(No. 25 in the series)
By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 28, 2021: After struggling to regain his form as Broadway’s foremost writer of drawing-room comedy, Philip Barry—who hadn’t had a hit since 1932—accomplished that aim with éclat in The Philadelphia Story, which opened as a Theatre Guild production at the Shubert Theatre on March 28, 1939, where it racked up 417 performances. Brooks Atkinson dubbed it a “gay and sagacious comedy,” and Burns Mantle picked as one of the year’s Ten Best. It brought Katharine Hepburn, in a role written for her, back to the stage in triumph after several years in Hollywood, where she recently had been declared “box office poison.” Together with Barry and industrialist Howard Hughes, she had a 75 percent interest in the play, which still left enough to rescue the Theatre Guild from impending financial disaster.
Interestingly, after the tryout in Washington, D.C., Hepburn was the sole dissenter when the Guild agreed to take the lay to New York and not to first try to recoup the investment by a lengthy tour. She had a deathly fear of failing on Broadway because of her unfortunate experience there years earlier in The Lake.
The Philadelphia Story, directed by Robert B. Sinclair, with designs by Robert Edmond Jones (and Hepburn’s clothes by Valentina), revealed to late Depression-era audiences, with mingled acid wit and understanding, the lives of the filthy rich. These are exemplified by the Lords, a Main Line family living on a country estate near Philadelphia. The house buzzes with excitement as preparations are undertaken for the marriage of icy divorcée, holier-than-though Tracy Lord (Hepburn)–called a “virgin goddess”—to the smugly conservative, parvenu businessman George Kittredge (Frank Fenton). There are even present a perceptive writer, Macauley (“Mike”) Connor (Van Heflin), and photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Shirley Booth), from the Fortune-like magazine Destiny. They’ve been assigned to work up a story on the shindig, rather than to do one on the affair Tracy’s dad (Nicholas Joy) is having with a dancer.
Mike has little respect for the idle wealthy. Class antagonism mixed with mutual attraction ultimately strikes sparks between him and the morally demanding socialite; they even have a nude midnight swim together when she gets drunk, although no one takes sexual advantage of the occasion. A monkey wrench is thrown into the proceedings by the reappearance of Tracy’s bibulous ex, C. Dexter Gordon (Joseph Cotton), whose drinking led to their divorce. Circumstances conspire to chasten Tracy’s pride, and she throws George over to remarry Dexter.
In the now-classic 1941 movie version—you can see the terrific trailer for it here—Kate Hepburn repeated her Broadway role, with Cary Grant taking on Dexter, James Stewart doing the honors as Mike, and Ruth Hussey playing Elizabeth. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Most critics found small things to carp about, such as the lack of thematic depth, a shaky plot, and moments of strained credibility. However, most agreed with Grenville Vernon that, “on the whole, Mr. Barry has written an interesting play, with shrewd touches of character, and much humor.” Barry, said Richard Watts, Jr., “has frankly written a theatrical comedy, written it with skill and humor and good-natured sympathy and in that attractive prose style which tends to make everything he sets down so graceful.” John Mason Brown believed the play less good than Paris Bound, yet noted, “Even at its feeblest and most aimless, it is warmed by a winning sense of tolerance.”
The critics vied in piling up positive adjectives to describe the star, whose performance many said was the foundation for the play’s success. Wrote Vernon, “Miss Hepburn has confounded those critics who have asserted she is not an actress but only a personality. She proves herself very much of an actress. I will not speak of her beauty, of her vitality, or of her athletic grace of movement. She always had these. But now she has more. She has artistic insight, sensibility, variety, tenderness, pathos, yes, even emotion, though not the emotion that flames. In short, she proves that she can characterize, and with a mastership of detail. Only perhaps in her voice is there still a certain monotony, and this she has largely conquered.”
Joseph Cotton also was highly praised. Among the other cast members was Lenore Lonergan as Tracy’s kid sister, Vera Allen as her mother, and Forrest Orr as a bottom-pinching uncle.
And that’s what opened on March 28, 1939.