Philadelphia Story, The (1940): Masterpiece Screwball from George Cukor, Starring Hepburn, Stewart (Oscar Winner), and Cary Grant in Top Form

Acclaimed playwright Philip Barry wrote his great romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, especially for Katharine Hepburn, shaping it to her strengths and eccentricities.

The play in which she had starred opened on Broadway on March 29, 1939 and ran for about a year, with 416 performances.

Its critical and commercial success was a huge personal triumph, much needed for Hepburn, after being labeled “box-office poison” in Hollywood in the late 1930s.

All the major studios wanted to buy the play, but Hepburn, in a shrewd move, purchased the screen rights with the help of William Hurst. Hepburn cleverly had written into the contract a stipulation that her two leading men should be stars with marquee value, preferably Gable and Tracy. Instead, the film was made with James Stewart and Cary Grant. Ironically, neither actor was considered top-notch at the time, but perfectly cast, both men went on to become Hollywood icons.

From the beginning, it was tacitly understood that George Cukor would direct the film, not least because their previous collaboration on a 1938 screen version of Barry’s Holiday was a critical success. Hepburn and Cukor talked about this film from the moment she had secured the rights, and having seen the play numerous times on Broadway, Cukor knew it inside out.

Cukor sent MGM producer Joseph Mankiewicz to New York City to record a stage performance to determine where precisely the laughs–big and small ones–came. Then, checking out the film against the recording, Cukor realized that the laughs wound up in very different places than he had expected.  In the theater, Barry’s verbal wit carried the play, but in the movie, a Cukor’s comedy was more visual and the fun derived from the actors’ physical gestures, beginning with the great silent beginning.

Knowing that Barry had a specific vision of the locale and the characters, Cukor genuinely sought his input, showing again his respect for the written word.  It would be a great help, Cukor wrote the playwright, if Barry sends a description of precisely what he envisioned the Lord House to be–its decorating style, room size, garden, furnishings.  He wanted to know if the house was patterned after any particular structure in a particular town?  But, surprisingly, all Barry asked from Cukor was not to overdo the play.  The house should be impressive, but not forbidding, handsome but warm. Barry’s comments indeed influenced Cukor’s vision of sets that were understated.

This was the third time Cukor worked with Grant and Hepburn, but it was the first (and only) one with Jimmy Stewart.  Thus, when Stewart was struggling with his big romantic line to Hepburn, “You’ve got hearth fires banked down in you,” Cukor told the actor to do the scene in a simpler way, not as if he were just about to run away to the circus. Unfortunately, just before Stewart got his line right, Noel Coward stepped onto the set and Jimmy nearly collapsed. Aware of Stewart’s shyness, Coward went up to the actor and told him how fantastic his acting was. “Roll them,” said Cukor, taking advantage of this genuine moment of flattery.

Cukor found Stewart to be most agreeable to work with, but there was a problematic scene in which he had to swim. “If I appear in a bathing suit,” he told Cukor, “I know it’s the end of my career and also the end of the motion picture industry.” Cukor decided to shoot the scene in a long take, unlike the way he shot Hepburn jumping into the pool and swimming; Hepburn was known for her natural physical fitness and love of swimming in cold-water pools.

Ruth Hussey, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the wisecracking photojournalist, told me she had learned more about acting from Cukor than from any other director she had worked with.  “He’d take you aside after a scene,” she remembered, “and discuss it with you, the motivations, what went before, or what’s coming after.” Most of the comments were made in privacy, not in front of the cast, so as not to embarrass or intimidate the actor.  Cukor had a lot of time to talk, while the crew was rearranging the technical things. “Cukor didn’t say, `Well, let’s try it again,’ as other directors do when they don’t know what they want. Cukor knew exactly what he wanted.”

“Unless something awful went on, he would do 4 or 5 takes. Cukor’s corrections were more like, `a little more color,’ or `a little more depth,’ or `Lighten it up a bit.'” According to Hussey, “Cukor gave you a feeling he was really concerned. He wanted you to do well for your own sake as well as his. He spent a lot of time with the actors, demanding more detail from their characterization.” Cukor’s mouthing of her part, as she was doing it herself, surprised Hussey as it did other actors. “The expressions on his face were hilarious,” she said, “If I was supposed to be smiling, he was smiling. If I was frowning, he was frowning. He just acted the whole thing. He was the only director I ever knew who did that.” At first, she found it disconcerting, because “your mind is on him, instead of on what you’re supposed to be doing, but then you got used to it.”

The shoot of The Philadelphia Story, which was smooth and pleasant for all concerned, completed on August 14, 1940.  After a short and efficient editing process, the movie opened the day after Christmas at Radio City Music Hall.

By January 21, 1941, the Music Hall announced that the film had broken the all-time attendance record, previously held by Disney’s Snow White.  A commitment to exhibit Hitchcock’s Rebecca forced Radio City to end Philadelphia Story’s run after six weeks.  But in those six weeks, every show was sold out, with 850,000 people seeing the movie in N.Y.C. alone.

Oscar Context

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart
Actor: Jimmy Stewart
Actress: Katharine Hepburn
Supporting Actress: Ruth Hussey

Oscar Awards: 2


Oscar Context:

The Philadelphia Story competed for the top Oscar with nine other films: Foreign Correspondent, All This and Heaven Too, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, and Rebecca, which won.

This is Jimmy Stewart’s first and only Oscar Award, though he was nominated several times.