businessman George Kittredge at her father’s estate. Enter ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven and tabloid reporters Macauley Connor and Liz Imbrie, who all arrive on the eve of the wedding. Tracy learns a much-needed lesson in humility as she is forced to choose between her stuffy fiancé, her fast-talking ex-husband, and the cocky young reporter.

Hepburn, who put up 25 percent of the production costs, co-starred with promising newcomers Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin, who were cast as Haven and Connor respectively. The play opened in March 1939 and was a smash. It ran for a full year and over 400 performances on Broadway, taking in nearly one million dollars at the box office. By the end of its run, Kate had earned close to a half million dollars in salary and profits.

Hepburn now saw her chance to restart her floundering film career. She knew that Hollywood would want to produce a movie version and persuaded billionaire ex-lover Howard Hughes to buy her the film rights. Sure enough, offers came pouring in from the major studios. Warner Brothers offered a pile of money, Errol Flynn as co-star, and Hepburn the role of producer. She was considering their offer when a call came in from Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, the biggest studio in Hollywood. His offer of $250,000 was not the highest, but he agreed to Hepburn’s insistence that she play the lead role and that she could pick the screenwriter (Donald Ogden Stewart), director (George Cukor), and her two male co-stars. She demanded Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, MGM’s two biggest stars, to play Haven and Connor, but both were unavailable due to prior commitments. Mayer suggested James Stewart, who had risen to the Hollywood "A-List" the previous year for his Oscar-nominated role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and then gave Hepburn $150,000 to offer to whomever she wanted for the second lead. She called her old friend Cary Grant, who she had paired well with in three earlier efforts, and offered him his choice of either of the two male leads. He was delighted to accept, selecting the role of Haven. He later donated his entire salary to the British War Relief Fund. Hepburn took a calculated risk and deferred her salary for 45 percent of all profits.

The Philadelphia Story was shot in just eight weeks during the summer of 1940. Reportedly, no retakes were required. The opening scene is one of the most famous in movie history. Playboy husband C. K. Dexter Haven slams the front door of a large mansion and angrily throws his luggage into a parked car. Soon-to-be ex-wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) follows him outside carrying his pipe holder and golf clubs. She smashes the holder and then throws the golf clubs at him, but not before breaking one over her knee. Haven is enraged and raises a fist to hit her but, instead, puts his hand over her face and pushes her down to the floor. Expertly directed by George Cukor, the scene immediately demonstrates the personalities and relationships of the two leads without a single line of dialogue. It also gave audiences the satisfaction of seeing the snooty actress knocked flat on her derriere.

James Stewart was supposedly nervous before shooting a scene where Connor recites love poetry to Tracy, and was sure he would botch the scene. Coincidentally, Noel Coward was visiting the set that day and Cukor asked the famous playwright if he would give Stewart some words of encouragement. Upon meeting Stewart, Coward remarked, "I think you’re a fantastic actor." His confidence bolstered by Coward’s accolade, Stewart went on to perform the scene flawlessly.

The interaction between the three lead actors is brilliant. Before The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant’s roles had been either drama or slapstick comedy. Here he plays Haven as a wisecracking sophisticate, the first time audiences saw him as this character and the type of role for which he is most fondly remembered today. Clark Gable may have been fine but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Cary Grant playing this part. James Stewart drops his usual "aw shucks" boy-next-door demeanour here, revealing a flair for urban comedy, and a sexiness, never seen before.

In spite of the talent of the two male leads, however, this is Katharine Hepburn’s movie. She is perfect in the role that was written specifically for her, delivering witty lines with rapid-fire precision while men fall at her feet. In a well-known scene, Tracy and Connor, more than a little inebriated, go for a late night swim. Afterward, clad only in their bathrobes, Tracy tells Connor that she has the shakes. "It can’t be anything like love, can it?" he asks. "No, no, it musn’t be. It can’t," she implores. "Would it be inconvenient?" he inquires. "Terribly," she moans. The next day, when Kittredge finds out about their rendezvous, he breaks his engagement to Tracy only minutes before the wedding ceremony. Connor impulsively proposes to Tracy and offers to take Kittredge’s place. She gracefully rejects his proposal, and then adds, "But I am beholden to you, Mike. I’m most beholden." Only Katharine Hepburn could believably deliver lines like that. Sadly, this was her only movie with James Stewart and her last film with Cary Grant.

As great as the three stars were, special mention should be made of the fine supporting cast. John Howard shines as George Kitteredge, Tracy’s opportunistic fiancé. Virginia Wielder is hilarious as Tracy’s wisecracking younger sister. In a memorable scene, she performs "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" for Connor and Imbrie, the song made famous when Groucho Marx performed it a year earlier in At The Circus. But it’s Ruth Hussey who almost steals the picture as cool photographer Liz Imbrie. She delivers some terrific lines while she calmly watches her man throw himself at another woman.

Released on December 1, 1940, the movie opened to critical acclaim, breaking box office records around the country. It played Radio City Music Hall for six weeks, breaking attendance records and grossing over $600,000 at that one location.
The following year The Philadelphia Story was honoured with six academy award nominations, including best lead actress (Hepburn), best supporting actress (Hussey), best director (Cukor), best picture, best adapted screenplay (Donald Ogden Stewart), and best actor (James Stewart), winning in the latter two categories. James Stewart later remarked that his Oscar win was "…deferred payment for my work on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Donald Ogden Stewart was not so modest. When he was handed the award he declared, "I have no one to thank but myself." However, years later in his autobiography, he wrote that the original play was so perfect that adapting it was the easiest job he ever had to do in Hollywood.

Hepburn’s gamble had paid off. Almost overnight she was back on top of the Hollywood hierarchy, a position she would occupy for the remainder of her career. Her next movie, Woman of The Year (1942) marked the first of nine screen pairings with Spencer Tracy and the beginning of a romance that would last until his death in 1967.

Often shown on television, The Philadelphia Story has remained popular over the years. In 1995 the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the U. S. National Film Registry.
For the next six decades Kate Hepburn reigned as a beloved movie star, achieving the status of American cultural icon. Today she is remembered for her independence, her outspokenness, and her refusal to sugarcoat her personality at a time when this was expected of movie stars. Later in life, she downplayed her iconic status, stating, "People have grown fond of me, like an old building." Perhaps, but if not for the success of The Philadelphia Story nearly 70 years ago, she might be little more than a Hollywood footnote today.


© Richard Neal 2008
richardneal91 at hotmail.com
 

Richard is an emerging writer living in Vancouver, Canada. I also write travel articles and short fiction and published on www.travelthruhistory.com.
 


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