Herald Journal Columns
July 7, 2003 Herald Journal
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'The Philadelphia Story' - Hepburn remembered


I know this is the second "old" movie I've reviewed in a row, but June was a sad month for those of us who love classic films.

After the passing of Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn died June 29 at age 96. She made her first film in 1932 ("A Bill of Divorcement") and her last in 1994 ("Love Affair").

In between were about 50 others, including such greats as "Little Women," "Bringing Up Baby," "Adam's Rib," "The African Queen," "Suddenly, Last Summer," "The Lion in Winter," "Rooster Cogburn," and "On Golden Pond."

Though she played opposite some of the finest leading men in the industry ­ John Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Peter O'Toole, John Wayne, Henry Fonda ­ it was her long-running relationship, both on-screen and off, with Spencer Tracy that drew the most attention.

Hepburn and Tracy made nine films together, starting with "Woman of the Year" in 1942 and ending with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in 1967.

They had a close personal relationship that lasted just as long, though Tracy was married to former stage actress Louise Treadwell the whole time. It's a sign of the great respect that the film industry and the media held for both Hepburn and Tracy that rumor mongering was kept to a minimum.

Hepburn claimed she never watched "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" because it was Tracy's last film.

The unconventional nature of that relationship was typical of Hepburn. Known for always speaking her mind, she alienated many fans and coworkers in the '30s by always wearing pants off-screen and never wearing make-up.

Once, her costume crew, frustrated that she dressed so unfashionably off-screen, hid her pants while she was shooting. Undeterred, she walked around the studio in her underwear until someone finally gave in and brought her the pants. At that time, she wouldn't allow photo shoots and interviews.

After great success with her first movies, her perceived haughtiness caused a backlash from the fans and the Hollywood community, and she became, from 1935 to 1938, "Box Office Poison." But then she landed a role in a Broadway play called "The Philadelphia Story," and it was a smash hit.

The story goes the Hepburn bought the film rights to the play, but further research reveals that it was actually billionaire Howard Hughes who paid the bill, and then gave the rights to her as a present.

Hepburn went back to Hollywood with a film that everyone wanted to produce, and was back on top again.

The film version of "The Philadelphia Story" was released in 1940, and it suited Hepburn well. The story revolves around Tracy Samantha Lord, a headstrong and independent rich young woman who has divorced her husband Dexter (Cary Grant).

Off-screen, Hepburn had been divorced only six years earlier, never to remarry. She once said, "If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married."

As the film starts, we find out she's now agreed to marry George Kittridge. We, the audience, know she doesn't really love him.

As the wedding approaches, the story takes several twists and turns, with Jimmy Stewart appearing as a tabloid reporter who also falls for the indomitable Miss Lord. And her ex-husband still loves her.

Her confusion mounts as the hour of the wedding approaches; but, for those who may not have seen this marvelous film, I'll not ruin the surprise ending: who does she marry?

Other than the unusual situation that the lead actress, who had fallen out of favor with the fans and the Hollywood community, held the rights to the film, and then made a hit out of it, there are other ways in which "The Philadelphia Story" broke new ground.

This was at a time when acting was becoming more understated and realistic ­ not quite yet the Method Acting of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but with more emotional levels and subtext.

"The Philadelphia Story" allowed a cast of marvelous actors to develop and explore their roles, adding a depth to them that was uncommon at the time.

The publicists had a hard time characterizing the movie, though everyone knew it would be a hit. The November edition of Box Office, a film trade magazine, promoted the release as "the direct antithesis of studio portraiture." In other words, it was different.

Later in her life, Hepburn, who still holds more Oscars for acting than anyone, said, "If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased."

Katharine Hepburn always did what interested her ­ and a lot of us were very pleased.

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