The Philadelphia Story is a 1940 romantic comedy film starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart. Based on a Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry, the film is about a bride-to-be whose plans are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and a handsome journalist. It is considered one of the best examples of a comedy of remarriage, a genre popular in the 1930s and 1940s, in which a couple divorce, flirt with outsiders and then remarry - a useful ploy at a time when depicting extramarital affairs was banned in American film. The film was a great success.
The play was Hepburn's first great triumph after several movie flops (including the classic Bringing Up Baby), which had led to her being labeled "box office poison". Howard Hughes bought the rights to the film as a gift to Hepburn. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to make a movie out of it, she stipulated in her contract that the film could not be made unless she was allowed to reprise her stage role. Hepburn initially wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy for the male leads but they were not available. The film earned a Best Actor Academy Award for Stewart in an unusually forceful performance, as the fast-talking reporter smitten with Hepburn.
It was remade in 1956 as a musical titled High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra.
Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Hepburn) is a wealthy Main Line Philadelphia socialite who had divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and is about to marry nouveau riche George Kittredge (John Howard). Wedding preparations are complicated when she is blackmailed by publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) into granting an exclusive story to tabloid reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth "Liz" Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). In exchange, Spy magazine agrees to refrain from exposing the antics of Tracy's philandering father, Seth (John Halliday). As the wedding nears, Tracy finds herself torn between Mike, Dexter and George. Dexter's and Mike's challenging personalities markedly force the stolid George to the background, and the viewer begins to realize George hasn't a chance. The real choice will be betweeen Mike and Dexter.
The night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time in her life and takes an impromptu, innocent swim with Mike. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterwards (both of them wearing only bathrobes), he thinks the worst, that his bride-to-be has disgraced herself. The next day, he tells her that he was shocked and feels entitled to an explanation before going ahead with the wedding. Tracy takes exception to his lack of faith in her and breaks off the engagement. Then she realizes that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike volunteers to marry her (much to Elizabeth's distress), but Tracy graciously declines. At this point, Dexter makes his successful bid for her hand.
The character of Tracy Lord was inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904-1995), a Philadelphia socialite, known for her hijinks, who married a friend of playwright Philip Barry.
Awards and honors
The film won Academy Awards for James Stewart (Best Actor), and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (Best Adapted Screenplay). It also received Academy Award nominations for George Cukor (Best Director), Katharine Hepburn (Best Actress), Ruth Hussey (Best Supporting Actress), and Best Picture (Joseph L. Mankiewicz - producer).
In 1995, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The American Film Institute ranked The Philadelphia Story #44 in its list of the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), #15 among the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs and #44 in the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.