Philadelphia Story, The (1940): Cukor’s Sublime Roamntic Comedy of Remarriage–and Alcohol

Philip Barry wrote his great romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, especially for Katharine Hepburn, shaping it to her strengths and eccentricities. The play opened on Broadway on March 29, 1939 and ran for 416 performances. Its critical and commercial success was a personal triumph for Hepburn.

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.

Cukor believed in letting comedy happen on the screen, allowing the material to determine its tempo. He was pleased by complaints from his friends that the audience’s laughter drowned out many funny moments. “Well, go and see it again,” Cukor would say.

Cukor saw the play as a fairy tale with a moral: Tracy Lord meets her prince, but gums it up and has to rediscover her own humanity. The story is about a smart, cold-blooded, hot-tempered girl who is transformed into a human being. The priggish Tracy, contemptuous of everyone who doesn’t live up to her high standards, needs to learn humility and tolerance of other people’s lapses.

What distinguishes The Philadelphia Story as a comedy is its suspense. Up to the last moment, the viewers are not sure whom Tracy is going to marry. As to its comedy, it derives from Tracy’s dilemma: In love with three different men, she behaves as if it’s the most important problem in the world, but only Tracy sees the situation as tragic. Cukor knew that the film’s effectiveness depended on Hepburn as a high-strung thoroughbred who must win the audience’s hearts. Orchestrating what is possibly Hepburn’s greatest screen performance, Cukor brought forth her radiance, beauty, and intelligence.

Both Holiday and The Philadelphia Story contain a lot of dialogue, but Cukor made sure that his films wouldn’t be stagebound. For him, the first thing in transferring a play to the screen was not to discombobulate the original or tear it apart. Cukor saw his challenge in finding a new movement in the play for the screen, thus treating the dialogue of The Philadelphia Story as action.

Doubtful whether Barry was the best person to adapt his play to the screen, Cukor turned to Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Barry, with whom he had worked successfully before. Stewart handled the play with great modesty, serving the material effectively. His subtle work was deservedly honored with an Oscar that year for best screen adaptation.

Cukor shot a new, brilliant prologue–without uttering one single line–which sums up the way the marriage between Hepburn and Cary Grant ended, and also conveys Hepburn’s fury when Grant reappears on the eve of her wedding. In the opening scene, Grant walks out of the house carrying a bag of golf clubs. Hepburn appears at the doorway, carrying a club he’s forgotten, but instead of giving it to him, she breaks it in two. Furious, Grant advances on her as if he’s going to hit her–then simply gives her a contemptuous push that sends her into a pratfall.

When Jimmy 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.

Cukor showed more stylistic authority over The Philadelphia Story than in the past. His camera movement was elegant and smooth, based on his firm belief that the audience should not be aware of camera tricks. Cukor’s rule of thumb was that, “unless you have to move the camera, unless it does something for you, be quiet. When you do cut, you have to do it delicately, not too adventurously. You mustn’t show off with the camera.”

His philosophy was to serve the text, to do a movie as smoothly and inconspicuously as possible. “If you’re going to do a story about a murder in a Victorian house,” he said about Gaslight, “you make it claustrophobic, clouded.” You research the period,” he told Lambert, “not just to reproduce things physically, but for the emotions to stir up.” “The text dictates the whole style, which may not be to the director’s advantage, because it means his touch is not immediately recognizable.”

The shoot of The Philadelphia Story completed on August 14, 1940, and 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, held by Disney’s Snow White. A commitment to exhibit 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 New York City alone.

Philadelphia Story: It Sells Liquor More than Advertising

Cukor was amused, but taken aback, by the inadvertent effects of Philadelphia Story on liquor consumption. One critic complained that it was a story about smart folks trying to cure their emotional blindness with alcohol: “The W.C.T.U. doesn’t know it, but it ought to stop this film, because it sells liquor better than any million-dollar advertising campaigns.”

This kind of criticism surprised Cukor for the effect was unintended. At the same time, the prevalence of sympathetic alcoholics in Cukor’s oeuvre is noteworthy. He himself refrained from drinking; in his parties, he would have one cocktail before dinner. But all his life Cukor was surrounded with people who liked to drink; some, like Barrymore and Tracy, had drinking problem.

This first-hand familiarity with alcoholics was reflected in his movies, many of which contain alcoholic characters. There are the heroes of Dinner at Eight and What Price Hollywood, and liquor features prominently in Holiday and Philadelphia Story. Later in the decade, Tracy would play an alcoholic tyrant-father in Edward My Son, and James Mason a dipsomaniac actor in A Star Is Born. Cukor shows sympathy and understanding in his fresh portraits of alcoholics, refraining from the more familiar Hollywood cliches.

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.