It's been two years since Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) divorced her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy is about to remarry. Her fiance is George Kittredge (John Howard), an up-and-comer who is completely different from the wealthy Dexter. Tracy, however, is not happy. She seethes with resentment towards Dexter, and towards her father, Seth Lord (John Halliday), who has been cavorting with a dancer in New York City. So, when Dexter shows up the day before her wedding with two reporters from the scandal sheet "Spy Magazine" in tow, Tracy is ready to give Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) the ride of their lives.
TCM Presents for February was the delightful The Philadelphia Story (1940). Katharine Hepburn is perfection as the intolerant Tracy, a woman of strict principle who finds herself torn among 3 men on the eve of her wedding. She never misses a step as Tracy discovers the true meaning of love as her inhibitions fall away.
Katharine Hepburn came to Hollywood to star in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) with John Barrymore. Two years later, she won her first (of four) Oscars for Morning Glory. But, by 1938, with her films not doing well, she bought out her contract, and departed from Hollywood (after she was included in a list of actors termed Box Office Poison), Ms. Hepburn returned to New York, where she appeared in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story, a play which had been written by Philip Barry with her in mind. The play was a huge hit (it ran for 417 performances in New York, then opened on National Tour). All the major studios wanted it, but there was a catch. With the help of her friend Howard Hughes, Ms. Hepburn had purchased the rights to the play. No film would be made without her in the lead, and without her approval of her leading men. MGM bit the bullet, and bought the film, hired Philip Barry to write the screenplay, and (with Ms. Hepburn's approval) hired Cary Grant to play Dexter (even with his high salary demands and insistence on top billing!) This Philadelphia Magazine article has more behind-the-scenes information on the production. For more on Ms. Hepburn's fascinating life and career, check out her autobiography Me, and the authorized biography that was published just after her death, Kate Remembered by A Scott Berg.
James Stewart is equally good as the angry young man who disrupts Tracy's life, a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Spencer Tracy (they had not yet met). Mr. Stewart brings both a swagger and sass to Macauley Connor. He begins by resenting Tracy and all she represents, but ends deeply infatuated with her. Mr. Stewart would win his only Best Actor Oscar for his work in this film. His scenes with all three of his co-stars crackle with energy.
Cary Grant, however, was NOT nominated for his role as Dexter. Why will always be a mystery to me. He is wonderful (as always) in a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Clark Gable. She asked Mr. Grant to appear when Gable was unavailable, and he agreed - provided he got top billing and a salary of $137,000 (which was given to British War Relief) (TCM article). As with their three prior parings (Sylvia Scarlet (1935), Holiday (1938), and Bringing Up Baby(1938)), their interplay is dynamic. There is an ease in their conversations that make them all the more real. Mr. Grant is equally adept at sparring with Mr. Stewart. And his scenes with Virginia Weidler (as Tracy's younger sister Dinah Lord) are a pleasure to watch.
The other nominated actor in the film is the always excellent Ruth Hussey (best supporting actress). If you have never encountered Ms. Hussey, treat yourself with this film or with The Uninvited (1944). There is a world-weariness to Liz, but it has not eliminated her hope for a future with Mike. Ms. Hussey began her career in Providence, RI as a radio commentator. She eventually moved to New York where she modeled, and found jobs with theatrical touring companies. That got her an MGM contract, where she appeared films such as The Women (1939), Another Thin Man (1939), and H.M. Pulham, Esq (1941). She also appeared on Broadway in State of the Union (in the role Katharine Hepburn would play on film), and Goodbye, My Fancy (Joan Crawford's movie outing). Ms. Hussey appeared on radio and television as well until her retirement in 1973. She was married for 60 years to talent agent Bob Longenecker until his death in 2002; the couple had three children. She died in 2005, following an appendectomy, at the age of 93.
Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for adapted screenplay, and director George Cukor was nominated. The film is listed as #44 in the100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (interestingly, the rating went up from the original list, where it appeared at #51). It's also #44 on the 100 Years, 100 Passions list. In 1995, it was added to the National Film Registry.
The Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film twice: in July, 1942, with the original cast, and in June, 1943 with Robert Taylor, Robert Young, and Loretta Young. (AFI catalog). It would be remade as the musical High Society in 1956, starring Gracy Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm, with glorious music by Cole Porter. The New York Times review was glowing when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall, and quite honestly, what's not to love. We'll leave you with the trailer to this outstanding film: