By the late 1930s, Katharine Hepburn's film career was in freefall. Dare one say it but by then her name in Hollywoodland was spelt 'box-office poison'! She had turned to the stage, appearing in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story on Broadway, a play which ran for more than 400 appearances. She was the driving force behind its success and thus put herself in a position to auction the movie rights to the play to the highest bidder. A successful screen adaptation was crucial for her own movie career so she insisted she approve any of her co-stars. Ruthlessly, and, to me, proving that the most important thing to Katharine Hepburn was the career of Katharine Hepburn, she didn't even consider her fellow performers on Broadway, Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin. To Hepburn's mind, they were just not big enough movie stars. Heflin, in particular, was understandably miffed.
She agreed to an MGM package of $175,000 for the rights to the property, $75,000 for her services, George Cukor as director, and James Stewart and Cary Grant as the co-stars who are both in love with her character, Tracy Lord. Though Grant realised he didn't have the best male role he consoled himself with top billing and top fee ($137,500), which he generously and very publicly donated to the British War Relief Fund. Stewart played the role of the frustrated reporter.
All this control-freakery was worthwhile for the result is a film which is one of the best movies ever made, a joy from start to finish. The opening is hilarious and all the way through the movie the wit is never far away. The popular musical remake of the film, High Society, is good but isn't a patch on this.
Though all the performances in the film were top draw, it was Stewart who pipped his co-stars for best performance, at least from the critics point of view. Not bad considering Stewart was embarrassed at the prospect of showing off his legs in the sequence after Mike and Tracy have had their night swim. When this embarrassement was relayed to Hepburn she proposed to Cukor that both characters play the scene in bathrobes.
Not only did The Philadelphia Story clean up at box offices all across the US upon its release, it also broke box-office records at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was also nominated for six Oscars, Best Picture, Best Screen Adaptation (Donald Ogden Stewart), Best Actor (Stewart), Best Actress (Hepburn), and Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Hussey). Stewart thought his great friend Henry Fonda would win that year for his role in The Grapes of Wrath (Stewart himself had voted for Fonda). At first Stewart had no intention of attending the ceremony at Biltmore Hotel after losing out with Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood the year before. Only after receiving an ambiguous phone call from a representative of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences did he change his mind. The representative suggested it was in Stewart's best interests to attend.
As it turned out Stewart was the only Best Actor candidate to attend the ceremony on February 27, 1941. Presenter Alfred Lunt announced Stewart as the winner. The general consensus was that great as his performance was it was not as jaw-droppingly great as Fonda's, and he received the award as compensation for losing with Mr Smith.
Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay was the film's only other major winner. Hepburn lost out to Ginger Rogers who won Best Actress for Kitty Foyle and Hepburn responded with some rather bitchy remarks. With Rogers, Hussey and others, Stewart celebrated by going from one nightclub to another until dawn. When he eventually returned to his Brentwood home, there were 100s of congratulatory telegrams, among them one from Fonda.
His housemate Burgess Meredith was there to greet him and once he saw the Oscar he quipped: "Where'd you get that thing - Ocean Pier Park?"
Stewart's father phoned to congratulate him on winning "some kind of prize". He then suggested the statuette be placed on show in the family Big Warehouse hardware store for folks to see. Stewart duly obliged and the statuette would be displayed there for decades.