Written for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart and an uncredited Waldo Salt, 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 story-telling ploy at a time when the depiction of extramarital affairs was blocked by the Production Code.
The film was Hepburn's first big hit following several flops, which had led to her being included on a 1938 list that Manhattan movie theater owner Harry Brandt compiled of actors considered to be "box office poison". She acquired the film rights to the play, which she had also starred in, with the help of Howard Hughes, in order to control it as a vehicle for her screen comeback. According to a Turner Broadcasting documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars, after MGM purchased the film rights they were skeptical about Hepburn's box office appeal, so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Louis B. Mayer took an unusual precaution by casting two A-list male stars (Grant and Stewart) to support Miss Hepburn. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the film won two; James Stewart for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was remade in 1956 as a musical, retitled High Society.
Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is the elder daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Main Line socialite family. She was married to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a yacht designer and member of her social set, but divorced him two years ago, because he did not measure up to the exacting standards she sets for all her friends and family: he drank too much for her taste, and as she became critical of him, he drank more. Now she is about to marry nouveau riche "man of the people" George Kittredge (John Howard).
Spy magazine publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) is eager to cover the wedding, and assigns reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). He can get them into the affair with the assistance of Dexter Haven, who has been working for Spy in South America. Dexter will introduce them as friends of Tracy's brother Junius (a U.S. diplomat in Argentina). Tracy is not fooled, but Dexter threatens her with an innuendo-laden article about her father Seth's (John Halliday) affair with a dancer. Tracy deeply resents her father's infidelity, which has caused her parents to live separately. To protect her family's reputation, she agrees to let Mike and Liz stay.
Dexter is welcomed back with open arms by Tracy's mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and teenage sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler), much to her annoyance. In addition, she gradually discovers that Mike has admirable qualities, and she even takes the trouble to find his book of short stories in the public library. As the wedding nears, she finds herself torn between George, Dexter, and Mike.
The night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time in her life and takes an innocent midnight swim with Mike. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterward, he thinks the worst. The next day, he tells her that he was shocked and feels entitled to an explanation before going ahead with the wedding. She 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 Liz's distress), but she graciously declines. She also realizes, for the first time, that she isn't perfect and shouldn't constantly condemn others for their weaknesses. At this point, Dexter offers to marry her again, and she accepts.Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven
Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Samantha Lord
James Stewart as Macaulay "Mike" Connor
Ruth Hussey as Elizabeth Imbrie
John Howard as George Kittredge
Roland Young as William Q. Tracy (Uncle Willie)
John Halliday as Seth Lord
Mary Nash as Margaret Lord
Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord
Henry Daniell as Sidney Kidd
Lionel Pape as Edward, a footman
Rex Evans as Thomas, the butler
David Clyde as Mac, the night watchman
Broadway playwright Barry wrote the film specifically for Hepburn, who ended up backing the play, and forgoing a salary in return for a percentage of its profits. Costarring with Hepburn on Broadway were Joseph Cotten as Dexter Haven, Van Heflin as Mike Connor, and Shirley Booth as Liz Imbrie.
Hoping to create a film vehicle for herself which would erase the label of "box office poison" that the Independent Theatre Owners of America had put on her after a number of commercial failures (including the classic Bringing Up Baby), Hepburn happily accepted the film rights to the play from Howard Hughes who had bought them for her. She then convinced MGM's Mayer to buy them from her for only $250,000 in return for Hepburn having veto over producer, director, screenwriter and cast.
Hepburn selected director George Cukor, in whose films A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Little Women (1933) she had acted, and Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Barry's and a specialist at adapting plays to the big screen, as writer.
Hepburn wanted Clark Gable to play Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy to play Mike Connor, but both had other commitments. Grant agreed to play the part on condition that he be given top billing and that his salary would be $137,000, which he donated to the British War Relief Society. The pairing of Cukor and Gable would have been problematic in any case, as they had not gotten along on the recent Gone with the Wind, and Cukor had been replaced with Victor Fleming.
The film was in production from 5 July to 14 August 1940 at MGM's studios in Culver City. It was shot in six weeks and came in five days under schedule. At one point, Stewart slipped in his hiccuping during the drunk scene. Grant turned to him, surprised, and said "Excuse me," then appears to stifle a laugh. The scene was kept and was not reshot.
Stewart had been extremely nervous about the scene in which Connor recites poetry to Tracy and believed that he would perform badly. Noël Coward was visiting the set that day and was asked by Cukor to say something to encourage him. Stewart was also quite uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, especially in the swimming pool scene.
Hepburn performed the dive into the swimming pool entirely by herself without the help from doubles. Forty years later, during the filming of On Golden Pond, Jane Fonda was frightened to do her own dive, to which the annoyed Hepburn responded, "I did my own dive in The Philadelphia Story."
The film premiered in New York City in the week of 27 December 1940 and it was shown in select theatres in December, but MGM had agreed to hold its general release until January 1941 in order not to compete with the stage play, which was no longer playing on Broadway, but was touring the country. It went into general American release on 17 January 1941. It broke a box office record at Radio City Music Hall by taking in $600,000 in just six weeks.
The film was the 5th most popular movie at the US box office in 1941. According to MGM records it earned $2,374,000 in the US and Canada and $885,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $1,272,000.
According to Bosley Crowther, the film "has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script derived by Donald Ogden Stewart out of Philip Barry's successful play; the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers headed by Hepburn, Stewart and Grant. If it doesn't play out this year and well along into next they should turn the Music Hall into a shooting gallery ... Metro and Director George Cukor have graciously made it apparent, in the words of a character, that one of 'the prettiest sights in this pretty world is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges.' And so, in this instance, will you, too."
The film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 8.8/10. The consensus reads, "Offering a wonderfully witty script, spotless direction from George Cukor, and typically excellent lead performances, The Philadelphia Story is an unqualified classic." The site also ranked it as the Best Romantic Comedy of all time.
The film was the last of four starring Grant and Hepburn, the others being Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Holiday (1938). All but Sylvia Scarlett belong to a subgenre of screwball comedy called the comedy of remarriage described by the philosopher Stanley Cavell as Hollywood's crowning achievement.
At the 1940 Academy Awards The Philadelphia Story received six nominations:Outstanding Production: MGM (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Producer)
Best Director: George Cukor
Best Actor: James Stewart
Best Actress: Katharine Hepburn
Best Writing, Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart
Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Hussey
James Stewart and Donald Ogden Stewart won Academy Awards.
Stewart was not expecting to win and was not planning to attend the awards ceremony. He was called and "advised" to show up in a dinner jacket. Stewart himself said he had voted for Henry Fonda for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath, and always felt the award had been given to him as compensation for not winning the Academy Award for his portrayal of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the previous year. Donald Ogden Stewart, on the other hand, declared upon winning his Oscar: "I have no one to thank but myself!"
Hepburn won a 1940 New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance, and the film was named one of the ten best of the year by Film Daily.
In 1995, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – #51
2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #15
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – #44
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Mike Connor: "You're lit from within, Tracy. You've got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts." – Nominated
2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #44
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
#5 Romantic Comedy Film
The stars of the film appeared in an adaptation on Victory Theatre on CBS radio on July 20, 1942, and on Lux Radio Theater's radio adaptation of Barry's play in 1942. Lux presented it again in 1943 with Robert Taylor, Loretta Young and Robert Young. It was also adapted on two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, first with Greer Garson, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray (April 5, 1942), then with Hepburn, Grant and Stewart reprising their film roles (March 17, 1947).
The film was adapted in 1956 as the MGM musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, and Louis Armstrong, directed by Charles Walters.