Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story (1940) – A Film Review

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

Directed by – – – – – – – – – – – – –  George Cukor
Written by – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  Donald Ogden Stewart
Based on a Play by – – – – – – – – – – Philip Barry


If you have read my review of Holiday (d. Cukor USA 1938) please skip the next paragraph as it is the introduction to Katharine Hepburn.

Introduction: The Star

Katharine Hepburn. A name that should need no introduction. Though times have changed so unfortunately she does. Katharine Hepburn has won 4 oscars for acting (Morning Glory (d. Lowell Sherman USA 1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (d. Stanley Kramer USA 1967), The Lion in Winter (d. Anthony Harvey UK/USA 1968) and On Golden Pond (d. Mark Rydell USA/UK 1981)), only recently did another actor/actress receive a third – Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg USA 2012). Her reputation should be well established. She was also a personality in her own right, she is the sole character and the subject of the play Tea At Five (A. Matthew Lombardo USA 2002) and she was portrayed in Martin Scorsese‘s The Aviator (d. Scorcsese USA/Germany 2004) by Cate Blanchett. This performance made the Oscar winning actress and Oscar winning role. In 2014 two biopics of her life was announced so hopefully interest in her life and works will be renewed. Her achievements in life make her an icon of Hollywood – she is also a feminist and fashion icon as she played strong female characters and wore trousers before they were fashionable. “I’m a personality as well as an actress. Show me an actress who isn’t a personality and you’ll show me a woman who isn’t a star.” – Katharine Hepburn. And yet she feels under appreciated… perhaps its just the lack of serious study into her acting abilities. Asking friends they don’t seem to be too aware of her or her career. So I was very pleased to see that the BFI Southbank is holding a Katharine Hepburn season in tribute to this iconic actress.

The Story

Katharine Hepburn managed to go from an Oscar, with Morning Glory to ‘Box Office Poison‘ – where she was deemed unfavourable with audiences enough to ensure a box office flop. A considerable low point in her career that she struggled to come back from. RKO offering her the part in a B-Movie was a telling point, she had to do something. She bought herself out of her contract with RKO and took to the stage with The Philadelphia Story (a. Philip Barry USA 1939) a play practically written for her. The play was a huge success and she bought the film rights with help of her friend – Howard Hughes. This ensured that when Hollywood came to adapt the play into a film she would have to be attached. So, The Philadelphia Story (d. Cukor USA 1940) was made. This is one of the high points of Katharine Hepburn’s career and it ensured her future as an actress.

The Film

Enter The Philadelphia Story, the vehicle for Katharine Hepburn and one of the landmarks of her career. This film, like many of Philip Barry’s plays is character driven and deals with social class. Marriage and the nature of romance is a theme. The film boasts a fine cast and these stars Jimmy Stewart (Macaulay Connor) and Cary Grant (C. K. Dexter Haven) along with Katharine Hepburn are very strong in this film. Like many scripts by Philip Barry and Donald Ogden Stewart there is a strong sense of wit to the lines and each actor delivers them well. Cary Grant delivering his usual fast paced lines and Jimmy Stewart his own trademark voice and character to the lines. The Philadelphia Story works well as a Katharine Hepburn film, a Cary Grant film or a Jimmy Stewart film. Despite the obvious star performances doing so well, it unfortunately means that the supporting cast are overlooked – though they perform wonderfully in their respective roles and add true characters. The way the characters interact with each other really hits home and drives you through the storyline. There’s a real sense of caring for the characters. 64 years on and this film still has the power to connect with you but its far from a CGI action film! Katharine Hepburn was not at her most popular and knowing this largely informed her screen character, written to be both strong and vulnerable and this also inspired the first scene, which is a rare moment of slapstick.


Powerful and timeless as a character drama, The Philadelphia Story is still a very powerful film. This was a film that gave so much to the cast and for Katharine Hepburn’s career it was a very important turning point. There’s a reason this film is regarded as a historical landmark. Today, this film isn’t an effects film and it is in black and white but if you allow yourself the chance it shan’t disappoint you. The characters just jump at you and grab you and you are with them every step of the way, happy, sad amused or confused. You are there with them all, such as our dear Katharine Hepburn.


Tracy Lord and C. K. Dexter Haven are divorced. Later Tracy Lord, one of society’s socialites, is getting remarried. Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are reluctantly brought in to report on the event, despite assuming identities other than reporters, and Tracy Lord isn’t pleased to see the return of her ex husband either.

Further Reading

BFI Southbank



The Philadelphia Story TCM

The Philadelphia Story Filmsite

Classic Films in Focus

George Cukor

Morning Glory TCM

Morning Glory Filmsite

Sylvia Scarlett TCM

Stage Door TCM

Stage Door Filmsite

Bringing Up Baby TCM

Bringing Up Baby Filmsite

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner TCM

The Lion in Winter TCM

On Golden Pond TCM

Katharine Hepburn TCM

The Philadelphia Story: Study Guide and Dramaturgical Packet

Must Have Movies

Philadelphia Story Film Reference

Philadelphia Story Film Spectrum

Film Review: Philadelphia Story

Renouncing Divinity: The Philadelphia Story and the Wagnerian Mirror

The ABC’s of Cinema (The Philadelphia Story)

Absolute Definition: Katharine Hepburn

Born For the Part

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Katharine Hepburn’s Trousers

The Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn’s Fake Accent

10 Life Lessons We Learnt From Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn, Katharine. Me Stories of My Life. Ballantine Books, 1996.

Katharine Hepburn’s Obituary

Somewhere over the Rainbow

C. K. Dexter Haven

Dinah Lord

Katharine Hepburn & Jimmy Stewart

Katharine Hepburn Interview

Katharine Hepburn rearranging the furniture

Katharine Hepburn at the Academy Awards

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