#292) The Philadelphia Story (1940)


#292) The Philadelphia Story (1940)

OR “Save the Kate”

Directed by George Cukor

Written by Donald Ogden Stewart (and Waldo Salt). Based on the play by Philip Barry.

Class of 1995

The Plot: Two years after her divorce from yacht designer C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), Main Line socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is engaged to fellow blue blood George Kittredge (John Howard). Tabloid-precursor Spy magazine uses its connections with Haven to get journalist Mike Conner (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) over to the Lord mansion, where the wedding is being held. Tracy objects, but Haven blackmails her into letting them stay. On the eve of the wedding, Tracy starts to get cold feet, but will she rekindle her romance with Dexter? Or start something new with Mike?

Why It Matters: There’s a plot recap, as well as references to the film’s two Oscar wins and Hepburn’s performance in the stage version. The only person the NFR gives a superlative to is George Cukor, who “elegantly directs” the proceedings.

But Does It Really?: “The Philadelphia Story” is the kind of romantic comedy that could only have come out of the studio system. Half the fun is watching three honest-to-God movie stars going head to head, bringing out the best in each other. The film sags a bit in the middle, and while its ending sticks the landing, it never recaptures the quick energy of the first half. Pacing problems aside, “The Philadelphia Story” is an entertaining comedy of a by-gone era, and a must-watch for classic movie lovers.

Shout Outs: Mike drunkenly sings “Someday over the rainbow”. I guess it wasn’t a classic yet.

Everybody Gets One: Ruth Hussey was the star of many an MGM “B” picture in the late ‘30s. “The Philadelphia Story” was one of her few forays into an “A” picture, and she received an Academy Award nomination for her performance. Hussey’s film career never took off, but she found continued success on radio and television.

Wow, That’s Dated: The dated gender politics I’ve come to expect from romantic comedies of the day, plus playful jokes about suicide, alcoholism, sexual harassment and spousal abuse. Another classic from the Dream Factory!

Take a Shot: Henry Daniell (as Spy editor Sidney Kidd) says the title once as a potential name for the article covering Tracy’s wedding.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1940, “The Philadelphia Story” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winners that year were “Rebecca” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, but “Philadelphia” still managed two wins. Donald Ogden Stewart won Best Adapted Screenplay, and James Stewart took home Best Actor. Even Stewart eventually admitted that the award was a make-up win after he lost for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. Stewart’s performance is lovely – and award-worthy – but is it really better than Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad?

Other notes

  • After being dubbed “box office poison” in Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn was lured back to Broadway when Philip Barry wrote “The Philadelphia Story” specifically for her. The play was a smash hit, and Hepburn immediately accepted the film rights from Howard Hughes, who purchased them as a gift for her.
  • Hepburn’s first choices for Dexter and Mike were, respectively, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. Both were already committed to other projects, so the historic first pairing of Tracy and Hepburn would have to wait another two years.
  • This movie starts off strong with one of the greatest film pratfalls ever. Added bonus: Grant and Hepburn did their own stunts.
  • Everyone in this movie is so sassy. Special mention to Ruth Hussey, as well as Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s smart-alecky sister Dinah. Where’s her Oscar nod?
  • It’s fascinating to see how much Katharine Hepburn’s comic timing evolved in the two short years since “Bringing Up Baby”. Not that she’s awful in “Baby”, Tracy is just a much more refined, dimensional character than Susan, so the comedy styling is more sophisticated. Performing this role eight times a week on Broadway obviously did Hepburn some good.
  • Jimmy Stewart is best remembered today as the kind of heroic everyman he played in “Mr. Smith” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”, so it’s a delight watching him play a more cynical character. Stewart felt he was miscast as Mike, and perhaps he is, but it works.
  • Cary Grant is very good in a role that, on the surface, is not very interesting. But when you get a movie star to play a co-lead, it definitely elevates the material.
  • Shoutout to John Howard as Tracy’s fiancé George. A lesser movie would have made him either a total loser or a jerk. George is neither of those things; he’s just not a match for Tracy.
  • This movie tries really hard to make “yare” a thing. The problem is you can’t make one word mean all of that, unless you’re Humpty Dumpty.
  • Three words: Drunk Jimmy Stewart. I’ll give him the Oscar right now.
  • Was Katharine Hepburn ever sexier than she is in this movie?
  • The whole “You’re lit from within, Tracy” scene is lovely, it’s just a shame the word “holocaust” took on a new meaning a few years later.
  • Oooh, implications of premarital sex. How scandalous back now.
  • Today in Code-era Profanity: “Class, my eye” and “Oh, my sainted aunt!”
  • At first I was opposed to the film’s ending, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s the only way it could have ended. Damn you, Production Code!


  • “The Philadelphia Story” was as popular in theaters as it was on stage, and not only succeeded as Katharine Hepburn’s comeback vehicle, but also cemented James Stewart’s status as a leading man with staying power.
  • Cary Grant immediately followed up this film with another romantic comedy about fast-talking, wise-cracking exes: “His Girl Friday”.
  • “The Philadelphia Story” was remade as a musical with 1956’s “High Society”. Grant, Stewart, and Hepburn are updated with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (in her final film). All this, plus Louis Armstrong!
  • Cukor and Hepburn reunited several times over the years, including two of the Tracy-Hepburn vehicles: “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike”.
  • The stage version of “The Philadelphia Story” has only been revived on Broadway once: in 1980 as a vehicle for Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann. As best I can tell the only good to come from this revival was the Broadway debut of the actor playing Dinah: Cynthia Nixon. And now you know the rest of the story!

8 thoughts on “#292) The Philadelphia Story (1940)”

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