Miss Hepburn is back…
Joan Crawford wasn’t the only Golden Age actress to garner the dreaded Box Office Poison label; Katharine Hepburn also got stuck with it. What’s interesting is how differently these two women handled the setback. Joan’s response was to smolder in her posh mansion while waiting for good parts to come along, one of which eventually did.
Katharine, on the other hand, went back to her early love, the stage, where she came across a property that would redeem her in the public’s eyes: The Philadelphia Story. A highly successful play by Philip Barry, it was snapped up right away by MGM and came to the screen in 1940. Only there’s a little twist involved, which we’ll get to in a bit.
We first see C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) lugging his bags to his posh roadster. His wife, Tracy Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) follows close behind him carrying his pipes and golf clubs. Dexter might be going on vacation, except that Tracy drops the pipes and breaks one of the golf clubs over her knee, flinging the pieces on the ground. Dexter follows her to the front door and appears ready to give Tracy a right hook, but instead he pushes his hand in her face and knocks her flat. Yes, the Havens are getting divorced, and they seem totally fine with it.
Cut to two years later, when Tracy is all set to wed George Kittredge (John Howard) in a lavish ceremony showcasing his new money and highlighting her old money. Kittredge is Dexter’s polar opposite. He doesn’t quite mesh with the family, even though he tries hard to play role of the prosperous businessman. In turn, George expects his wife to be loving, supportive, and not make waves. Tracy tries hard to pretend there’s nothing amiss, and thinks she’s very convincing.
Naturally, the media’s news noses are working overtime, and no one is hotter on the trail than seamy tabloid, Spy Magazine. Editor Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) is going to get the scoop of the decade, and Tracy’s former, Dexter volunteers to spirit reporter Macauley Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) in as wedding guests. Their cover story is that they’re dear friends of Tracy’s brother, Junius, who works at an American embassy in South America. If the family doesn’t accept them, Kidd’s going to publish an exceedingly awkward expose about Tracy’s father, Seth, and Tina Maura, a dancer he’s been squiring around. Tracy’s so angry about her father’s dalliances that she hasn’t invited him to the wedding.
Getting in is no problem, and while Dexter talks to the family, Macauley and Liz wait in the South Parlor. Like any respectable tabloid reporters, Macauley and Liz poke around the rooms in their immediate vicinity. Macauley eyes the silver until he sees a butler eyeing him, and he goes back to join Liz. When he finds an in-house telephone, Macauley decides to troll. He calls a random number and when Margaret Lord (Mary Nash) answers, orders caviar and beer.
“Who is this?” a confused Margaret asks.
“This is the Voice of Doom calling,” Macauley intones. “Your days are numbered to the seventh sun of the seventh sun.”
Before Mrs. Lord can check to see if any servants have been in the sherry, Dexter breezes in with Dinah. Tracy’s no dummy, and she doesn’t buy Dexter’s cover story. After she wheedles the real details out of Dexter, she and Dinah set about making a good first impression. Dinah softens things up by tiptoeing around in pointe shoes and belting out “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” on the piano.
Tracy goes into more overt damage control. Pretending to be ditzy, she calls Uncle Willie (Roland Young) “Dear Papa,” and accidentally-on-purpose dumps a trayful of cocktails on Liz’s camera. When her dad, Seth (John Halliday) unexpectedly shows up, there’s no more pretending, and the family gamely goes about their pre-wedding activities. There’s a party at George’s house, with the nuptials taking place the next day.
Heh. Well. Sort of.
It’s not only Tracy’s wedding that’s on display. Tracy’s character is now brought to the forefront, ushered in by Dexter calling her a goddess.
“Oh, we’re going to talk about me, are we?” Tracy drawls. “Goodie.”
Tracy’s sarcasm is understated, which she comes to regret, because Seth has a few things to say to her as well. He and Dexter both think Tracy’s too cold and hard, and her religion is strength. If anyone doesn’t live up to her sky-high standards, she treats them with scorn. Tracy, who’s used to being in control of herself, denies everything, but at the same time she knows they’re right. She cycles through the other four stages of grieving, which she kicks off by getting mind-numbingly drunk.
Other people’s skeletons are laid bare as well, but in the meantime, Macauley croons “Over the Rainbow” after George’s party, Liz has to fend off a randy Uncle Willie, and a curious Dinah observes a strange encounter between her sister and one of the wedding guests. And let’s not forget Dexter, a one-man Greek chorus, watching Tracy’s snug existence go wild like a game of Fruit Basket. Everyone will get their due, and almost everyone will go out a winner.
The Philadelphia Story ran for an entire year on Broadway, with Katharine playing Tracy to Joseph Cotten’s Dexter. Some writers have erroneously stated the film rights for the play were bought for Katharine by Howard Hughes, but the truth is that Katharine bought them herself. In addition, she was also a shareholder in the play, drawing no salary but receiving a percentage of the profits. Being in control of this very successful property enabled her to call the shots.
When MGM came looking to secure the film rights, Katharine drove a hard bargain. She not only wanted The Philadelphia Story made the way she wanted it, but she wanted George Cukor to direct it and Donald Ogden Stewart to write the screenplay. Katharine was to reprise her role of Tracy, opposite Spencer Tracy as Macauley and Clark Gable as Dexter. Neither were available, so Cary Grant and James Stewart were cast instead.
Tracy’s redemption became Katharine’s, though it’s ironic that Hepburn staged her comeback using a play about a woman whose noble idea of herself is carved into teeny little bits. It was, however, a fortuitous move, because the public felt Katharine needed some humility. Well, she got it, or at least Tracy did, and the public enjoyed finely crafted dialogue and deft character development in the process.
The film had to be held back from wide release so as not to take audiences away from the Broadway show, but once it came into wide release it made over half a million dollars in six weeks. Philadelphia was nominated for six Oscars and won two, one for Jimmy Stewart as Best Supporting Actor and the other for Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Screenplay. The film is also deemed culturally and historically significant by the Library of Congress and makes Top 100 lists constantly. If I haven’t said much about the plot of the film, it’s because it needs to be discovered with no prejudice. I first saw it at home because my parents like it, and had a good time watching other people discover it at one of my film classes. Everyone was roaring.
By far, Katharine Hepburn was the biggest winner. She was not only an uncredited producer on her own vehicle, but her efforts wiped away the Box Office Poison label completely, cementing her as the great actress she is now remembered as. Audiences, natch, win too, because the film is unabashedly fun and holds up beautifully almost eighty years after its release.
For more of the great Hepburn (and Tracy, too), please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, ladies–this blogathon is always a fun one! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow with my entry in a surprise blogathon. Spoiler alert: It’s another Cary Grant classic. Until tomorrow…
The Philadelphia Story is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
7 thoughts on “Curing Box Office Poison”
Not to put Katharine/Tracey on a pedestal, but one can’t help but admire the gutsy and clever move that put her back where she belonged. Your grand article has me longing to watch The Philadelphia Story as a re-watch is overdue.
– Caftan Woman
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Thanks, Paddy Lee–glad you enjoyed it! And yeah, Katharine pulled quite a coup there. 🙂
This is one of my favorite films and one which I’ve seen numerous times. Despite the sexist attitudes the men display, I love the message of humility and mercy it preaches. I also love the combination of Hepburn, Grant and Stewart together. I think Grant and Stewart ab-libbing the drunk scene is one of the best things ever. I also think Roland Young and Virginia Weidler almost steal the show in their supporting roles.
Love this film! I’ve had the chance to see this twice on the big screen and each time I wasn’t able to make it. I’m determined to fix that one of these days since it stars three of my absolute favorite actors (Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart).
Thanks for bringing this wonderful review to our blogathon!
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You’re very welcome, Michaela! And yes–it would be awesome to see this on the big screen. It wears so, so well.