International Writers Magazine: FILM
Legend of the Philadelphia Story
The Saving of a Screen Icons Career
is the greatest Hollywood star of all time? Ask six different people
and youll get six different answers. Names like Garbo, Cagney,
Garland, and Tracy are invariably found on any "best of"
list, and all are worthy candidates. In 1999 The American Film Institute
resolved to settle the issue when they compiled a list of the 50
Greatest Movie Legends.
Bogart was ranked as the #1 male star, while Katharine Hepburn was chosen
as the top female. That same year she was also voted Best Classic Actress
of the 20th Century in an Entertainment Weekly online poll.
A quick scan of Hepburns acting achievements makes it difficult
to argue with her selection as "Greatest Ever." In a career
that spanned over six decades, she received a total of twelve Academy
Award nominations, a record that stood until 2002 when Meryl Streep
received her thirteenth nomination for Adaptation. Hepburn is the only
four time Oscar winner for a lead role, taking the honour for Morning
Glory (1933), Guess Whos Coming to Dinner (1967), The
Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981), a record
that may never be broken. She starred in no less than six of the films
found on AFIs list of Top 100 U.S. Love Stories, another record
and one she shares with frequent co-star Cary Grant. They played opposite
each other in two of the films, the classic screwball comedy Bringing
up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Yet, as difficult as it is to believe now, this screen icons career
almost came to an abrupt end only a few years after it began. Born into
a wealthy New England family in 1907, Hepburn embarked on a successful
stage career after graduating from college. She broke into movies in
1932 after RKO Studios signed her to a lucrative contract. In her first
film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), she was cast opposite the
legendary John Barrymore. The movie was a hit. She won the Oscar for
Morning Glory, only her third motion picture. When her next, Little
Women (1934), broke box-office records around the country, the young
starlet seemed on her way to a long and successful Hollywood career.
Then rumours began to surface about her arrogant off-screen behavior.
She was un-cooperative with the press, refusing to grant interviews
or pose for publicity photos. She appeared only in pants and spurned
makeup. Once, when someone in the costume department stole her slacks
she reportedly walked around the studio in her underwear until they
were returned. Such raucous behavior appalled audiences at a time when
movie stars were expected to be exemplary role models. Her fans began
to desert her. From 1935 to 1938 nearly all of her movies were financial
flops. The low point came when Photoplay magazine labeled her
"box office poison." RKO wanted to relegate her to a supporting
role in her next film. Frustrated, she bought out the rest of her contract
and decided to return to the stage.
Hepburn then approached playwright Philip Barry (she had starred in
the film version of his play Holiday two years earlier) and asked
him to write the lead character in his next play with her in mind. Barry
based that character on the publics perception of Hepburn at the
time. The result was The Philadelphia Story, a fast-paced, sophisticated
romantic comedy about love, marriage, individual development, and the
American class system. Tracy Lord (Hepburn), a haughty socialite, is
about to marry wealthy businessman George Kittredge at her fathers
estate. Enter ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven and tabloid reporters Macauley
Connor and Liz Imbrie, who all arrive on the eve of the wedding. Tracy
learns a much-needed lesson in humility as she is forced to choose between
her stuffy fiancé, her fast-talking ex-husband, and the cocky
Hepburn, who put up 25 percent of the production costs, co-starred with
promising newcomers Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin, who were cast as Haven
and Connor respectively. The play opened in March 1939 and was a smash.
It ran for a full year and over 400 performances on Broadway, taking
in nearly one million dollars at the box office. By the end of its run,
Kate had earned close to a half million dollars in salary and profits.
Hepburn now saw her chance to restart her floundering film career. She
knew that Hollywood would want to produce a movie version and persuaded
billionaire ex-lover Howard Hughes to buy her the film rights. Sure
enough, offers came pouring in from the major studios. Warner Brothers
offered a pile of money, Errol Flynn as co-star, and Hepburn the role
of producer. She was considering their offer when a call came in from
Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, the biggest studio in Hollywood. His offer
of $250,000 was not the highest, but he agreed to Hepburns insistence
that she play the lead role and that she could pick the screenwriter
(Donald Ogden Stewart), director (George Cukor), and her two male co-stars.
She demanded Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, MGMs two biggest stars,
to play Haven and Connor, but both were unavailable due to prior commitments.
Mayer suggested James Stewart, who had risen to the Hollywood "A-List"
the previous year for his Oscar-nominated role in Mr. Smith Goes
to Washington, and then gave Hepburn $150,000 to offer to whomever
she wanted for the second lead. She called her old friend Cary Grant,
who she had paired well with in three earlier efforts, and offered him
his choice of either of the two male leads. He was delighted to accept,
selecting the role of Haven. He later donated his entire salary to the
British War Relief Fund. Hepburn took a calculated risk and deferred
her salary for 45 percent of all profits.
Philadelphia Story was shot in just eight weeks during the summer
of 1940. Reportedly, no retakes were required. The opening scene
is one of the most famous in movie history. Playboy husband C. K.
Dexter Haven slams the front door of a large mansion and angrily
throws his luggage into a parked car. Soon-to-be ex-wife Tracy Lord
(Katharine Hepburn) follows him outside carrying his pipe holder
and golf clubs. She smashes the holder and then throws the golf
clubs at him, but not before breaking one over her knee. Haven is
enraged and raises a fist to hit her but, instead, puts his hand
over her face and pushes her down to the floor. Expertly directed
by George Cukor, the scene immediately demonstrates the personalities
and relationships of the two leads without a single line of dialogue.
It also gave audiences the satisfaction of seeing the snooty actress
knocked flat on her derriere.
James Stewart was
supposedly nervous before shooting a scene where Connor recites love
poetry to Tracy, and was sure he would botch the scene. Coincidentally,
Noel Coward was visiting the set that day and Cukor asked the famous
playwright if he would give Stewart some words of encouragement. Upon
meeting Stewart, Coward remarked, "I think youre a fantastic
actor." His confidence bolstered by Cowards accolade, Stewart
went on to perform the scene flawlessly.
interaction between the three lead actors is brilliant. Before The
Philadelphia Story, Cary Grants roles had been either
drama or slapstick comedy. Here he plays Haven as a wisecracking
sophisticate, the first time audiences saw him as this character
and the type of role for which he is most fondly remembered today.
Clark Gable may have been fine but its hard to imagine anyone
but Cary Grant playing this part. James Stewart drops his usual
"aw shucks" boy-next-door demeanour here, revealing a
flair for urban comedy, and a sexiness, never seen before.
In spite of the
talent of the two male leads, however, this is Katharine Hepburns
movie. She is perfect in the role that was written specifically for
her, delivering witty lines with rapid-fire precision while men fall
at her feet. In a well-known scene, Tracy and Connor, more than a little
inebriated, go for a late night swim. Afterward, clad only in their
bathrobes, Tracy tells Connor that she has the shakes. "It cant
be anything like love, can it?" he asks. "No, no, it musnt
be. It cant," she implores. "Would it be inconvenient?"
he inquires. "Terribly," she moans. The next day, when Kittredge
finds out about their rendezvous, he breaks his engagement to Tracy
only minutes before the wedding ceremony. Connor impulsively proposes
to Tracy and offers to take Kittredges place. She gracefully rejects
his proposal, and then adds, "But I am beholden to you, Mike. Im
most beholden." Only Katharine Hepburn could believably deliver
lines like that. Sadly, this was her only movie with James Stewart and
her last film with Cary Grant.
As great as the three stars were, special mention should be made of
the fine supporting cast. John Howard shines as George Kitteredge, Tracys
opportunistic fiancé. Virginia Wielder is hilarious as Tracys
wisecracking younger sister. In a memorable scene, she performs "Lydia
the Tattooed Lady" for Connor and Imbrie, the song made famous
when Groucho Marx performed it a year earlier in At The Circus.
But its Ruth Hussey who almost steals the picture as cool photographer
Liz Imbrie. She delivers some terrific lines while she calmly watches
her man throw himself at another woman.
Released on December 1, 1940, the movie opened to critical acclaim,
breaking box office records around the country. It played Radio City
Music Hall for six weeks, breaking attendance records and grossing over
$600,000 at that one location.
The following year The Philadelphia Story was honoured with six
academy award nominations, including best lead actress (Hepburn), best
supporting actress (Hussey), best director (Cukor), best picture, best
adapted screenplay (Donald Ogden Stewart), and best actor (James Stewart),
winning in the latter two categories. James Stewart later remarked that
his Oscar win was "
deferred payment for my work on Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington." Donald Ogden Stewart was not so
modest. When he was handed the award he declared, "I have no one
to thank but myself." However, years later in his autobiography,
he wrote that the original play was so perfect that adapting it was
the easiest job he ever had to do in Hollywood.
Hepburns gamble had paid off. Almost overnight she was back on
top of the Hollywood hierarchy, a position she would occupy for the
remainder of her career. Her next movie, Woman of The Year (1942)
marked the first of nine screen pairings with Spencer Tracy and the
beginning of a romance that would last until his death in 1967.
Often shown on television, The Philadelphia Story has remained
popular over the years. In 1995 the film was deemed "culturally
significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation
in the U. S. National Film Registry.
For the next six decades Kate Hepburn reigned as a beloved movie star,
achieving the status of American cultural icon. Today she is remembered
for her independence, her outspokenness, and her refusal to sugarcoat
her personality at a time when this was expected of movie stars. Later
in life, she downplayed her iconic status, stating, "People have
grown fond of me, like an old building." Perhaps, but if not for
the success of The Philadelphia Story nearly 70 years ago, she might
be little more than a Hollywood footnote today.
© Richard Neal
richardneal91 at hotmail.com
Richard is an emerging writer living in Vancouver, Canada. I also write
travel articles and short fiction and published on www.travelthruhistory.com.
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