Of all the famous Katharine Hepburn movies--and she is the longest-lived (in her career) and most honored star in picture history--the one I’ve had a little trouble really loving is The Philadelphia Story (available on DVD). It’s got an impeccable pedigree: the last and most popular of four comedies she did with Cary Grant, three of them directed by George Cukor, who not only discovered Hepburn for 1932's A Bill of Divorcement, but also directed her in seven other movies (two for TV); and quite faithfully adapted from a successful Philip Barry play that had been a hit vehicle for Hepburn on Broadway. In fact, The Philadelphia Story is credited with reviving Hepburn’s picture career after she had left Hollywood a couple of years before with the weight on her of a powerful exhibitor’s comment that she was “box office poison.” She negotiated to control the play’s film rights and was instrumental in getting Cukor, Grant and James Stewart to do the movie, thus essentially authoring her own triumphant return to the screen. For his performance, Stewart won the Oscar as Best Actor. All the star players have some excellent scenes and the supporting cast is splendid. So what’s wrong?
There is the overriding quality of Hepburn being cut down to size, of having to eat crow and humble pie for having been such a strong and strikingly independent woman in the 1930's--certainly the best time ever for women in the movies. Hepburn had been a leader in that decade, typifying the newly emancipated female. (Remember, women didn’t even get to vote in the U.S. until 1920.) In films like Christopher Strong, Morning Glory (for which she got her first of four Best Actress Oscars), in Little Women and Alice Adams, Hepburn had been an inspirational figure: on her own, wearing trousers both on and off screen, and clearly representing a woman of ideals, passion, and integrity. The significantly named A Woman Rebels was another of her pictures, and she had the title role as the formidable martyr Mary of Scotland; in Sylvia Scarlett (her first with Grant), she was intriguingly disguised as a young man through most of it. But these last three, along with Quality Street, were resounding flops.
Trying to turn things around, Hepburn joined an ensemble cast for the successful female-oriented Stage Door, and followed with two of her greatest films, both released in 1938: with Grant and Cukor for another Philip Barry play, Holiday (in which she’s the nonconforming black sheep of a square banking family), and with Grant and Howard Hawks for the divinely screwball Bringing Up Baby (in which her dizzy character brings humanity to Grant’s stuffy scientist). Though both are considered classics today, they were not big box office attractions then, and Hepburn left Hollywood under a cloud.
Her last appearance on Broadway had been in a flop which inspired Dorothy Parker’s famous comment that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Undeterred, she came back with The Philadelphia Story and scored in a play which must have seemed to audiences to be about her personally rather than just the character Tracy Lord. She is disparagingly referred to repeatedly as an aloof “goddess,” a judgmental, distant and uncompromising person, without a truly “loving heart.” Her former husband (played by Grant in the picture and on stage by the pre-Citizen Kane Joseph Cotten) blames her for not being understanding about his alcoholism, thereby making him worse; her father blames her for not being compassionate to him about his philandering ways, thereby causing him to philander even more. Today, all this seems pretty ridiculous, I think, a load of self-satisfied cop-outs, all very seriously delivered, putting a pall over the romantic comedy. Significantly, though Hepburn had top billing over Grant in their three 30's pictures, she had to take second place to him here in her own star vehicle.
It did the trick, however. A properly humbled Hepburn was reinstated in the cinema galaxy, and her next film, Woman of the Year, her third with George Stevens and the first of eight with Spencer Tracy, made a similar point: overachieving career woman finds that love and home are more important. Not until the end of the 40's and the start of the 50's, with the Cukor-Tracy Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, both co-written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, were her obviously superior qualities more unapologetically presented. Not the way they were in the 30's, though; the values of those days have yet to be revived.
Despite everything, of course, The Philadelphia Story cannot be entirely dismissed. If nothing else, it’s the one and only time Jimmy Stewart appeared with Hepburn and their chemistry is intriguing, even though (perhaps too for the only time in his career) Stewart often is pushing too hard, overplaying his comedy hand. Maybe he felt threatened by the potent Grant-Hepburn combination, and by Grant’s matinee idol looks (this is also their only appearance together), and he strains uncharacteristically in his drunk scene. His winning the Oscar came about because the Academy felt guilty about not having given it to him the year before for his career-making, and infinitely better, portrayal in the title role of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hepburn herself is terrific throughout, as is the entire supporting cast, and Grant, subdued and in the least interesting part, is splendidly assured with his newly-won mega-stardom. But for the real fireworks between these two, see Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, or even the generally reviled but strangely likeable Sylvia Scarlett, three memorable pictures from Hepburn’s first glorious decade.