Review: The Philadelphia Story – the making of an icon

Mark Reynolds 30 November -0001

Re-released in cinemas as the centrepiece of a major Katharine Hepburn season at the BFI Southbank and selected screens across the UK and Ireland, Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart sizzle in this sophisticated story of a society wedding jeopardised by scandal.

It’s difficult for modern viewers to grasp that immediately prior to the film’s original release in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was regarded by industry insiders and the public at large as ‘box office poison’. Although her career had started brightly, registering an Oscar win for her third film Morning Glory (1933), the subsequent years were fallow, dotted by commercial flops including the now acclaimed Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Stage Door (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Her reputation as bossy, aloof and – horror of horrors – unfeminine appeared set to confirm her demise, but she determinedly persuaded playwright Philip Barry to create a role for her that would re-establish her reputation. Inspired in part by the high-spirited socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, the character of Tracy Lord became the vehicle for Hepburn’s highly visible transformation from ice maiden to screen icon – via a triumphant stint on Broadway.

Tracy is about to marry dull self-made millionaire George Kittredge (John Howard) when her sneaky, fast-talking ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) reappears at the family home accompanied by sleazy tabloid-style reporter Mike Connor (Stewart) and his photographer sidekick Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Such an invasion of privacy is anathema to the ultra-private Lord family, and Tracy takes an instant dislike to the interlopers. But as she warms to Mike’s maverick spirit, and family members make it increasingly plain they think she and Dexter should never have split, on the eve of her wedding Tracy finds herself facing a three-way dilemma between security, instinct and adventure.

Alive with sharp dialogue and compromising altercations, this is the film that set Hepburn apart as a supremely versatile, independent-minded actress capable of delivering high drama and tight comedy with unrivalled grace and charm. Don’t miss the chance to catch her in her prime on the big screen.

The Philadelphia Story opens on Friday 13 February at BFI Southbank, IFI Dublin, Cornerhouse Manchester, Curzon Bloomsbury and selected cinemas, and the Katharine Hepburn season continues to 19 March. More info.

Katharine Hepburn also stars in the groundbreaking Hollywood classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Romantic Films Collection
Films starring Cary Grant
Films starring James Stewart