The Philadelphia Story (film)

The Philadelphia Story is a 1940 American romantic comedy film[2][3] directed by George Cukor, starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart, and featuring Ruth Hussey. Based on the Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry,[4] the film is about a socialite whose wedding plans are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and a tabloid magazine journalist. The socialite character of the play—performed by Hepburn in the film—was inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904–1995), a Philadelphia socialite known for her hijinks, who married a friend of playwright Barry.[5]

The Philadelphia Story
Theatrical poster
Directed byGeorge Cukor
Produced byJoseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay byDonald Ogden Stewart
Waldo Salt (uncredited)
Based onThe Philadelphia Story 1939 play
by Philip Barry
StarringCary Grant
Katharine Hepburn
James Stewart
Ruth Hussey
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyJoseph Ruttenberg
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • December 26, 1940 (1940-12-26)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.3 million[1]

Written for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and an uncredited Waldo Salt, it is considered one of the best examples of a comedy of remarriage, a genre popular in the 1930s and 1940s, in which a couple divorce, flirt with outsiders, and then remarry—a useful story-telling ploy at a time when the depiction of extramarital affairs was blocked by the Production Code.

The film was Hepburn's first big hit following several flops, which had led to her being included on a 1938 list that Manhattan movie theater owner Harry Brandt compiled of actors considered to be "box office poison".[6] Hepburn acquired the film rights to the play, which she had also starred in, with the help of Howard Hughes[7] in order to control it as a vehicle for her screen comeback.[8] According to a Turner Broadcasting documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars, after MGM purchased the film rights, they were skeptical about Hepburn's box office appeal, so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Louis B. Mayer took an unusual precaution by casting two A-list male stars (Grant and Stewart) to support Hepburn. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the film won two: James Stewart for Best Actor, and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was remade in 1956 as a musical, retitled High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra.

The Philadelphia Story was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1995.


Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is the elder daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line socialite family. She was married to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a yacht designer and member of her social set, but divorced him two years prior, because he did not measure up to the exacting standards she sets for all her friends and family: He drank too much for her taste, and as she became critical of him, he drank more. Now, she is about to marry nouveau riche "man of the people" George Kittredge (John Howard).

Spy magazine publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) is eager to cover the wedding, and assigns reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). He can get them into the affair with the assistance of Dexter Haven, who has been working for Spy in South America. Dexter will introduce them as friends of Tracy's brother Junius (a U.S. diplomat in Argentina). Tracy is not fooled, but Dexter tells her that Kidd threatens the family with an innuendo-laden article about her father Seth's affair with a dancer. Tracy deeply resents her father's infidelity, which has caused her parents to live separately. To protect her family's reputation, she agrees to let Mike and Liz stay.

Dexter is welcomed back with open arms by Tracy's mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and teenage sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler), much to her annoyance. In addition, she gradually discovers that Mike has admirable qualities, and she even takes the trouble to find his book of short stories in the public library. As the wedding nears, she finds herself torn among George, Dexter, and Mike.

The night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time in her life, and takes an innocent midnight swim with Mike. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterward, he thinks the worst. The next day, he tells her that he was shocked and feels entitled to an explanation before going ahead with the wedding. She takes exception to his lack of faith in her, and breaks off the engagement. Then she realizes that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike volunteers to marry her (much to Liz's distress), but she graciously declines. She also realizes, for the first time, that she is not perfect and should not constantly condemn others for their weaknesses. At this point, Dexter offers to marry her again, and she gladly accepts.



"Everyone had enormous fun on the movie. The days and nights were sweltering that summer of 1940, but nobody cared. Cary got along very well with Kate Hepburn. She enjoyed him pushing her through a doorway in one scene (so she fell over backward) so much that she had him do it to her over and over again. There was a scene in which she had to throw Cary out the door of a house, bag and baggage, and she did it so vigorously he fell over and was bruised. As he stood up, looking rueful, Kate said, "That'll serve you right, Cary, for trying to be your own stuntman."

—Cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, recalling The Philadelphia Story (1940).[9]

Broadway playwright Barry[10] wrote the play specifically for Hepburn, who ended up backing the play, and forgoing a salary in return for a percentage of its profits.[11] Her co-stars were Joseph Cotten as Dexter Haven, Van Heflin as Mike Connor, and Shirley Booth as Liz Imbrie.[4]

The original play, starring Hepburn, ran for 417 performances.[4] It made over $1 million in box office sales and later went on to tour, performing another 250 times and making over $750,000 in sales. The play also originally featured another character named Sandy. However that role was eliminated for the movie to make more room for the character development of Mike.

At this time, Hepburn hoped to create a film vehicle for herself which would erase the label of "box office poison" that she had acquired after a number of commercial failures (including the classic Bringing Up Baby). So, she happily accepted the film rights to the play from Howard Hughes, who had bought them for her. She then convinced MGM's Mayer to buy them from her for only $250,000, in return for Hepburn having veto over producer, director, screenwriter, and cast.[8][11]

Hepburn selected director George Cukor, in whose films A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Little Women (1933) she had acted, and Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Barry's and a specialist at adapting plays to the big screen, as writer.[11]

Hepburn wanted Clark Gable to play Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy to play Mike Connor, but both had other commitments. Grant agreed to play the part on condition that he be given top billing, and that his salary would be $137,000, which he donated to the British War Relief Society.[12] The pairing of Cukor and Gable would have been problematic in any case, as they had not gotten along on the recent Gone with the Wind, and Cukor had been replaced with Victor Fleming, who was a friend of Gable's.

The film was in production from July 5 to August 14, 1940[13] at MGM's studios in Culver City.[14] It was shot in six weeks and came in five days under schedule.[8] At one point, Stewart slipped in his hiccuping during the drunk scene. Grant turned to him, surprised, and said, "Excuse me", then appears to have stifled a laugh. The scene was kept, and was not reshot.[15]

Stewart had been extremely nervous about the scene in which Connor recites poetry to Tracy, and believed that he would perform badly. Noël Coward was visiting the set that day, and was asked by Cukor to say something to encourage him. Stewart was also quite uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, especially in the swimming pool scene.

Hepburn performed the dive into the swimming pool by herself, without the help of doubles. Forty years later, during the filming of On Golden Pond, Jane Fonda was frightened to do her own dive, to which the annoyed Hepburn responded, "I did my own dive in The Philadelphia Story."

The film premiered in New York City in the week of December 27, 1940, and it was shown in select theaters in December, but MGM had agreed to hold its general release until January 1941 in order to not compete with the stage play,[8] which was no longer playing on Broadway, but was touring the country.[4] It went into general American release on January 17, 1941.[16] It broke a box office record at Radio City Music Hall by taking in $600,000 in just six weeks.

The model sailboat that Grant gives Hepburn is based on an actual boat, the True Love (originally the Venona II, based on the Malabar design by John Alden built for racing), which currently sails on Seneca Lake out of Watkins Glen, New York, as an excursion boat for Schooner Excursions, Inc.[17]


Box office

The film was the 5th most popular movie at the US box office in 1941.[18] According to MGM records, it earned $2,374,000 in the US and Canada, and $885,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $1,272,000.[1]


Writing for the New York Times in 1940, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film "has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script derived by Donald Ogden Stewart out of Philip Barry's successful play; the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate; and a splendid cast of performers headed by Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant. If it doesn't play out this year and well along into next, they should turn the Music Hall into a shooting gallery ... Metro and Director George Cukor have graciously made it apparent, in the words of a character, that one of 'the prettiest sights in this pretty world is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges'. And so, in this instance, will you, too."[19] Seventy-five years later, Peter Bradshaw wrote "However stagily preposterous, George Cukor’s 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, now rereleased, is also utterly beguiling, funny and romantic. ... The fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances." Bradshaw also notes that the film is the "most famous example of the intriguing and now defunct prewar genre of 'comedy of remarriage'".[20]

The film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 58 reviews, with an average rating of 8.78/10. The consensus reads: "Offering a wonderfully witty script, spotless direction from George Cukor, and typically excellent lead performances, The Philadelphia Story is an unqualified classic."[21] The site also ranked it as the Best Romantic Comedy of all time.[22]

The film was the last of four starring Grant and Hepburn, following Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Holiday (1938).

Awards and honors

At the 1940 Academy Awards, James Stewart won for Best Actor, and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Writing, Screenplay. James Stewart did not expect to win and was not planning to attend the ceremony, but he was called and "advised" to show up in a dinner jacket. He said he had voted for Henry Fonda for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath, and always felt the award had been given to him as compensation for not winning for his portrayal of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the previous year. Donald Ogden Stewart, on the other hand, declared upon winning his Oscar: "I have no one to thank but myself!"[11]

There were also four nominations:

Hepburn won a 1940 New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance,[23] and the film was named the third best of the year by Film Daily.[24]

In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

The film was included in various American Film Institute lists:


The stars of the film appeared in an adaptation on CBS Radio's Lux Radio Theater, airing July 20, 1942, as the premiere episode of the special War Office Victory Theater series.[30][31][32] Lux presented it again in 1943, with Robert Taylor, Loretta Young, and Robert Young.[8] It was also adapted on two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, first with Greer Garson, Henry Fonda, and Fred MacMurray (April 5, 1942), then with Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart reprising their film roles (March 17, 1947).

The film was adapted in 1956 as the MGM musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong, directed by Charles Walters.

See also


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger. Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. Variety film review; November 27, 1940, page 16.
  3. Harrison's Reports film review; December 7, 1940.
  4. The Philadelphia Story at the Internet Broadway Database
  5. Irvine, Ian "The Real Philadelphia Story" at
  6. "The New Pictures". Time. January 20, 1941. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
  7. Hyde, Douglas (February 23, 2005). "The Hughes-Hepburn affair; Hepburn biographer describes 'tender' relationship".
  8. TCM Notes
  9. Higham & Moseley 1990, p. 129.
  10. Philip Barry at the Internet Broadway Database
  11. Melear, Mary Anne. "The Philadelphia Story". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
  12. Eric Page, ‘Cary Grant, Movies’ Epitome of Elegance, Dies of A Stroke’ The New York Times, December 1st 1986. Retrieved August 4th, 2019.
  13. IMDB Business data
  14. IMDB Filming locations
  15. Osborne, Robert, Turner Classic Movies broadcast
  16. TCM Overview
  17. "TRUE LOVE HISTORY". Schooner excursions, Inc. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  18. "Film Money-Makers Selected By Variety: ' Sergeant York' Top Picture, Gary Cooper Leading Star". The New York Times. December 31, 1941.
  19. Crowther, Bosley (December 27, 1940). "A Splendid Cast Adorns the Screen Version of 'The Philadelphia Story' at the Music Hall". The New York Times. Retrieved December 18, 2011.
  20. Bradshaw, Peter (February 12, 2015). "The Philadelphia Story review – fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles". The Guardian.
  21. "The Philadelphia Story". December 1, 1940. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  22. "Best Romantic Comedies".
  23. "New York Film Critics Circle Awards: 1940 Awards". New York Film Critics Circle.
  24. Aitchison, Marion (January 14, 1942). "Time Reviewers Again Pick Eight Out of Ten Winners". St. Petersburg Times.
  25. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  26. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  27. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  28. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  29. "AFI's 10 Top 10: Top 10 Romantic Comedy". American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  30. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 43 (3): 34. Summer 2017.
  31. "The Definitive Victory Theater Radio Article and Log with The Office of War Information". The Digital Deli Too. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  32. Reinhart, Charles F. (July 20, 2016). "Victory Theatre – The Philadelphia Story". Jimmy Stewart on the Air. Retrieved December 31, 2017.


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