In March, 1939 Katharine Hepburn went to Broadway to star in a play that had been written for her, Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. She had left Hollywood, with no studio contract and few prospects. She backed the play and took a percentage of the profits instead of a salary. Her co-stars on Broadway were Joseph Cotten as C.K. Dexter Haven, Van Heflin as Mike Connor, and Shirley Booth as Elizabeth Imbree.
Hollywood studios wanted to film the successful play, and Hepburn owned the rights. She sold them to MGM for a quarter of a million dollars, with the stipulation that she would have approval rights over the director, screenwriter and cast. She chose George Cukor to direct. She had worked with him several times, including, most recently, Holiday in 1938. She chose Donald Ogden Stewart to write the screenplay, and, after considering other MGM actors (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, for the Haven and Connor roles, respectively) settled on Cary Grant and James Stewart for the leads.
The film was shot in July and August 1940, in eight weeks, which was five days under schedule. It was released in selected theatres in December of that year, but general release was held up until January, 1941, since the original play was still running. The movie did very well. It broke a box office record at Radio City Music Hall by taking in $600,000 over six weeks. James Stewart won the best actor Oscar for this picture, Donald Ogden Stewart won the best writing Oscar for his screenplay, Hepburn was nominated for the best actress Oscar, Cukor was nominated for the best director Oscar, Ruth Hussey was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar, and the film was nominated for the best picture Oscar. In 1995 it was selected by the Library of Congress as a film worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry.
Light, comic, and romantic, The Philadelphia Story has held its position as an audience favorite over the years. Its charm stems from an expert cast who neatly present a sharp and clever script. It is another “comedy of remarriage”, featuring the romance of two divorced people, like two other movies we have already seen in this series, The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, and it is maybe the best of them all. I hope you enjoy its magic tonight.