The Philadelphia Story (1940)

james stewart, cary grant and katharine heburn
James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Heburn

'The Philadelphia Story' is a sophisticated romantic comedy film made in 1940, directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart. The movie, which has become an evergreen classic, is based on the Broadway play of the same name by Philip Barry.

'The Philadelphia Story' is extraordinarily well-done and is regarded, not only as one of the best comedy movies ever made, but also as one of the great masterpieces of Hollywood film making. Its screenplay is sharp and bright and the three main stars are perfectly cast and perform at the peak of their powers. The film cleverly maintains a perfect balance between an outward veneer of elegance and sophistication whilst being outrageously funny and silly at the same time.

The film was an enormous success on release and even today, retains much of its freshness. It won Academy Awards for James Stewart for Best Actor, and for screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie received four further nominations: for George Cukor for Best Director, Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress, Ruth Hussey for Best Supporting Actress, and for producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Best Picture. In 1995 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Cary Grant donated his $100,000 salary to British war relief. The movie was remade in 1956 as the musical 'High Society' starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, but, music aside, the remake is inferior to the original.

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The plot centres round the tangled web of relationships involving wealthy Philadelphia socialite, Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant plays her ex husband, Dexter Haven, who still loves her, although she is getting married again to dull George Kittredge (played by John Howard). Covering this society wedding are reporters Macaulay Connor played by James Stewart and Elizabeth Imbrie played by Ruth Hussey. Macaulay Connor eventually helps Tracy to see whom she truly loves.

The twists and turns of the plot as the relationships between the main characters ebb and flow are many and provide much of the humor. The script is both intensely funny and touching at the same time. It abounds with quick-fire repartee and George Cukor directs with precision and wit and brings out scintillating performances from the wonderful cast.


Barry's original play, written in 1939, was inspired by the real-life socialite and party girl, Hope Montgomery Scott, whose husband had been to school with Barry, and was written specifically for Katharine Hepburn. The play ran very successfully on Broadway for a full year starring Hepburn as Tracy Lord. The film rights were purchased by Howard Hughes and given to Hepburn. Their relationship had finished in about 1937 but they were still good friends. Hepburn in turn sold the rights to MGM for a reported $250,000 with the proviso that she reprise her leading role and that she could choose the director and cast.

As she had already been labelled "Box-Office Poison" by The Independent Film Journal, L B Mayer of MGM agreed to have two top male leads in addition to Hepburn. Her original choices were Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy but as neither were available, Grant and Stewart were cast. She also made the shrewd choice of George Cukor as director. She had already worked with him on two movies and the two would make a further seven films together. For the screenplay Hepburn chose Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Philip Barry, and a specialist at writing screen adaptations from stage plays.

Filming began on 5 July, 1940 at MGM's Culver City studios, and lasted for just under six weeks. It was not put on general release until mid-January, 1941 in order not to jeopardise the receipts of the stage play which was until then touring the country.

Main Cast

Cary Grant ... C. K. Dexter Haven
Katharine Hepburn ... Tracy Lord
James Stewart ... Macaulay Connor
Ruth Hussey ... Elizabeth Imbrie
John Howard ... George Kittredge
Roland Young ... Uncle Willie
John Halliday ... Seth Lord
Mary Nash ... Margaret Lord
Virginia Weidler ... Dinah Lord
Henry Daniell ... Sidney Kidd

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) Her performance as Tracy Lord is the hub around which the whole plot and the other characters spins. She was one of the brightest of all Hollywood stars with a career of unparallelled success, spanning seven decades, in which she appeared in over fifty movies. She won four Best Actress Oscars, three of them after passing the age of sixty. She formed several unforgettable screen partnerships with acting giants such as Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and her work spanned a variety of genres from screwball comedy through romantic comedy to powerful drama.
Cary Grant (1904-1986) Grant was well on his way to achieving legendary status in Hollywood. He starred in over 70 movies, many of them classics such as 'The Philadelphia Story', 'Charade', and 'Notorious', and he was twice nominated for Oscars. He was runner up to Humphrey Bogart in The AFI's list of Greatest Male Stars of all Time.
James Stewart (1908-1997) Stewart gives a marvellous demonstration of his acting ability and shows why he was one of the best loved and most popular actors ever to work in Hollywood. He appeared in a variety of different genres including westerns and thrillers as well as romantic comedies and he was nominated five times for Academy Awards, including his Oscar win for Best Actor in 'The Philadelphia Story'.
John Howard (1913-95) He made his movie debut in 1934 and became well known for his performance in 'Lost Horizon' in 1937 and as suave detective Bulldog Drummond in a series of films starting that same year. After the war he appeared many times on television and then began a successful 20 year career in academia as headmaster of a prestigious private school.
Ruth Hussey (1911-2005) Ruth began her working life as a model before being spotted by MGM. After her nomination for Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in 'The Philadelphia Story', she continued her career mainly in 'B' movies for the rest of the decade when she returned to her first love, the stage, and rarely appeared again on the big screen.
Roland Young (1887-1953) Born in London, Roland Young made his name on the New York stage and performed equally well when he moved into movies and then radio. His best known roles apart from the lovable Uncle Willy, was as the bucolic Earl in 'Ruggles of Red Gap' in 1935 and as Cosmo Topper in 'Topper' in 1937.


Director ... George Cukor
Producer ... Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Screenplay ... Donald Ogden Stewart
Story ... Based on the Broadway play by Philip Barry
Format ... B & W
Initial Release ... 17 January, 1941
Running Time ... 112 minutes

Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Actor ... James Stewart
Best Screenplay ... Donald Ogden Stewart
Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Best Director ... George Cukor
Best Actress ... Katharine Hepburn
Best Supporting Actress ... Ruth Hussey