The Philadelphia Story: An All-Time Screwball Classic

James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

George Cukor teams up with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in the classic romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story.

Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are three of the biggest screen legends of all time.  In fact, Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor.  This is in part because of Stewart losing for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one year earlier.  Donald Ogden Stewart picked up an Oscar for his screenplay.  In addition to the two wins, there were four other nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) used to be married to Dexter Haven (Cary Grant).  Two years later, she is engaged to George Kittredge (John Howard).  Spy publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) assigns Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover the wedding.  It helps the magazine that Lord’s ex-husband, Dexter, is working for them.  Naturally, he can get them inside the celebrations.  Tracy eventually relents and lets them cover but she’s none to pleased to see Dexter again.  Tracy’s mother and sister are more than happy to see Dexter.  But as the plot moves forward, Tracy finds herself torn between three men: Dexter, Mike, and George.  It’s quite the pickle!

All three actors have amazing chemistry together in the film.  It’s taken several viewings to really pick up on the film’s Broadway roots.  Funny enough, Philip Barry had written the stage play in mind for Katharine Hepburn.  Donald Ogden Stewart opens up the play to an extent but manages to keep the laughs in the film.  Not only did Hepburn star in the play but she would reprise her starring role in the film.  Hepburn really needed the play to turn her career around.  Up to this point, she had been considered by some to be “box office poison.”  The play worked and the rest is history.  As a side note, Bringing Up Baby is one of the failures but the film has gone onto become a comedy classic.

It’s a tame film when you watch it today.  But given the strictness of the Production Code, you really don’t have much options.  Joseph Breen was strict in his views and so this means either going forward with a marriage to George or remarrying Dexter.  During this time in history, you could get away with more on stage than in the movies.  One character is completely missing from the film so as to help build up some of the characters.  In spite of this, the film doesn’t miss a punch.

The Philadelphia Story could have been a completely different film.  In other universe, Hepburn would be acting opposite Spencer Tracy (Mike Connor) and Clark Gable (Dexter Haven).  Can you imagine this?!?  While MGM head Louis B. Mayer had no problem with Cukor directing, Tracy and Gable were a no-go.  It’s perplexing that Tracy turned down the role because and Hepburn became a screen team for the ages.  In any event, Mayer gave the okay for actor James Stewart but it was up to Hepburn to cast the other leading co-star.  The only catch was that only $150,000 was available.  Hepburn turned to Cary Grant for the other leading role.  Grant accepted the role on the condition that he be given top billing.  He also would donate his salary to the war effort.  A mentsh!

Regarding Hepburn’s wardrobe, she had to personally convince Mayer that Americans would not have a problem with her wearing a pantsuit.  Adrian designed it himself and this wasn’t the only wardrobe battle with MGM through the years.

Almost 80 years to the date after its theatrical release, The Philadelphia Story remains one of the best screwball comedies of all time.

DIRECTOR:  George Cukor
SCREENWRITER:  Donald Ogden Stewart
CAST:  Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, with Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler

MGM opened The Philadelphia Story in theaters on December 26, 1940. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.