In the spring of 1938, Katharine Hepburn was named “box office poison.”
Finding herself suddenly unemployable in Hollywood, Kate went home to Connecticut. It was there, amidst the people she loved and trusted most, that Kate figured out a new game plan.
The Long Road Back
Kate’s road back to the movies started on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, a show tailored to her unique talents. Thanks to her own perseverance and the extraordinary foresight of Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn would once again find herself on top of Hollywood, the town that had deserted her. This time around, Kate would be fully in control of her career.
She wouldn’t have had it any other way.
We’ll go through the plot of The Philadelphia Story (1940)—the film version that is, and Kate’s life in the wake of the “box office poison” label. Then we’ll cover Kate’s comeback in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway, and how she used the play as leverage to reprise her role on film.
And bring Hollywood to its knees.
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.
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.
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.
Tracy’s smart. She 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. 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 not to publish the story on the scandalous affair in exchange for complete access to Tracy, and the scoop on her society wedding.
Though Tracy feels her father deserves the unflattering coverage, she also realizes that the person who would suffer most from an article about it all is her mother (Mary Nash).
Tracy reluctantly agrees to go along with the charade, and invite Mike and Liz—who think they’ve got her fooled—to the wedding.
Tracy also decides to have some fun messing with Mike and Liz along the way.
With her little sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler), Tracy puts on her best impression of how the jaded Mike and Liz think a socialite behaves. Tracy flits about rooms, speaks French, and asks her guests pointless and insulting questions that Tracy then answers herself.
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.
So Tracy, about to marry George, now has feelings for Mike. Tracy also realizes that she may still have feelings for Dexter. After a confrontation at the swimming pool, 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 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.
A Crazy Night
In his inebriated state, Mike heads on over to Dexter’s place. Together, they write a daring exposé on Sidney Kidd, which will destroy the reputations of both Kidd and Spy magazine.
Mike then goes back to Tracy’s party, while Liz and Dexter get the story typed out.
Tracy and Mike, 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 drunken duo are spotted on their return from the swim by none other than Tracy’s fiancé George. He suspects the worst when he sees Mike carrying Tracy. It appears that both are clad in 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 Truth About Last Night...and George
George is wrong. 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.
Tracy sees George’s true colors, and no longer wants 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 Wedding
Then Mike, swept up in the moment, spontaneously proposes to her.
But it’s a proposal Tracy can’t except: she doesn’t want to hurt Liz, who is crazy about Mike. Tracy also realizes that she may just be in love with Dexter.
When Dexter proposes they give marriage another go, Tracy happily says yes. Guests are informed that the wedding is still on—the groom’s just been changed.
“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 telling response. Tracy’s chosen the right guy, the one who will love her, even if she isn’t perfect.
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.
And that’s the end of the film.
"Box Office Poison"
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 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, was frustrated with the film’s failure. He debated 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
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.”
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 beyond “good” in.
A New Game Plan
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 some welcome distraction from her career woes.
One of the people who proved crucial to both Kate’s comeback and peace of mind was Howard Hughes.
Enter Howard Hughes
Billionaire Howard Hughes often gets a bad rap today.
But there’s no denying that the eccentric 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. He’d use and multiply 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. Indeed, Hughes was the last private individual to set airspeed records, records that have since only been broken by military aircraft.
Howard Hughes was a man with interests who got things done. It’s no wonder that he was attracted to Katharine Hepburn, who shared a 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.
Howard Hughes Courts Katharine Hepburn
When Hughes made a surprise landing at the beach filming location of Kate’s 1935 film, Sylvia Scarlett—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 was rarely seen out and about with the men she dated. It was respectful towards Luddy, who was still her good friend.
But by the time she was named“box office poison” in 1938, Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes were a well-known item. Kate’s relationship with Hughes would be the most public romance of her career.
Howard Hughes and the Hepburns
Kate and Howard made frequent trips to the Hepburn family summer home in Fenwick, Connecticut, giving Howard plenty of quality time with her family. Despite Kate’s enthusiasm for her new suitor, Howard never fully won over the rest of the Hepburns, as evidenced by Dr. Hepburn’s treatment of him.
One trip Kate and Howard made to Fenwick overlapped with a visit from Kate’s ex-husband Luddy, who was still on excellent terms with his in-laws. Even after the divorce from Kate, Luddy frequently visited Fenwick, always bringing along his camera to catch the Hepburns in candid moments.
On the golf course one day, Dr. Hepburn challenged Kate and Howard to a game. Luddy, present with his camera, threw off Howard’s game. Howard got angry and told Luddy to put the camera down. But Dr. Hepburn told Howard to deal with it:
“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.”
Kate insists in her autobiography that though she 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.”
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.
The Philadelphia Story: The Begininning
Real-life socialite Helen Hope Montgomery was Philip Barry’s initial inspiration for Tracy Lord, the heroine of The Philadelphia Story. But early in the writing process, it became clear to Barry that his Tracy Lord was a lot like Katharine Hepburn. When Barry shared his play proposal with Kate, what she saw in Tracy 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 Tracy and the play’s plot line. The Philadelphia Story was, quite literally, tailor-made for Katharine Hepburn.
The Philadelphia Story: Not Just Another Play
The Philadelphia Story wasn’t just another play for Katharine Hepburn. It was a true comeback vehicle.
Namely because Kate 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.
Kate financed one quarter of the production costs of The Philadelphia Story for an equal share of the profits. It was a smart move.
Then she made an even smarter move.
“Buy the film rights before you open,”
Howard Hughes advised her.
Kate didn’t have the funds to make the purchase. So Hughes bought the screen rights himself, and gifted them to her.
It was a generous, career-changing gift. Kate appreciated Hughes’ magnanimous gesture at the time, but she appreciated it even more a few months later.
Katharine Hepburn’s career was on a promising track. But then tragedy struck her beloved family summer home.
The Hurricane of 1938
Just before Kate was scheduled to start rehearsals for The Philadelphia Story, the Hurricane of 1938 hit. On September 21, 1938, Fenwick was one of 57,000 homes destroyed. The hurricane 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. That’s when she knew 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.
"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!”
Kate lost about 95 percent of her personal belongings in the hurricane, including her first, and at this point only, Best Actress Oscar.
(It was later recovered.)
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.”
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: 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 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 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.
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. This mindset was due to her last, negative experience on Broadway when she starred in the 1933 production of The Lake. Critics derided Kate’s performance in the show. As Dorothy Parker famously wrote of Kate:
“She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”
Understandably, 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.
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.
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.
Richard Watts of the New York Herald realized this, and 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.”
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 restored the Hepburn name and made Kate an incredibly wealthy woman.
Katharine Hepburn was officially the toast of New York. Now she’d use her Broadway redemption and ownership of The Philadelphia Story film rights to get back on top in Hollywood.
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. David O. Selznick envisioned it as a Bette Davis picture.
Every studio wanted The Philadelphia Story. They just didn’t want Katharine Hepburn.
But as the studios would soon discover, it was Kate who owned the coveted screen rights. Whatever studio bought the rights would have take Katharine Hepburn with them.
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 ultimately, Kate got everything she wanted from the deal.
She sold Mayer the screen rights to The Philadelphia Story for $175,000. Mayer agreed 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.
Finding the Perfect Cast for The Philadelphia Story
For director of The Philadelphia Story, Kate chose her good friend George Cukor. Kate knew she could trust Cukor to keep her performance in the film from getting too
as Hepburn herself put it.
With George Cukor at the helm and her own familiarity with the material, Kate was confident that The Philadelphia Story could be a hit film. She also knew that the Hepburn name alone wasn’t enough to draw in audiences. Kate needed popular and proven co-stars. She bartered with Louis B. 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…”
At the time of his casting in The Philadelphia Story, Jimmy Stewart had only just emerged a star. Mayer had decided his “stringbean” contract player would never make it as a leading man, and happily loaned him out to Columbia Pictures for Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It turned out to be a career-making film, demonstrating that Jimmy Stewart had a unique niche playing men of unshakable ideals.
As The Philadelphia Story would soon underscore, Jim was just as good at playing romantic comedy.
The Philadelphia Story Oscar Winner
Jim was an easy choice for the role of Mike Connor, 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 typical studio contract, he could get away with paying Jimmy $15,000 for the film.
Jim’s $15,000 was 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. But the Best Actor Oscar Jim won for the role, just before leaving Hollywood to serve as a bomber pilot in WWII, made up for the pay inequities.
Kate approved the straight-forward casting of Jimmy Stewart. But getting Cary Grant wasn’t quite as easy.
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 studios.
Columbia and RKO 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—at the time—by far the more popular star. And she knew it. (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, she’d accept it.
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 favorite film sets.
Two behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the film highlight the humor on set, and a few of Katharine Hepburn’s more legendary qualities.
Both are told by Jimmy Stewart. The first involves Kate, Jim, and a bathing suit:
“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.”
Slightly cruel, humorously honest, and completely take charge. Classic Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in an Airplane
Jim’s next behind-the-scenes story occurred off set. Jimmy had a slight crush on Kate, and asked her out for a date in his airplane. He hoped to impress Kate with his flying skills.
But the date didn’t go as planned.
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.
"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.”
Going flying with Kate clearly wasn’t an ideal date. But what a story.
Getting Her "Comeuppance" in The Philadelphia Story
MGM was as dedicated to making The Philadelphia Story a success as Kate was. Before filming began, L.B. Mayer recorded a stage performance of The Philadelphia Story for Donald Ogden Stewart to reference. He wanted the laughs in the stage production to be replicated in Ogden Stewart’s screenplay. Characters were combined or taken out completely to beef up other roles—such as Cary Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven. This also helped streamline the story.
The famous prologue scene in the film, where we see a brief moment 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.
Cary Grant was against pushing Kate, firm in his belief that a real man never strikes a woman.
But Kate was all for it:
“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.”
Kate was right.
One of the reasons why The Philadelphia Story succeeded with audiences of the time was precisely because, as Joe Mankiewicz put it, they wanted to see Katharine Hepburn:
“get her comeuppance.”
As Tracy Lord in the film, Kate gets it.
The Overlooked Message of The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story revolves around the humbling of an independent, arrogant woman. But that’s not the core message of the film. The Philadelphia Story is about finding a partner who doesn’t expect perfection; someone who accepts and loves us for who we are.
At the end of the film, Tracy promises Dexter that “she’ll be yar now.” “Yar,” an old boating term, means quick, agile, and easy to maneuver.
But that’s not what Dexter is asking of Tracy:
“Be whatever you like, you’re my redhead,”
is Dexter’s response to Tracy’s promises.
Just as Dexter doesn’t want a judgmental goddess on a pedestal, he also doesn’t want a wife who is “easy to maneuver.” Dexter doesn’t want someone he can push around. He wants Tracy to forget about perfection, and just be herself.
As the success of The Philadelphia Story underscored, it seemed moviegoers were ready to accept Katharine Hepburn as herself, too.
Katharine Hepburn is Back
On December 26, 1940 The Philadelphia Story premiered at Radio City Music Hall.
It was an even bigger hit than Kate 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). In total, 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.
From the “box office poison” label and The Philadelphia Story comeback that followed, Kate learned that reinvention was a necessary part of staying relevant in Hollywood. As Hepburn herself 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.’”
The Philadelphia Story marked the first of countless comebacks and reinventions throughout Katharine Hepburn’s career. 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, Katharine Hepburn’s career would last a lifetime.
The Philadelphia Story put Kate back on top. It also ushered in the period of the most glamorous films of her career.
And, 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, a new man in Kate’s life would rival the excitement of her new career high.
His name was Spencer Tracy.
That's it for The Philadelphia Story
That’s it for The Philadelphia Story.
Join me next for 1942’s Woman of the Year, and the beginning of the legendary romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.