Isn’t She Yar: Katharine Hepburn & The Philadelphia Story Comeback

Isn't She Yar: Katharine Hepburn & The Philadelphia Story Comeback

April 9, 2021 | by Shannon

Katharine Hepburn Survives an Actual Hurricane, Golfs with Howard Hughes, Flies with Jimmy Stewart, and Pulls Off the Most Epic Comeback in Hollywood History.  From 1940, it’s The Philadelphia Story.

Be sure to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episode 47 is all about The Philadelphia Story (1940).  Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Click to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood!

In the spring of 1938, Katharine Hepburn was named “box office poison.”  Finding herself suddenly unemployable in Hollywood, Kate went home to Connecticut.  And it was there, amidst the people she loved and trusted most, that Kate figured out a new game plan.

The Long Road Back

It was a long path back to the movies, starting on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, a show tailored to Hepburn’s unique talents.  But thanks to Kate’s own perseverance and the extraordinary foresight of Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn would once again find herself on top of the town that had deserted her, this time fully in control of her career.

And Kate wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Let’s go through the plot of The Philadelphia Story (1940)—the film version that is—then I’ll cover Kate’s life in the wake of the “box office poison” label, including her romance with Howard Hughes and the Hurricane of 1938.  Then it’s all about Kate’s comeback in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway, and how she used the play as leverage to reprise her role in the film adaptation of the show.  

And bring Hollywood to its knees.

The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

The Plot

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is a wealthy, Philadelphia Main Line socialite about to be married.  Tracy is smart, beautiful, and charmingly arrogant, with exceptionally high standards for herself and all those around her.

You probably noticed that Tracy Lord sounds a lot like Katharine Hepburn.

As Tracy excitedly prepares for her wedding day, we learn that her social climbing fiancé, George Kittredge (John Howard), won’t be her first husband: Tracy’s got one failed marriage under her belt already.  Her union with C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) was messy, its end covered very publicly in the society papers.

C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), Tracy's ex-husband, shows up at the Lord home just before her wedding. Mrs. Lord (Mary Nash) and Tracy's younger sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) look on.

Despite her break from Dexter, Tracy still can’t seem to shake his presence from her life.  Much to Tracy’s chagrin, Dexter shows up at the Lord home during her wedding preparations.  He brings two people with him, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey)—supposedly friends of Tracy’s brother.  Dexter then asks the Lords to host Mike and Liz at their home.

And invite them to the wedding.

How presumptuous!

The Philadelphia Story
Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) of Spy magazine.

A Complication

Smart girl that she is, Tracy senses that Dexter is up to something.  It doesn’t take her long to discover that Mike and Liz aren’t family friends at all: they’re reporters from Spy magazine, a rag that prints stories as classy as its name suggests.  Of course, Tracy demands that Dexter take his associates, and leave the Lord home at once.  She will not have her wedding details and photos splashed across the pages of Spy magazine.

But there’s a complication.

Dexter’s intentions in bringing Mike and Liz to cover Tracy’s wedding are actually quite chivalrous.  While working for Spy magazine in South America, Dexter learns that the magazine intends to print an unflattering story about Tracy’s father, Seth Lord (John Halliday), and his affair with a dancer.  To save the Lord family from the embarrassing publicity of such a story, Dexter’s worked out a deal with Spy’s slimy publisher, Sidney Kidd: the magazine agrees to not publish their story on the scandalous affair in exchange for complete access to Tracy, and a scoop on her society wedding.

The Philadelphia Story
Tracy and Dinah decide to have a little fun with the reporters from Spy magazine.

Tracy's Charade

Though Tracy personally feels her father deserves the unflattering coverage, she also realizes that the person who would suffer most from an article about it is her mother (Mary Nash).

So Tracy reluctantly agrees to go along with the charade, and invite Mike and Liz—who think they’ve got her fooled—to the wedding.

But Tracy also decides to have a little fun, and mess with Mike and Liz along the way.

Dinah, giving her best impression of the spoiled rich girl that Liz and Mike expect her to be.

With her little sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler), Tracy puts on her own best impression of how the jaded Mike and Liz think a socialite behaves, flitting about rooms, speaking French, and asking her guests pointless or insulting questions that Tracy then answers herself.

But Mike can see through Tracy’s society girl charade, and Tracy can see through Mike’s tough-guy-reporter exterior, to the sensitive writer beneath the surface. 

Tracy and Mike start to fall for each other.

The Philadelphia Story
Mike can see through Tracy's charade.

More Complications

So Tracy, about to marry George, now has feelings for Mike.  Oh, and don’t forget about Dexter, who Tracy realizes she also may still have feelings for, after a confrontation at the swimming pool, where Dexter blames Tracy’s impossibly high standards for the failure of their marriage.  The exchange leads Tracy to some major self-analysis and introspection.

As she deals with all these conflicting emotions at a  big party on the eve of her wedding, Tracy does the only thing she can do.

She gets blind drunk.

And so does Mike.

The Philadelphia Story
Mike and Tracy get drunk at the party. And have some deep conversation.

Wait, What Happened?

In his inebriated state, Mike heads on over to Dexter’s place, and together, they write a daring exposé on Sidney Kidd, which will destroy the reputations of both Kidd and Spy magazine.

Then, it’s back to Tracy’s party for Mike, as Liz and Dexter get the story typed out.

Mike and Tracy, both tipsy from champagne, become more honest in their feelings for one another.  After some deep, soul-searching conversation, the two run away from the party, and go for a swim.

The Philadelphia Story

The drunken duo are spotted on their return from the swim by none other than Tracy’s fiancé George, who suspects the worst when he sees Mike carrying Tracy, both clad in, it appears, nothing but robes.

It becomes clear that George is not interested in marrying Tracy if she’s not a virginal goddess, sitting atop the pedestal he’s put her on.  As far as George Kitterage is concerned, there is no room for human error, and Tracy, he believes, has just committed a big one.

The Philadelphia Story
George (John Howard) believes the worst when Tracy and Mike come back from their swim.

The Truth About Last Night...And George

He’s wrong, of course.  The drunken revelry of Mike and Tracy went no further than their midnight swim.  But the next morning, the day of her wedding, Tracy can’t remember a thing about the previous night.  She confides to Dexter that her virtue must have been compromised.  But Tracy notices that Dexter, quite the opposite of George, doesn’t think any less of her following the revelation.  And she appreciates it.

Tracy also notices that after Mike joins the conversation, and shares that their relations went no further than a midnight swim, George suddenly wants to marry her again.

But now Tracy sees George’s true colors, and she doesn’t want to marry him.  The wedding, Tracy says, is still off.  With a home full of wedding guests, Tracy knows she’s got a difficult announcement to make.

The Philadelphia Story
Tracy sees George's true colors after reading his break-up note.

The Philadelphia Story Wedding

But then Mike, swept up in the moment, spontaneously proposes to her.

It’s a proposal Tracy can’t except however: she doesn’t want to hurt Liz, who is crazy about Mike, and Tracy also seems to realize that she may just still be in love with Dexter.

So when Dexter proposes that they give marriage another go, Tracy happily says yes.  Guests are informed that the wedding is still on—the groom’s just been changed.

The Philadelphia Story
The second wedding of Dexter and Tracy.

“I’ll be yar now, I’ll promise to be yar now.”

Tracy tells Dexter, referencing the agile, quickness of an ideal sailboat.

“Be whatever you like, you’re my redhead.”

Is Dexter’s incredibly telling response.  Tracy’s chosen the right guy, the one who will love her, even if she isn’t perfect.

So the wedding of Tracy Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven goes off beautifully, marred only by the shutter click of none other than Mr. Sidney Kidd’s camera.

The Philadelphia Story
Was that the sound of a camera?

And that’s the end of the film.

"Box Office Poison"

If you remember from my article on Bringing Up Baby  (1938), in May of 1938, Katharine Hepburn was deemed “poison at the box office” by the Independent Theater Owners of America.  Suddenly, Kate, who had been the darling of Hollywood just a few years earlier—even wining the Best Actress Oscar for her third film role—could do absolutely nothing right.

Holiday (1938), the Hepburn film released just after Kate was named “box office poison,” was yet another disappointing, financial flop.  Despite her critically praised performance, audiences stayed away. 

Columbia Studios head, Harry Cohn, frustrated with the film’s failure, thought about taking out a billboard ad for the film that would simply read,

“What’s wrong with Katharine Hepburn?”

But Kate advised him not to:

“Look out!  They might tell you!”

Katharine Hepburn vs. ... EVERYBODY

Billboard or no billboard, popular opinion was clearly against Katharine Hepburn.  The public’s attitude towards Kate was perhaps best summed up by Delight Evans, the editor of Screenland magazine.  Following the “box office poison” label, Evans published an open letter to Kate, in which she wrote:

“[You don’t] want to be a little lady—so why should anyone address you as ‘Miss Hepburn’?  This [letter] is just to tell you that what was once sincere admiration has turned to amusement, and not with you but at you…the astute businesswoman I believe you to be, if not the artist I hoped you were, is seemingly blind to the signs and portents.  Wear slacks under a mink coat; cover your face if you wish.  But you’d better be good on the screen.”

Well, Ms. Evans was clearly one of the many who didn’t bother to go see Kate’s performances in Alice Adams (1935), Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), or Holiday (1938), all of which Kate was undeniably beyond “good” in.

Katharine Hepburn

A New Game Plan and a Little Relaxation

So when Kate went home to Connecticut that spring of 1938, it was time to come up with a new game plan.  Among the people she loved and trusted, Katharine Hepburn would figure out how to get back on top.  And perhaps find a little welcome distraction from her career woes. 

One of the people who proved crucial to both Kate’s comeback and peace of mind was none other than Howard Hughes.

The young and handsome Howard Hughes.

Enter Howard Hughes

Billionaire Howard Hughes often gets a bad rap today, but there’s no denying that Hughes was a smart, fascinating man with extraordinary talents and interests.  Orphaned and left his father’s millions at age 19, Hughes had every reason to bask in the life of the idle rich, and do absolutely nothing with his life.

But he didn’t.  

Howard Hughes loved movies and airplanes.  And he’d multiply, and use, his enormous wealth to make remarkable contributions in both fields, revolutionizing the film industry with such pioneering films as the gangster classic Scarface (1932), and setting multiple airspeed records in aircraft designed by Hughes himself.  In fact, Hughes was the last private individual to set airspeed records, records that have since only been broken by military aircraft.

Pretty cool. 

Howard Hughes was a man with interests who got things done.  So it’s no wonder that he was attracted to Katharine Hepburn, with her similar go-getter personality.

But at first, Kate wanted nothing to do with the playboy millionaire who, it seemed, went after every beautiful actress in Hollywood.

One of the few pictures of Kate and Howard together, aboard one of Hughes' airplanes.

Hughes Courts Hepburn

When Hughes made a surprise landing at the beach location of Kate’s film Sylvia Scarlett (1935)—ostensibly to say hello to his good friend Cary Grant, Kate was not impressed [aff. link]:

“One day an airplane circled overhead and circled and then landed on a dime in the field next to us—too close…I was somewhat taken aback because I had heard it rumored that Hughes would like to meet me.  And apparently this was how he’d figured it out.  I gave Cary a black look and we all had lunch.  I never looked at Howard.  What a nerve!”

But Howard Hughes wouldn’t give up so easily.  He had more luck wooing Kate after landing his airplane on the golf course of the Bel Air Country Club.  Mid-game and impressed by his tenacity, Kate invited Howard to finish the game with her.  From there on, the pair saw more and more of each other.

Before her 1934 divorce from Luddy, Hepburn wasn’t really seen around town with boyfriends—further evidence, in my opinion, of Kate’s loyalty to the people she cared about most in her life.  But by the time she was named“box office poison” in 1938, Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes were a well-known item.  It would be the most public romance of Kate’s career.

Kate and her father at Fenwick, the Hepburn summer home.

Howard and the Hepburns

Despite Kate’s enthusiasm for Hughes, he never fully won over the rest of the Hepburns, though frequent trips to the Hepburn summer home in Fenwick, Connecticut gave Howard plenty of quality time with Kate’s family.

I love this classic anecdote that underscores Dr. Hepburn’s very honest feelings about his daughter’s suitor.

Occasionally, Kate and Howard visited Fenwick at the same time as her ex-husband Luddy, who was still on excellent terms with his in-laws, and always brought his movie camera along for his stays.  On one of those occasions when Kate’s and Howard’s time at Fenwick overlapped with a visit from Luddy, Dr. Hepburn challenged Kate and her beau to a game of golf.  Luddy, his movie camera ever present, continued filming, throwing off the golf game of the very precise Mr. Hughes.  When Howard lost his cool and told Luddy to knock it off, Dr. Hepburn promptly responded:

“Howard, Luddy has been taking pictures of all of us for many years before you joined us and he will be taking them long after you’ve left.  He is part of this family.  Go ahead.  Drive.  You need a seven iron.”

That’s awesome.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate with her husband, Ludlow "Luddy" Ogden Smith, at Fenwick. The pair divorced in 1934.

Career First

Kate insists in her autobiography that though she really liked Howard Hughes, she never planned to marry him.  For Kate, her career came first, even—or particularly—at this time when she was searching for a new direction:

“I did not want to marry Howard.  I liked him.  He was bright and he was interesting and his life was interesting, but obviously I was obsessed by my own failure and I wondered whether I could put it right.”

And at Fenwick that summer of 1938, the opportunity to turn her career around came in the form of a new play, written especially for Kate by playwright Philip Barry.  It was The Philadelphia Story.

Playwright Philip Barry, author of The Philadelphia Story.

The Philadelphia Story: The Begininning

Real-life socialite Helen Hope Montgomery was Philip Barry’s initial inspiration for the Tracy Lord character.  But early in the writing process, it became clear to Barry that his Tracy Lord was an awful lot like Katharine Hepburn.  And when Barry shared his play proposal with Kate, what she saw in Tracy Lord was a chance to show the public a softer side of herself, a chance to literally be humbled on stage:

“Make her like me, but make her go all soft,”

Kate instructed Barry as the two of them fleshed out the Tracy Lord character and plot line.  The Philadelphia Story was, quite literally, tailor-made for Katharine Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story: Not Just Another Play

But here’s where The Philadelphia Story proved to be not just another play for Kate, but a true comeback vehicle: she invested in the show.

Dr. Hepburn, who Kate still sent her paychecks to for shrewd investment each month, told his daughter that he could not, in good faith, advise her to invest in something as risky as a stage production.  

“But this one might be it,” 

Hep told her after reviewing Barry’s work.

The Philadelphia Story

So Kate financed one quarter of the production costs of The Philadelphia Story for an equal share of the profits.  Smart move.

Then she made an even smarter move.

“Buy the film rights before you open,”

Howard Hughes advised her.

The Philadelphia Story

Kate didn’t have the funds to make the purchase, so Hughes bought the screen rights himself, and gifted them to her. 

Wow.  Talk about a generous, career-changing gift.  Kate appreciated Hughes’ magnanimous gesture at the time, but she’d appreciate it even more a few months later.

So Katharine Hepburn’s career was on a promising track.  All she needed now was….

A hurricane to destroy her beloved family home.

Yep, that actually happened.

Fenwick, Kate's family summer home, before the Hurricane of 1938.

The Hurricane of 1938

Just before Kate was to start rehearsals for The Philadelphia Story, the Hurricane of 1938 hit.  On September 21, 1938, Fenwick was one of 57,000 homes destroyed by the hurricane that caused an estimated $306 million in damages.

In her autobiography, Kate remembered going out for a swim on the day of the hurricane, only to find that the wind was so strong, it held her up when she leaned back on it.  Clearly, it was time to get inside the house.

Kit Hepburn made some tea to calm her family in the midst of the storm.  But when the laundry wing of the house ripped off, the tea party was officially over.  Kit announced that it was time to move to higher ground.

Which the Hepburns did in the nick of time.

Kate's personality shines through as she has a little fun with the only two parts of Fenwick that the hurricane didn't take: this bathtub and toilet.

"A Real Adventure"

About 15 minutes later, Fenwick was gone.  As Kate recalled,

“We saw the house slowly turn around, and sail off…It just sailed away—easy as pie—and soon there was nothing at all left on the spot where the house had stood for over sixty years.  Our house—ours for twenty-five years—all our possessions—just gone.  LOOK—WE LIVE THERE!  HEY—WHAT IS HAPPENING!”

The Hepburns dig through the mud and debris following the Hurricane of 1938. Miraculously, Kit Hepburn's tea service was recovered.

Kate lost about 95 percent of her personal belongings in the hurricane, including her first, and at this point only, Best Actress Oscar. 

(Don’t worry, it was later recovered.) 

Not even a hurricane could keep Katharine Hepburn down.

Despite losing just about everything—though the family did successfully dig up Kit’s tea service from the mud and debris over the following days—Kate would refer to the Hurricane of 1938, and the rebuilding of Fenwick that followed—as “a real adventure.”  

Fenwick rebuilt. Kate spearheaded the family effort to re-build Fenwick. Here's the post-hurricane home, 3 feet higher, and finished in time for the family to enjoy the summer of 1939 there.

Her attitude in the face of such great disaster was evidence of the enthusiastic, optimistic nature that was about to see Kate through the ultimate career comeback.

The Philadelphia Story
Kate with Joseph Cotton (left) and Van Heflin (seated), her leading men in the stage production of The Philadelphia Story.

The Philadelphia Story: A Production of Underdogs

The Philadelphia Story was a production put together by underdogs.  Kate wasn’t the only one whose future depended on the success of the show.  Playwright Philip Barry had just barely survived a string of flops, while the Theatre Guild, selected by Kate to produce the play, was quite literally on the brink of financial ruin.  But as Kate remembered,

“I did not realize at the time that the Guild was in a terrible state.  Like Barry.  Like me…Anyway, we were set to proceed.  The Guild didn’t know about my career nor did Barry.  I did not know about the Guild.  But we were all three in a rather desperate state.  So—we proceeded.”  

The fact the Kate, Barry, and the Guild all had so much riding on The Philadelphia Story surely contributed to their tireless work ethic.  This, coupled with a talented cast, rounded out by a young Van Heflin and Joseph Cotten, put the production in the best position possible for success.

The Philadelphia Story
Kate with Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story.

The Philadelphia Story is a Hit!

When The Philadelphia Story opened in New Haven, Connecticut on February 16, 1939, it was a hit.  Katharine Hepburn could breath a sigh of relief, and revel in the career win she’d been striving for. Reviews for the play were even better when it traveled to Philadelphia, and then to Washington, D.C., with a perfected third act.

The Philadelphia Story

Broadway Nerves

But Kate grew nervous when the Theatre Guild decided to take The Philadelphia Story to Broadway after only one month on the road.  In Kate’s eyes, New York was the enemy, thanks to her last, less-than-joyful Broadway experience, starring in the 1933 production of The Lake.  Critics derided Kate’s performance in the show, with Dorothy Parker famously writing that “She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”

The Philadelphia Story

So yeah.  Kate wasn’t thrilled about taking The Philadelphia Story to Broadway.

To cope, Hepburn psyched herself out, checking into New York’s Waldorf Astoria in the days before the Broadway premiere, telling herself over and over again that she was really in Indianapolis.

Yes, apparently even Katharine Hepburn gets scared sometimes.

But she needn’t have worried.  When The Philadelphia Story premiered on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on March 28, 1939, Kate and the show were a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.

The Philadelphia Story

A Woman of "Courage and Gallantry"

Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, formerly a Hepburn critic, now praised Kate’s performance in The Philadelphia Story:

“She acts it [the role] like a woman who has at last found the joy she has always been seeking in the theater.”

But perhaps her greatest win was the critics’ realization that Katharine Hepburn was unsinkable: you might be able to knock Kate down, but as The Philadelphia Story proved, you couldn’t keep her down.  

As Richard Watts  of the New York Herald wrote:

“Few actresses have been so relentless assailed by critics’ wit, columnists, magazine editors, and other professional assailers over so long a period of time.  And, even if you confess that some of the abuse had a certain justice to it, you must admit she faced it gamely and unflinchingly and fought back with courage and gallantry.”

Truer words were never written.

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story: A True Broadway Comeback

By the end of The Philadelphia Story’s Broadway run, the show had played 415 performances in New York, grossing just under $1 million, of which Kate earned 10 percent as salary, in addition to 25 percent of the net in return for her initial investment.  Coupled with the $753,530 The Philadelphia Story made during its 254 performances on the road, the show did more than restore the Hepburn name.  It also made Kate an incredibly wealthy woman.

So Katharine Hepburn was officially the toast of New York.  Now, she’d use her Broadway redemption and ownership of The Philadelphia Story film rights as leverage to get back on top in Hollywood.

The Philadelphia Story

Take Her, or Leave It

When it became apparent that The Philadelphia Story was a huge Broadway success, every studio in Hollywood clamored for the screen rights.

MGM wanted to make The Philadelphia Story a starring vehicle for Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford, while Warner Bros. was interested in the property for Ann Sheridan.  And David O. Selznick envisioned it as a Bette Davis picture.

So basically, everybody wanted The Philadelphia Story.  They just didn’t want Katharine Hepburn.  But as the studios soon discovered, Kate owned those coveted screen rights.  And whatever studio bought the rights would have to accept Katharine Hepburn with them.

Kate with Louis B. Mayer, 1945.

Negociating The Philadelphia Story with Mayer

Eventually, it was Louis B. Mayer of MGM who came to terms with the fact that Kate and The Philadelphia Story were inseparable.  But he still tried to negotiate with her.  As Kate remembered of meeting with Mayer over the screen rights,

“I went over to the office and he said that he would like to buy it.  He said, ‘Do you want to do it [the Tracy Lord role]?’  

I said ‘yes, I do.’

He said, ‘Well, we’d like to have you do it.’

…[Then] he said things that would really charm me.  I finally said, ‘You know, Mr. Mayer, you are charming me.  I know that you are deliberately charming me, and still I am charmed.  That’s a real artist.”

Charming he may have been, but in the end, Kate still got everything she wanted from the deal.  She sold Mayer the screen rights to The Philadelphia Story for $175,000, with Mayer agreeing to pay Kate an additional $75,000 to play Tracy Lord in the film.  He further gave her approval of director, co-stars, and even a degree of say in Donald Ogden Stewart’s screen adaptation of the play.

Well done Kate.

(And Howard Hughes for his admirable foresight in purchasing those film rights for her!)

Kate with director George Cukor.

Finding the Perfect Cast for The Philadelphia Story

For director of The Philadelphia Story, Kate chose her good friend George Cukor, whom Kate knew she could trust to keep her performance in the film from getting too “well, fancy,” as Hepburn herself liked to put it.

With Cukor at the helm and her own familiarity with the material, Kate was confident that The Philadelphia Story could be a hit film.  But she also knew that the Hepburn name alone wasn’t enough to draw in audiences.  She needed popular and proven co-stars, and bartered with Mayer for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable.  But neither actor was available.  According to Kate:

“Then he [Mayer] said, ‘I can give you Jimmy Stewart, because we have control over him.’  Then he added, ‘I’ll give you a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to get anyone else you want or can get…’

Then we got Cary Grant…”

It’s interesting that Mayer’s reasoning behind offering Kate Jimmy Stewart was that the studio “had control over him.”  And if you remember from my series on Jimmy Stewart, Mayer’s statement was entirely true.  Stewart had very little clout at his home studio, having just emerged a star after Mayer loaned him out to Columbia Pictures for the 1939 Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  With Mr. Smith, Jimmy—Mayer’s problematic contractee who didn’t quite fit the typical leading man mold—finally found his niche as a man of the people with unshakeable ideals.  He was also a natural in romantic comedy, as it turned out. 

The Philadelphia Story
Kate, Jimmy Stewart, and Ruth Hussey rehearse a scene with director George Cukor.

The Philadelphia Story Oscar Winner

So Jim was an easy choice for the role of Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story, the jaded, yet idealistic young reporter with a romantic side.  Mayer was confident that Jim would do the role justice.  But Mayer also knew that as a new star, still on a pretty run-of-the-mill contract, he could get away with paying Jimmy $15,000 for the film. 

Pretty paltry in comparison to Kate’s $75,000, and the $150,000 she was authorized to offer Cary Grant for the role of C.K. Dexter Haven.

Jimmy Stewart got his reward in the end however, for of the three leads in The Philadelphia Story, it was Stewart who won the Academy Award, a well-deserved and fitting cap to his pre-WWII film career.  For more about Jimmy’s admirable military service as a bomber pilot, flying B-24 Liberators on the European front, be sure to read my article, or listen to my podcast episode, on It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Kate approved the straight-forward casting of Jimmy Stewart.  But getting Cary Grant wasn’t quite as easy.

The Philadelphia Story
Kate with Cary Grant behind the scenes of The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Getting Cary Grant for The Philadelphia Story

By 1940, Cary Grant was a bonafide superstar.  Under open contract to not one, but two studios—Columbia and RKO—Grant was free to do The Philadelphia Story.  But the deal had to be satisfactory to both of his studios.

And his studios demanded that Grant not only get paid more than Katharine Hepburn, he must also get star billing above her in the film’s credits and advertisements.

The pay discrepancy didn’t bug Kate—Cary was, after all, by far the bigger and more popular star at the time. (And quick side note on that large salary, Cary generously donated his entire earnings from The Philadelphia Story to the British War Relief Fund.) 

But Hepburn balked at the possibility of someone else receiving top billing in what was so clearly her comeback vehicle.  It didn’t take long for Kate to change her mind though.  If sharing lesser billing with Jimmy Stewart was what it took to get Cary Grant and make his studios happy, she’d accept it.

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story: A Happy Set

From the start of filming in July of 1940, The Philadelphia Story was a happy set, typical, Kate insisted, of any George Cukor film.  Shot in a mere eight weeks and requiring no retakes, Cary Grant later named The Philadelphia Story as one of his very favorite film sets.

Two behind-the-scenes stories from The Philadelphia Story get me every time, both about Kate from the charming perspective of Jimmy Stewart.

One involves Kate, Jim, and a bathing suit.

I’ll let Jimmy Stewart take it from here:

The Philadelphia Story
Kate and Jimmy share a laugh behind the scenes of The Philadelphia Story (1940).

“I loved working with Katharine.  She was fun…but she was very serious about the film.  She was almost the producer, and when I had to do a scene in a bathing suit…waall, I just told Katharine that I looked ridiculous in a bathing suit because my legs were just so…THIN.  

She said, ‘Show me your legs,’ and she said it with such authority that I hoisted my pants up until she could see my knees…and she took one look and said, ‘You’re right.  Those are just the WORST legs I’ve ever seen.’  And so she talked Cukor [the director] into letting me do the scene in a bathrobe.  She was pretty good at giving orders.”

I can almost hear Kate commanding Jimmy to show his legs to her!  And Kate’s humorously honest—if slightly cruel—response to seeing those legs, just sounds so classically Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story

Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in an Airplane

My other favorite behind-the-scenes story actually occurred off the set, when Jimmy, who had a little crush on his co-star, eagerly took Kate for a whirl in his airplane.  Jim hoped to impress Kate with his flying skills.  

But things didn’t exactly turn out that way…

As Jim remembered:

“One night..it was a Friday…just as we were finishing [filming] for the day, she [Kate] said, ‘I want to come flying with you tomorrow.  I’ll meet you at Clover Field at eight o’clock.’  So I got there in the morning…and she was waiting.  And from the time I started the engine, she was asking about everything…so I was trying to answer all her questions.  I’d got the engine started and she hollered, ‘Wait!  The oil gauge is below the red?’  So I told her, ‘That’s the way it always works.’  And she said, ‘But the oil shouldn’t be below the red marker.’  And I said, ‘But Kate, it always works this way.’  And she kept on about it so I just let the engine run a bit longer…Then she said, ‘Make sure you reach the right speed before you lift off,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Kate.  I’d like to survive this takeoff too.’  She just kept hollering orders at me as we climbed higher.

The Philadelphia Story

"She Never Mentioned Flying to Me Ever Again"

‘I decided to take her up to Saugus, and as I was about to turn, she said, ‘Don’t turn!’  So I climbed…and I got to a thousand feet…And when I tried to turn again she still hollered, ‘Don’t turn!’  I said, ‘Kate, if we don’t turn we’ll be in China!’  So she said, ‘All right, you can turn.’ 

‘…and [then] she said ‘The oil gauge is still below the red.  I want to go back.’  So I turned around and headed for Clover Field, and I circled as we lost altitude…and all the time she was telling me what to do and what not to do…and I knew she wasn’t taking her eyes off the oil gauge.  When we landed…waall, it wasn’t really a landing—more like a controlled crash—she said, ‘Thank you,’ very curtly, and climbed out of the plane, went straight to her car and drove off…and she never mentioned flying to me ever again.”

Katharine Hepburn doesn’t sound like the ideal flying partner, but I think I’d give just about anything to have been on that flight with Kate and Jimmy, and witnessed  this hilarious scene.

The Philadelphia Story

Getting Her "Comeuppance" in The Philadelphia Story

MGM was as dedicated to making The Philadelphia Story a successful picture as Kate was.  Before filming began, L.B. Mayer even had a recording made of The Philadelphia Story stage performance, so Donald Ogden Stewart would know where the laughs occurred as he adapted the play for the screen.  Characters were combined or taken out completely to beef up other roles—such as Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven, which also helped streamline the story.

The famous prologue scene in the film, where we see just a minute in the tempestuous marriage of C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord, as Tracy breaks Dexter’s golf clubs over her knee before he takes her face and pushes her to the ground, was an addition written by the film’s producer, Joseph Mankiewicz.

Though Cary Grant was against pushing Kate—Grant correctly believed a real man never needs to strike a woman—Kate was all for it:

The Philadelphia Story

“I don’t want to make a grand entrance in this picture.  Moviegoers…think I’m too la-di-da or something.  A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face.”

As terrible as it sounds, Kate was right.  One of the reasons why The Philadelphia Story was a success with audiences at the time was because, as Joe Mankiewicz put it, people wanted to see Katharine Hepburn “get her comeuppance.”  And in the film, as Tracy Lord, Kate gets it.

The Philadelphia Story

An Overlooked Message in The Philadelphia Story

I do want to point out here however, that though The Philadelphia Story is all about the humbling of an independent, arrogant woman who realizes that she too is an imperfect human, the film is also about finding a partner who accepts us for who we are.  

At the end of the film, Kate as Tracy promises Grant’s Dexter that “she’ll be yar now.”  “Yar,” an old boating term, means quick, agile, and easy to maneuver.

But listen to Dexter’s response to Tracy’s promise that this time around, she’ll be a wife who’s easily maneuvered: 

“Be whatever you like, you’re my redhead.”

Just as Dexter doesn’t want a judgmental goddess on a pedestal, he also doesn’t want a wife he can push around.  He wants Tracy to forget about perfection, and just be herself.

And with The Philadelphia Story, it seemed audiences might just be ready to accept Katharine Hepburn as herself, too.

The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story (1940) put Katharine Hepburn back on top, and in full control of her career.

Katharine Hepburn is Back

On December 26, 1940 The Philadelphia Story premiered at Radio City Music Hall.

And it was an even bigger hit that Kate could have ever imagined, earning $600,000 at Radio City alone in just six weeks, breaking records previously held by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dworfs (1937).  All in all, The Philadelphia Story earned $2.4 million at the box office during its initial release in the US and Canada, and an impressive six Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Kate.

Box office poison?  Not anymore.  

Katharine Hepburn was back.

The Philadelphia Story

With the “box office poison” label and her Philadelphia Story comeback, Kate discovered that reinvention was a necessary part of staying relevant in Hollywood.  As Hepburn herself so perfectly put it, the film industry could be:

“personally humiliating because you are, after all, in the position that the common prostitute is in.  You’re selling yourself, and if everybody begins to say, ‘Oh boy, we’ve had enough of that’..then it becomes a little embarrassing.  Then it’s up to you to say to them: ‘Just a minute fellows.  Here’s something you haven’t seen yet.’”

Katharine Hepburn’s success in The Philadelphia Story marked the first of countless comebacks and reinventions throughout her career.  And it was Kate’s uncanny ability, to, in her own words, “show audiences something they hadn’t seen yet” without changing the core of who she was, that made her one of the first Hollywood actresses to enjoy a film career that lasted longer than a decade.  Indeed, for Katharine Hepburn, it was a career that would last a lifetime.

The Philadelphia Story

"Something Gorgeous"

The Philadelphia Story put Kate back on top, and ushered in the period of the most glamorous films of her career.  But, as Kate remembered in 1993’s All About Me, 

“what I didn’t know was that something gorgeous was about to happen to me by the initials ST.”

With her very next film, 1942’s Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn’s personal life would experience a jolt that rivaled the excitement of her new career high.  And his name was Spencer Tracy.

That's it for The Philadelphia Story!

And that’s it for The Philadelphia Story.  Be sure to join me next time for all about 1942’s Woman of the Year, and the beginning of the legendary romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

The Philadelphia Story
Had to include these! Kate and the boys record a radio broadcast of The Philadelphia Story on July 20, 1942 for Lux Radio Theater. Note how, two years after making the film, Cary Grant already seems to be aging backwards. Lucky guy!
The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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