The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, has long been hailed as one of Hollywood's finest romantic comedies, a highly witty story of a high society wedding jeopardised by scandal. But did you know this classic was a make-or-break project for many of those involved?
On 3 May 1938, Harry Brandt, President of the Independent Theatre Owners Association, placed an advertisement in the movie trade papers accusing some of Hollywood's biggest names of being ‘box-office poison’. Among them were Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Mae West.
But the star who most felt the brunt of this shocking defamation was Katharine Hepburn. RKO was stung by her last picture, Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby, which lost $365,000, that they cast her in Rowland V. Lee's adaptation of Kate Douglas Wiggins's novel, Mother Carey's Chickens.
Hepburn was so appalled at being assigned this sentimental family saga that she stormed into the front office and wrote a cheque for $200,000 to buy out the rest of her contract. ‘They say I'm a has-been,’ she told the press. ‘If I weren't laughing so hard, I might cry.’ Hepburn vowed never to set foot inside the studio again despite knowing that her career was suddenly now on the line.
A tale of two families
Every bit as proud and bossy as the women she portrayed on screen, Hepburn offered her services to Columbia, which was planning a second version of Philip Barry's acclaimed comedy Holiday, with Cary Grant and director George Cukor. Hepburn was the understudy in the original 1928 Broadway run and had worked with Cukor on Little Women (1933) and Sylvia Scarlett (1935), which had also seen her team for the first time with Cary Grant. In spite of some positive reviews, Holiday failed to catch the public imagination.
Cukor was hired by David O. Selznick to direct Gone With the Wind (1939). Hepburn knew she was ill-suited to playing southern belles and turned down the opportunity to be tested for the lead role of Scarlett O’Hara in December 1938.
Instead, she returned to the family home at Fenwick, Connecticut, where she received a visit from Philip Barry. His reputation had dipped since Holiday but The Animal Kingdom had made him the toast of Broadway. Earlier in the year, he had been researching an article for Fortune magazine about how the rich were faring in the Depression when he had a lightbulb moment. He realized he could shape the material into a play for Hepburn about a scandal hitting a Philadelphia family.
In later years, Hepburn would insist that she was the inspiration for the character of Tracy Lord. But Barry insisted his model was Hope Montgomery Scott, the wife of former Harvard classmate Edgar Scott, who was the heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune.
Known as a playgirl in her socialite days, Hope was famous for her blue jokes and personal stationery featuring a copulating couple. However, Barry was aware that Hepburn's family had remained close to her ex-husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, and he worked this relationship into his script.
The plot for The Philadelphia Story revolved around Tracy Lord’s brother, Sandy, who allows reporters from Spy magazine to have access to his sister's second high-society wedding in exchange for holding back a story about their philandering father.
Ironically, around this time, Hepburn's own brother, Richard, wrote a play called Sea-Air that made scarcely veiled references to her liaison with tycoon Howard Hughes. So furious was she that she forced him to suppress the material, even though he knew it was the best thing he had ever written.
The play's the thing
Having secured Hepburn's blessing, Barry began writing. When he hit a wall with the second and third acts he consulted Hepburn on how the action should proceed. Consequently, she developed misgivings about the material and tried to persuade Theatre Guild producer Lawrence Langner to send the play on tour rather than open on Broadway. The Guild, however, needed a hit to replenish its coffers and booked the famous Shubert Theatre for 16 March, 1939.
The text was still being revised in mid-January when Langner tried to persuade Barry that Tracy Lord should fall for reporter Mike Connor instead of patching things up with ex-husband CK Dexter Haven.
Barry was unconvinced and stuck to his guns and joined director Bob Sinclair in casting Joseph Cotten as Dexter, Van Heflin as Mike and Shirley Booth as his sidekick, Liz Imbrie.
For a while, the play was known as Gentle Reader, but Barry settled on The Philadelphia Story on completing the script – although Hepburn joked when it became a success that it should have been called The Answer to This Maiden's Prayer.
Before rehearsals began Howard Hughes badgered Hepburn about snapping up the film rights. He believed that even if she triumphed on Broadway, the studios would use her supposedly poisonous reputation as an excuse to offer the lead to a more bankable star. But having deferred her salary to take a 10% cut of the gross profits, Hepburn didn't have the $30,000 required to secure the rights. Hughes bought them for her as a gift and she later joked with biographer Charlotte Chandler: ‘I slept with Howard Hughes to get The Philadelphia Story. He was a brilliant man, and going to bed with him was very pleasurable. But the pleasure of owning The Philadelphia Story lasted longer.’
Hughes worded the sell-on contract to ensure that Hepburn was cast as Tracy and that she could choose her own director and co-stars.
As soon as the play opened (it would run for 415 performances and take over $1.5 million at the box office) Hollywood began making enquiries. David Selznick wanted the play for Bette Davis. Warners had Ann Sheridan in mind. And MGM hoped it might boost Norma Shearer after the death of her wunderkind producer husband, Irving G. Thalberg.
Hughes rejected them all until Louis B. Mayer offered $175,000 for the rights and a $75,000 salary for Hepburn. Even so, Hughes made producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz submit his 50-page treatment of the storyline in person and made him wait while he read it in a limousine on Mulholland Drive before they shook hands.
In from the cold
In September 1936, Selnick asked his good friend George Cukor to direct his much-publicised adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.
Over the next three years, Cukor would test the countless actresses bidding to become Scarlett O'Hara and would liaise with William Cameron Menzies on the production design to recreate the Civil War era. He was allowed to direct other films during this period and even spent a week on The Wizard of Oz (1939), during which he told Judy Garland to ditch the blonde wig she'd been given to play Dorothy Gale.
Cukor, however, was forced by Selznick to turn down the Greta Garbo comedy, Ninotchka, in order to concentrate on his southern epic. He felt all the more betrayed, therefore, when Clark Gable told Selznick he couldn't work for a director who paid so much attention to his female co-stars. Cukor was promptly replaced by Gable's pal, Victor Fleming (although a vast proportion of Cukor’s footage is in the final cut; and both Vivien Leigh and Olivia De Havilland sought his advice privately throughout the shoot).
It has long been rumoured that homophobia and a guilty secret from Gable's past caused Cukor to be fired. Cukor must have breathed a sigh of relief when Mayer refused to let Hepburn cast Gable and Spencer Tracy in The Philadelphia Story; he got on very well with their replacements, Cary Grant and James Stewart.
A classic in the making?
Even though everyone enjoyed making the picture, nobody thought they had an enduring classic on their hands. The Bristol-born Cary Grant had signed up for the $137,000 paycheck, which he promptly donated to the British War Relief Fund. James Stewart, in the meantime, was looking to reinforce his reputation after being Oscar-nominated for Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Uncertain about his new-found status, he contacted Mankiewicz after reading the script to ask if he could play the bigger part of the reporter rather than the fiancé, only to be informed that that was his role!
Barry had priced himself out of scripting the film, but was happy to see old friend Donald Ogden Stewart being hired in his stead. He had a few tussles with Production Code chief Joseph Breen, who objected to the references to adultery, drunkenness and skinny dipping, as well as the excessive innuendo and what he perceived to be an unfavourable representation of the institution of marriage.
The camera started rolling on 5 July and Cukor called a wrap five days early on 14 August 1940. While shooting the swimming pool sequence, he asked the visiting Noël Coward to coach James Stewart on his lines, who grew sufficiently confident to ad lib a hiccup during that famous drinking scene with Grant.
Hepburn was in her element and kept treating the cast and crew to ice-cream. She even pranked the continuity girl by sending her a roadkill skunk in a satin-lined box. The Philadelphia Story turned out to be the gift that kept on giving.
75 years later...
Released in December 1940, the film broke box-office records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall by scooping $600,000 in its first six weeks. It also landed six Oscar nominations, although Hepburn lost out to Ginger Rogers, who played a girl from the other side of the Philadelphia tracks in Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle.
Stewart pipped best friend Henry Fonda to the best actor prize. He was so sure that Fonda was going to win for John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath that he had to be persuaded to attend the ceremony by the organisers. However, detractors felt Stewart overacted his role and only won the coveted statue to make up for missing out on it for Mr Smith.
Donald Ogden Stewart made a chump of himself when he collected his award for Best Adapted Screenplay by declaring: ‘I have no one to thank but myself!'’ It was bad enough that he ignored Philip Barry's obvious contribution, but everyone involved with the picture knew that Mankiewicz had devised the central plot that allowed a meatier role for Cary Grant. Mankiewicz would, however, eventually make Oscar history of his own by winning consecutive awards for Screenplay and Direction for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
As for Hepburn, she reunited with Grant and Stewart for the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the play in 1942 and, later that same year, accepted George Stevens's offer to headline his next picture, Woman of the Year, which proved to be the first of the eight she would make with the love of her life, Spencer Tracy.
This is an edited version of an article by David Parkinson for MovieMail