“I’m contemptuous of something inside of you you either can’t help, or make no attempt to; your so-called ‘strength,’ your prejudice against weakness, your blank intolerance. You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact. “
After the election results kept coming in last week and all eyes were on Pennsylvania, and particularly on the city of Brotherly Love, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tracy Lord – the main character in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). She’s the haughty heiress with the overly taxing nature and a disdain for the press – who through the progress of the movie is brought down to size – or at least humanized – by the redemptive power of love. This 80 year-old classic comedy is requisite viewing.
“Let’s forget about the past. We deserve some happiness now,” exclaims Tracy. Two years ago she divorced C.K. Dexter Haven because she couldn’t tolerate his drinking nor live up to her expectations. She’s engaged to George Kittredge – a self-made tycoon who is now running one of her dad’s companies. We know from the get go he’s the unsuitable man for her. Their upcoming nuptials are the society event of the year. A tabloid wants the exclusive (an intimate day with a society bride), and its publisher – Sidney Kidd — blackmails Dexter into helping reporter Mike Connor and photographer Liz infiltrate the nuptials. What transpires is screwball comedy heaven.
Katherine Hepburn had become “box office poison” despite having done terrific work in “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday” both in 1938. She bought out her contract with RKO Pictures and set out to rebuild her stature and career. Philip Barry (author of the play “Holiday”) wrote a new play that was written specifically to showcase Hepburn’s best qualities – her comedic skills and intelligence, and her tough façade that sheltered a fiery vulnerability. Barry based the character of the heiress on socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott whom he knew. Hepburn agreed to return to Broadway as long as she would get 45% of the profits. Her role as Tracy Lord turned out to be her ticket back to stardom. Her boyfriend at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the rights to the play – which she parlayed into a production with MGM –along with her pick of director (good friend Geoge Cukor) and co-stars (Cary Grant and James Stewart). The rest is history.
“I don’t want to be worshiped. I want to be loved,” expresses Tracy. She’s autonomous, proud, confrontational and alluring. Tracy is the epitome of strength, aristocracy and free-spirited elegance, and she has set for herself and for others some very high standards. She lacks what her father calls “an understanding heart.” But below all the bravado, she wants to shed some of the masks she’s been wearing. One of the aspects of this film I admire is how the legendary costume designer Adrian calibrates Tracy’s journey. Notice the sculpted, haute couture Hepburn wears when you first see her. In the second scene she moves to a pantsuit with a playful woolen nightcap to go to the library. Then at the pool she literally sheds her clothes – and wraps herself in a white sculpted wrap that contours her body and gives her the look of a goddess. The last outfit affirms her warmth and openness.
“You know champagne’s funny stuff. I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey’s a slap on the back and champagne’s a heavy mist before my eyes,” says Mike. It is champagne consumption that triggers all the complications. Joseph Ruttenberg’s camera becomes intoxicated with a close-up of Hepburn resting her head on the car seat and Grant nestling next to her. Stewart – who won the Academy Award for Best Actor – will get the hiccups and end up in a garden flirting with Hepburn as well. Another Ruttenberg close up on the goddess who looks more beautiful than ever.
As witty as the conversation is, Cukor’s direction excels in the physicality of the scenes. The opening – all done without words – shows you Grant ready to sock Hepburn, only to push her to the floor with his open hand. Only Grant could get away with something like this. Hepburn high diving into the pool. Stewart and Hepburn drunk dancing. Stewart repeatedly shouting Grant’s character’s name “C. K. Dexter Haaaaaven!” And a last minute frantic wedding cancellation that turns into vow exchanges. “Golly…Golly Moses.”
Mike: “The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart
Based on the play by Philip Barry
Directed by George Cukor
Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey
The Making of “The Philadelphia Story”
“The Philadelphia Story” was based on a screenplay by Phillip Barry who wrote the play specifically for Katharine Hepburn. The actress was so impressed with the script she agreed to finance part of the stage production herself and did not draw a salary. She did receive a portion of the profits which were significant due to the play’s huge success on Broadway. This came at a critical point in Hepburn’s career which had faltered during the previous few years. In 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America after several commercial failures. Realizing the potential of “The Philadelphia Story,” Hepburn purchased the motion picture rights to the property and approached Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, with a deal. She agreed to sell Mayer the rights to the property for the very modest amount of $250,000, in exchange for the authority to select her own director, screenwriter and cast. Securing control over the production, Hepburn chose George Cukor to direct. The two had worked together in Hepburn’s first film role, “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932) and then again in the 1933 version of “Little Women.” Hepburn chose Donald Ogden Stewart to write. He was a friend of Philip Barry’s and was a master at preserving an original play’s integrity when adapting it to the screen.
Hepburn approached Cary Grant for the role of Tracy’s former husband and Grant accepted on two conditions. First, that he receive top billing and second, that he be paid $137,000 which was considered an extremely generous salary at the time. Interestingly, upon receiving his salary, Grant donated the entire amount to the British War Relief Fund. Hepburn had become interested in Jimmy Stewart for the part of the newshound ever since the actor had received accolades and an Oscar® nomination for his portrayal of an idealistic senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the previous year. When the film was released, it broke the previous box office record held at Radio City Music Hall where it earned $600,000 in six weeks. It also proved that Katharine Hepburn knew how to deliver a hit when given the opportunity and was just the opposite of box office poison. “The Philadelphia Story” also did well at the Academy Awards® that year. The film earned 6 nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Jimmy Stewart scored a Best Actor Oscar to the surprise of many including the actor himself who stated that he had voted for Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Many thought the Academy was trying to make amends for not awarding Stewart the Oscar® for his role in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the prior year. Donald Ogden Stewart was not so modest upon receiving his award for Best Screenplay. When given the prized statuette, the writer declared, “I have no one to thank but myself!” (tcm.com)
About Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. Ruttenberg moved to the United States as a child. He began his career as a news photographer in Boston. He produced his own newsreels in 1914 and the following year went to work as a cameraman at the old Fox studio in New York. Moved to Hollywood. In 1935 he moved to Hollywood to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he was to remain for most of his career. His films included, ”A Day at the Races” (1937), ”Random Harvest” (1942), ”Madame Curie” (1943), ”The Great Caruso” (1951), ”Julius Caesar” (1953), ”The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954), ”The Prodigal” (1955), ”Kismet” (1955), ”The Swan” (1956), ”Invitation to the Dance” (1956), ”Green Mansions” (1959), ”The Wreck of the Mary Deare” (1959), ”Butterfield 8” (1960) and ”Speedway” (1968)…Ruttenberg…won Oscars for ”The Great Waltz” (1938), ”Mrs. Miniver” (1942), ”Somebody Up There Likes Me,” (1956) and ”Gigi” (1959)…Mr. Ruttenberg…was nominated for six other Academy Awards, was best known for glamorous movies and for those that evoked atmosphere. ”The Women” (1939), with such stars as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard, was an example of the former, as were ”The Philadelphia Story” (1940) and ”Two-Faced Woman (1941). Examples of the latter were ”Fury” (1936), ”Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941) and ”Gaslight” (1944), which he considered his best work…Mr. Ruttenberg was noted for his knack of making black-and-white photography seem almost three-dimensional. He also worked on the development of sound for pictures and with George Eastman to develop color film for the movies. (nytimes.com)
About Author Philip Barry
Philip Barry was born on June 18, 1896 in Rochester, N.Y. Barry was educated at Yale and in 1919 entered George Pierce Baker’s Workshop 47 at Harvard. His “A Punch for Judy” was produced by the workshop in 1920. “You and I,” also written while Barry was a student, played 170 performances on Broadway in 1923. Over the next 20 years a succession of plays included such comedies as “Paris Bound” (1927), “Holiday” (1928), “The Animal Kingdom” (1932), and “The Philadelphia Story” (1939). They are characterized by witty and graceful dialogue and humorous contrasts of character or situation. Many of them use a triangle theme or conflicts between the generations to point up, with almost tender satire, various truths about human nature. Barry’s thoughtful approach to life is apparent in “White Wings” (1926), a fantasy considered by some critics Barry’s best play; “John” (1927), a drama about John the Baptist; “Hotel Universe” (1930), a penetrating psychological study; and “Here Come the Clowns” (1938), an allegory of good and evil. His final play, “Second Threshold” (1951), revised by Robert E. Sherwood after Barry’s death, combines his flair for social comedy and his preoccupation with more serious drama. (britannica.com)
About Director George Cukor
Cukor was born in Manhattan to a family of Hungarian Jewish descent. He took an early interest in the theatre and began his professional show-business career in 1919 as a stage manager of a theatre troupe in Chicago. In the early 1920s he spent summers in Rochester, New York, as the resident director of his own stock company and worked winters on Broadway in New York City, where he directed the first stage production of “The Great Gatsby” in 1926. After moving to Los Angeles in 1929, he became the dialogue director for Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). Under contract to Paramount, Cukor codirected three films before receiving his first solo directorial credit, for “Tarnished Lady” (1931)…featuring stage star Tallulah Bankhead. After directing “Girls About Town” (1931), he replaced Ernst Lubitsch (who had taken ill) as the director of the Jeanette MacDonald–Maurice Chevalier musical romance “One Hour with You” (1932), only to have Lubitsch return and take over. When Lubitsch ended up with the director credit over Cukor’s objections, Cukor left Paramount to join RKO and producer David O. Selznick, whom he had known in New York. There he made “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), which established the template for William Wellman’s “A Star Is Born” (1937) and its remakes (including Cukor’s 1954 version)… “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932) followed but was notable only as the film debut of Katharine Hepburn, with whom Cukor would collaborate nine more times. Cukor’s next significant film, “Dinner at Eight (1933), was made while he was on loan to MGM. An adaptation of the play of the same name by George S. Kaufman andEdna Ferber, it boasted a star-studded cast that included Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Marie Dressler as well as John and Lionel Barrymore. That triumph was followed by “Little Women” (1933), based on Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War-era novel, with Hepburn, Bennett, Jean Parker, and Francis Dee. It was a major box-office success and earned Cukor his first Academy Award nomination for best director. Following Selznick to MGM, Cukor directed “David Copperfield” (1935)… Like “Little Women,” it was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, further establishing Cukor’s credentials as one of Hollywood’s premier young talents.
“Sylvia Scarlett” (1935) reunited Cukor with Hepburn, whose character masquerades as a boy and is taken under the wing of a Victorian-era cockney con artist played by Cary Grant. Because the film bombed commercially, Hepburn began to be perceived as “box-office poison.” Cukor’s next film, “Romeo and Juliet” (1936), was one of Irving Thalberg’s last productions… “Camille” (1937), came next with Greta Garbo earning an Academy Award nomination for best actress…Hepburn and Grant then played would-be lovers who must defy society’s conventions to be together in “Holiday” (1938), Cukor’s adaptation of Philip Barry’s play…Indeed, it was long a staple of Hollywood lore that Cukor was fired as the director of “Gone with the Wind” (1939) as a result of homophobic obstinance on the part of male lead Clark Gable. It is now more widely held that that was a canard and that producer Selznick fired Cukor for his own reasons, primarily his feeling that Cukor was taking too long to make the film. In either case Cukor’s next film, “The Women” (1939), was a big hit. An adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce’s comedy of the same name, it featured a stellar female cast that included Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Hedda Hopper. Arguably, Cukor’s most lasting contribution to cinema history was the romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), in which Hepburn repeated her role from the stage play that had been written especially for her by Barry. She played a socialite, Grant portrayed her ex-husband, and James Stewart was a reporter; together they created screen magic. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture, Cukor was nominated for best director, and Hepburn was nominated for best actress, while Stewart won the award for best actor. Less distinguished were the other films that Cukor directed before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942: “Susan and God” (1940), “A Woman’s Face” (1941), “Two-Faced Woman” (1941), “Her Cardboard Lover” (1942), and “Keeper of the Flame” (1942). Cukor entered the Signal Corps as a private, where he made unadorned instructional films (including one about latrines and another about electricity). He was never promoted to the officer status he desired, and he finally applied for a discharge. Back in Hollywood, Cukor filmed “Gaslight” (1944), his acclaimed adaptation of the Broadway success “Angel Street,” which he fashioned into a Gothic thriller that received an Academy Award nomination for best picture and which was a showcase for Ingrid Bergman, who won the Academy Award for best actress…Angela Lansbury (in her film debut) also received a nomination, for best supporting actress.
Cukor’s next noteworthy film, “A Double Life” (1947), brought Ronald Colman his only Academy Award, for best actor for his portrayal of a high-strung actor whose role as Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name begins to take over his real life. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, inaugurating a series of collaborations between them and Cukor, who was nominated again for the best director award. Yet another performer, Deborah Kerr, earned an Academy Award nomination for best actress under Cukor’s direction in “Edward, My Son” (1949). Kanin and Gordon provided Cukor with an especially engaging story for “Adam’s Rib” (1949), which the director turned into a riotously funny battle of the sexes that many critics believe was the strongest Spencer Tracy-Hepburn collaboration. Cukor’s direction of Lana Turner in “A Life of Her Own” (1950) created few sparks, but he guided Judy Holliday to a best actress Academy Award for her performance of a role that she had played on Broadway in “Born Yesterday” (also 1950), which also earned a nomination for best picture and one for Cukor for best director. Kanin and Gordon’s script for “The Marrying Kind” (1952) was far darker, as Holliday and Aldo Ray played a couple poised on the brink of divorce. That was followed by… “Pat and Mike” (1952), with Tracy and Hepburn again splendid as a sports promoter and a high-class multitalented athlete, respectively. Its Kanin-Gordon screenplay earned an Academy Award nomination. Cukor’s next projects were built on screenplays that Gordon and Kanin wrote independently of each other. “The Actress” (1953) was based on Gordon’s autobiographical play about growing up in Massachusetts. “It Should Happen to You” (1954) starred Holliday in Kanin’s modern fairy tale about an ambitious model’s extraordinary efforts to get noticed in New York City. Not only was the musical drama “A Star Is Born” (1954) plagued by a surfeit of production problems, but Warner Brothers cut 27 minutes after its premiere. Nevertheless, that re-exploration of a story line that Cukor had first examined in “What Price Hollywood?” featured what is generally regarded as star Judy Garland’s strongest screen performance and one that earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Cukor worked with screenwriter “Moss Hart” to transform the 1937 version of “A Star Is Born” into a harrowing Hollywood odyssey. That was Cukor’s first Technicolor (and Cinemascope) production. In addition to a memorable collection of songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, it boasted excellent work from Jack Carson and James Mason, the latter of whom earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
Cukor traveled to Pakistan to make “Bhowani Junction” (1956), with Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger. He then directed the highly stylized musical “Les Girls” (1957), featuring Mitzi Gaynor, Henry Daniell, and Gene Kelly. “Heller in Pink Tights” (1960), which starred Sophia Loren, was notable as Cukor’s only western. “Let’s Make Love” (1960) offered Marilyn Monroe the opportunity to sing, dance, and romance co-star Yves Montand, and Cukor extracted one of her best performances. Cukor worked with Monroe again in 1962 on “Something’s Got to Give;” however, insoluble problems with the troubled actress (who would soon be dead) culminated in her firing, and 20th Century-Fox eventually shut down the production entirely. “My Fair Lady” (1964), with Audrey Hepburn in the role that Julie Andrews had created onstage, enjoyed a much better fate, winning the Academy Award for best picture. Rex Harrison also won the award for best actor, and Cukor was finally recognized with the award for best director… “My Fair Lady” was his first box-office triumph in many years. Over the next 17 years Cukor made only a handful of films, two of them for television. Despite Maggie Smith’s nomination for an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in a role originally intended for Katharine Hepburn, “Travels with My Aunt “(1972) was unexceptional. Only “Love Among the Ruins” (1975), a made-for-television romantic comedy shot in England with Hepburn and Laurence Olivier, and “The Corn Is Green” (1979), also made for television, with Katharine Hepburn in the role of a spinster school teacher in Wales, were on par with Cukor’s earlier work. His last film – “Rich and Famous” (1981), a remake of the 1943 melodrama “Old Acquaintance,” with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen…” (britannica.com)