The Golden Age of Hollywood

Star of the Month Profile: Loretta Young

Born Gretchen Michaela Young on January 6, 1913

Attila the Nun
The Iron Butterfly
Saint Loretta

Roman Catholic. Young attended Ramona Convent Secondary School as a teen and contributed to a number of Catholic charitable causes during her career. Marlene Deitrich once said of Young, “Every time she sins, she build a church. That’s why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood.” Ouch, Marlene!

Political views
Conservative Republican. Young publicly supported presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. She also donated money to the Republican National Committee. Like many other stars of the time, including John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, and Irene Dunne, Young was an active member of the Hollywood Republican Committee.

Love life
First married actor Grant Withers in 1930, only to divorce a year later. 

While filming THE CALL OF THE WILD (1935) with Clark Gable, the two stars fell in love, despite Gable being married at the time to Texas socialite Maria Franklin Gable. Young became pregnant and secretly gave birth to a daughter, Judith. The baby was placed in an orphanage and adopted by Young a few months later. 

Clark Gable and Loretta Young in CALL OF THE WILD (1935)

When Young married Tom Lewis in 1940, Judy was given his last name. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Judy learned the truth about her parentage, despite Hollywood gossip and her rather obvious resemblance to her biological father. Tom Lewis produced “The Loretta Young Show” between 1953 and 1955, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1969.

Loretta Young’s third and final marriage was to Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis. Louis designed many of the gowns Young wore for her famously fabulous entrances on “The Loretta Young Show.” The couple were married from 1993 until Louis’s death in 1997.

Loretta Young and her sisters started out in movies at a very young age. She started as a child actor in silent films, first appearing in 1914. After high school, she returned to pictures, often in minor roles until her breakthrough with KENTUCKY (1938). Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Young made a number of successful films, many with other leading actors and actresses of the day, including Cary Grant, Celeste Holm, Van Johnson, and David Niven. Young was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1947) and later won an Oscar for COME TO THE STABLE (1949).

Loretta Young won three Emmys for her drama anthology television series “The Loretta Young Show.” Initially, the show was entitle “Letter to Loretta” because each episode began with Young reading a letter from a fan and then building the show around a question asked in the letter. This format was abandoned after the first season and a more traditional dramatic show. Loretta Young was the first woman to host a show of this nature. She became famous for the designer gowns she wore at the beginning of each show. In 1972 Young famously sued the network for rebroadcasting her show with her original introductions included – she had stipulated in her contract that these be omitted in any future broadcasts of the show because she did not want to be seen in outdated fashions. She won more than half a million dollars. Here are a few clips of Miss Young showing off her fantastic swirly dresses:

Most feministy moviesWhen reading the synopses for some of the Loretta Young movies in my TCM “Now Playing” guide, I was surprised by how many progressively strong female roles she played. I have not seen many of these films, but I thought them worth pointing out. You must let me know which of these you have seen and what you thought of them.

Loretta Young and a cutie-patootie baby Cary Grant!
  • BORN TO BE BAD (1934): An unmarried pregnant woman is determined that her child will not grow up to be taken advantage of. Directed by Lowell Sherman and co-starring Cary Grant. (on TCM January 9, 11:00 pm)
  • BIG BUSINESS GIRL (1931): A college girl uses her brains and her legs to conquer the business world. Directed by William A. Seiter and co-starring Joan Blondell and Frank Albertson. (January 16, 4:00 am)
  • THE DOCTOR TAKES A WIFE (1940): A man-hating author and a woman-hating doctor have to pretend they’re married. Directed by Alexander Hall and co-starring Ray Milland, Gail Patrick, and Edmund Gwenn. (January 23, 8:00 pm)
  • WEEK-END MARRIAGE (1932): When her husband loses his job, a woman risks her marriage to become the breadwinner. Directed by Thornton Freeland and co-starring Norman Foster, Aline MacMahon, and George Brent. (January 23, 2:30 am)
  • THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1947): When she goes to work for a congressman, a Minnesota farm girl takes Washington by storm. Directed by H.C. Potter and co-starring Joseph Cotton and Ethel Barrymore. (January 30, 8:00 pm)
  • KEY TO THE CITY (1950): Two mayors meet and fall in love during a convention in San Francisco. Directed by George Sidney and co-starring Clark Gable (*GASP!*), Frank Morgan, Marilyn Maxwell, Raymond Burr, James Gleason, and Lewis Stone. (January 30, 2:45 am)
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Taking Cary for Granted – In A Good Way!

Cary Grant made so many films (more than 70) in his 38-year career that we can sometimes take it for granted when TCM decides to dedicate an evening to his films. Tonight, Turner Classic Movies will be showing five of Cary Grant’s best. Below I have listed the films with their stats in the same way I present Katharine Hepburn’s films on the Filmography page of this blog. Although they are not the big dramatic titles that won Grant his well-deserved place in the book of Hollywood legends, the five comedies airing tonight are well worth your while!

8:00 pm EST: MONKEY BUSINESS (1952)
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, I.A.L. Diamond, Harry Segal
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn
Runtime: 97 minutes
Synopsis: A chemist and his wife become unsuspecting victims of his “fountain of youth” experiments. 
Margaret’s rating: 6/10

  10:00 pm: PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951)
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Curt Goetz (play)
Starring: Jeanne Crain
Runtime: 110 minutes
Synopsis: Scandal threatens when Dr. Praetorius (Grant) falls for his stdent (Crain) who becomes suicidal when she discovers she is expecting a child by her deceased ex-boyfriend.
Margaret’s rating: 5/10

12:00 am: I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE (1949)
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Charles Lederer, Leonard Spigelgass, Hagar Wilde, Henri Rochard (story)
Starring: Ann Sheridan
Runtime: 105 minutes
Synopsis: When a French captain marries an American Lieutenant, he must return to the U.S. with all the war brides who are trying to go to America to join their servicemen husbands.
Margaret’s rating: 8/10

2:00 am: THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937)
Directed by: Leo McCarey
Written by: Vina Delmar and Arthur Richman (play)
Starring: Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy
Runtime: 91 minutes
Synopsis: As their divorce proceedings move forward, husband and wife do everything they can to prevent the other from finding romance in another. 
Margaret’s rating: 8/10

3:45 am: THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947)
Directed by: Henry Koster
Written by: Robert E. Sherwood, Leonardo Bercovici, Robert Nathan (play)
Starring: Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester
Runtime: 109 minutes
Synopsis: An angel arrives to help a bishop sort out his priorities at Christmas as he struggles with his fundraising efforts for a new Cathedral and his duties to his wife and family.
Margaret’s rating: 10/10 (Hey, it’s Christmas!)


Myrna Loy: August 2 on TCM

This post is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Michael at Scribe Hard On Film and Jill at Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence.

On August 2nd TCM honors legendary actress Myrna Loy with a full day of her films. Here is a showcase of my personal favorite Myrna Loy films that will be showing on TCM this Thursday. What are your favorite Myrna Loy films? Are you excited to watch a Myrna Loy film you have been wanting to see for a long time? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this fabulous performer!

This romantic comedy directed by Jack Conway also stars William Powell (with whom Loy made 14 films), Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. A classic newspaper story with a lot of laughs.

When teen-age Susan (Shirley Temple) falls head over heals in love with playboy artist Dick (Cary Grant), big sister Margaret (Loy) tries to intervene, inadvertently (and reluctantly) falling for Dick herself. I love Loy in this picture because she plays a female judge – and that’s just cool. Her name is also Margaret – and that’s just FAN-BLOODY-TASTIC!

Another picture with Cary Grant, this film also stars Melvyn Douglas. Mr. and Mrs. Blandings (Grant and Loy) make infinite renovations to a house in the country. Their pursuit of their dream house turns into a nightmare as they invest more and more money into a house that doesn’t seem to want to be built!

This post-WWII movie was directed by William Wyler and co-stars Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Virginia Mayo. Three returning service men struggle to readjust to civilian family life and business in middle America. The film won seven Oscars, including an honorary award for Harold Russell “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” Russell lost both his hands while working with explosives during WWII.

Undoubtedly Myrna Loy’s most popular screen character as Nora Charles, half of husband and wife sleuthing team of the Thin Man series. This is the first of six movies in that series, and it’s probably my favorite. Even when their tight and high as kite, Nick and Nora make the classiest detectives I’ve ever seen!

Not to be confused with the sub-standard Steve Martin version, the film, and the story it was based on, is a classic family flick. This comedy/drama was directed by Walter Lang and costarred Clifton Webb and Jeanne Crain. Based on the real life story of the Gilbreth family, two efficiency engineers and their brood of 12 children! I highly recommend this book and it’s sequel, BELLES ON THEIR TOES, which was also made into a movie (1952) with Myrna Loy reprising her role as Mrs. Gilbreth.
I hope you enjoy these films and many more on Myrna Loy day on TCM! If you are interested in purchasing any of these movies for your personal collection, feel free to follow the links below to Amazon!


POLL: What is your favorite 1930s Katharine Hepburn movie?

1.) HOLIDAY (George Cukor, 1938)

Although Johnny (Cary Grant) is crazy about his fiancee Julia, Julia doesn’t seem crazy about Johnny’s plans for their future. Her sister Linda (Hepburn), on the other hand, feels more than sympathy for the young energetic dreamer engaged to her beloved sister.

2.) BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, 1938)

Happy-go-lucky Susan (Hepburn) drags reluctant professor David (Cary Grant) on a wild adventure searching for an escaped pet leopard in this hilarious screwball comedy.

3.) STAGE DOOR (Gregory La Cava, 1937)

Snooty socialite Terry Randall (Hepburn) comes to odds with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) and the other young actresses living at the Footlights Club in New York City. However, the community of women unite through hard times and personal tragedy, eventually accepting Terry as one of their own.

4.) ALICE ADAMS (George Stevens, 1935)

Alice is a small-town girl from a working class family who must try against all the odds of her family’s status to succeed in society and romance.

5.) LITTLE WOMEN (George Cukor, 1933)

Jo March (Hepburn) and her sisters love, laugh, and support each other through a life of financial poverty and personal hardship in this film based on Louisa May Alcott‘s American classic.

<a href=””>What’s your favorite 1930s Katharine Hepburn film?</a>


And the winners are…

Over the past month or so I’ve posted four polls about Katharine Hepburn movies and co-stars. Although you can continue to cast your votes on those polls, I thought I’d give all those who have already voted a run-down on the scores.

What’s your favorite Katharine Hepburn classic? has 20 votes so far and they are pretty evening distributed across the board. BRINGING UP BABY (1938) is in the lead with five votes, followed by LITTLE WOMEN (1934) with four votes. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) and AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) are both tied for last place with three votes each. The remaining five votes selected “other” and that list includes to votes for THE LION IN WINTER (1968), and one each for HOLIDAY (1938), ON GOLDEN POND (1982), and CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933).

15 people have voted on What’s your favorite Katharine Hepburn Oscar win? GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967) and THE LION IN WINTER (1968), for which Katharine Hepburn won back-to-back Oscars, are tied for the lead with six votes each. MORNING GLORY (1933), Hepburn’s first ever Oscar nomination and win, is trailing with only two votes and Hepburn’s final Oscar win, ON GOLDEN POND (1982) brings up the rear with a single vote.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made four films together and you can vote for your favorite in What’s your favorite Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn movie? Nine of the fourteen votes went to the ever-popular BRINGING UP BABY (1938). THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) has only three votes and HOLIDAY (1938) only two. Unfortunately, SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935) brings up the rear without a solitary vote.

The most recent poll Who’s your favorite of Hepburn’s leading men? gives several options, but so far people have only voted on two: six votes have gone to Cary Grant and five to Spencer Tracy. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, and Peter O’Toole are also listed, but no one seems overly impressed with their performances, apparently!

These are all running polls, so feel free to cast your vote at any time. If you don’t see the answer you would like, you can always enter your own in the “other” option. Let me know if you have an idea for a poll question and I will post it for you. You can see all the existing polls under the “Polls” tab at the top of the blog, and there is also a link to each individual poll in the Table of Contents. Thanks for voting!

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Queer Film Blogathon 2012: SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935)

This post is written in conjunction with the second annual Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrrr! The first film that came to mind for me when I signed up to participate in this blogathon (my first, as it happens!) was George Cukor’s SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), the first film of four to pair the great acting talents of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The idea to make a film of SYLVIA SCARLETT was entirely the brainchild of Katharine Hepburn and her director friend George Cukor (who was himself, by all accounts, homosexual). He called it “our love child” and she called it “our flopperoo.” Hepburn invested some of her own money into the project:

“I sank some of my own money into SYLVIA SCARLETT. ‘Sank’ is the right word. I could have dropped it into the ocean with bricks tied to it and had a better chance of seeing it again” (Chandler 93).

“I always kept a little foolish money on the side. Foolish money is money I thought I could afford to be foolish with. It wasn’t the money that was foolish. It was I” (Ibid., 94).

The preview showing of SYLVIA SCARLETT was a legendary catastrophe. Hepburn sat next to costar Natalie Paley (who plays her romantic rival) and they couldn’t figure out why the audience weren’t laughing at the funnier scenes. At one point during the movie, audiences stared to leave. Afterwards Cukor and Hepburn went up to producer Pandro Berman (who never wanted to make the picture in the first place) and told him they’d make another movie for him for nothing. He said he never wanted to see either of them ever again (he would – they made a lot more pictures together both at RKO and MGM).

However badly SYLVIA SCARLETT did at the box office, Hepburn herself received some fairly positive notices (Edwards, 145):

“The dynamic Miss Hepburn is the handsomest boy of the season. I don’t care for SYLVIA SCARLETT a bit, but I do think Miss Hepburn is much better in it than she was as the small-town wallflower in ALICE ADAMS” (New York Harold Tribune).

SYLVIA SCARLETT reveals the interesting fact that Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than a woman” (Time).

SYLVIA SCARLETT is a tour de force, made possible by Miss Hepburn’s physical resemblance to the adolescent male” (New York Post).

SYLVIA SCARLETT is a film nested in multiple layers of doubles and contradictions. First of all, the subject matter contains themes of gender ambiguity which are paired off in doubles, the most prominent of which is that Sylvia/Sylvester is a girl masquerading as a boy. There is also the dual nationality aspect of the film which places the Hepburn character in particular in a sort of no man’s land of identity. The film itself failed to win over audiences because it was simultaneously too safe yet too risqué. The result is altogether too ambiguous.

SYLVIA SCARLETT is about a girl and her father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), who are forced to flee France because he has been fiddling with the accounts. In an attempt to deceive the authorities, Sylvia cuts off all her hair and disguises herself as a boy. On the boat to England, she/he and her father meet Monkey (Cary Grant), an English con-artist with whom they join forces. The group is joined by a cockney housemaid named Maudie, who becomes Henry’s new wife, and the troupe goes to the English seaside as a traveling band of performers. It is there they meet local Bohemian artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne). Sylvia immediately falls for him and he himself gets a “queer feeling” whenever he looks at the boy.
The Hepburn character is confronted with a struggle that often accompanies “doubles roles,” roles in which the character switches between two identities. This is especially true in this case if we examine Sylvia/Sylvester’s relationship with the father figure. The opening sequence in the movie (which was tacked on at the last minute in an attempt to justify Sylvia’s radical transformation into Sylvester) explains to the audience how the Hepburn character both adopts yet resists the dead mother’s position in relation to the father. On the one hand, she insists on remaining “faithful” to the father by refusing to marry. But on the other hand, she rejects femininity by refusing to be “weak and silly.” It is this strange attempt to negotiate the incompatible that renders this film literally in-credible.

A certain theatrical thread runs through this movie, tying together various themes of oppositional identity. It is a radical film in the sense that it defines femininity as an act and gender as a matter of style. At the point in the film when Sylvester reverts back to Sylvia, another character asks an extremely significant question: “Which is which?” That is the real question mark of the entire film! The sexual ambiguity of the Hepburn character becomes more evident as Sylvia and Michael attempt to negotiate the definitions of gender identity. As the film progresses, we forget which of Sylvia/Sylvester’s genders is an act and which is her true nature. Without a doubt, Hepburn is much more convincing as a boy than as a girl and this is very apparent in her romantic scenes, which have a tendency to work against her credibility: the more feminine and girly she behaves, the less valid her performance becomes.

Sylvia/Sylvester’s relationship between the other female characters of the film is also worth taking a closer look at. As in two other notably popular LGBT films, QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) and MOROCCO (1930), SYLVIA SCARLETT does contain a lesbian kiss. This is one of those moments when the film could have been more ambitious but chose to err on the side of caution by having the Hepburn character reject a kiss from another woman – another woman who, incidentally, believed she was kissing a man in the first place. It’s an odd scene which serves little purpose but to highlight the gender trap which the Hepburn character has set for herself. She cannot devote herself to true masculinity nor true femininity unless she wants to cross the line from the hetero- to the homo-sexual. 

The Kiss
Sylvia also has an odd relationship to the woman who would be her romantic rival for Michael. Although Lily is catty and jealous, Sylvia refuses to reciprocate those disgustingly traditional female stereotypes. Instead she ideologically allies with Lily and in fact saves her life in order to allow her to be with the man she, Sylvia, loves (this sort of female allegiance can also be found in HOLIDAY (1938), another Hepburn/Grant film). When Monkley questions her devotion to her female rival, she rejects his cynical view of life and says, “She was willing to die for him. That must count for something” and “It might be a pig of a world for you and me, but not for her, if I can help it.” Then when she goes to bring Michael back to Lily, she explains, “You mustn’t let her be [this unhappy].” 

Allies or rivals?
When the film places Hepburn back into male costume toward the end of the film, at a point when every other character knows she is a woman, and as she continues to take the part of ally rather than rival to the other female characters, her status as “another one of the guys” is solidified. She and her would-be lover are shown as either homosexual man and man or heterosexual/asexual man and man. It isn’t until circumstances force them to chose is the issue somewhat resolved. Even then, the resolution is incomplete, because we are unsure whether they will prefer to continue are rather confused gender charade with Sylvia as Sylvester, or if we can assume that at some point she will attempt to revert to complete femininity (a feat we doubt she can actually achieve anyway).

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn

Although the film fails to come to any definite conclusions about gender and sexuality, it does follow through on many of the issues about gender which are present in many of Katharine Hepburn’s other film roles. Like many of her other more radically feminist film, it directly addresses the question of gender identity, even if it does confuse the matter more than clarify it. I find it an immensely humorous film – Cary Grant is really at the top of his game as a performer, even is her does have a more minor part. He really shines as the cockney acrobatic circus performer. Remember that it’s in another Hepburn/Grant film that he becomes the first character ever to use the term “gay” for its homosexual connotations (in BRINGING UP BABY (1938)). I encourage you to see SYLVIA SCARLETT and enjoy it, both as a fun comedy, and as an examination of the representation of LGBT themes in classic Hollywood films.


Poll: Who’s your favorite of Hepburn’s leading men?

<a href=””>Who’s your favorite of Hepburn’s leading men?</a>

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Poll: What’s your favorite Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn movie?

What is your favorite Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn movie?

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HOLIDAY (1938)

Yes, they did actually
make this film.

By the end of the 1930s it had appeared that Katharine Hepburn’s star had already risen and fallen. Due to a string of commercial failures (BREAK OF HEARTS, SYLVIA SCARLETT, A WOMAN REBELS, QUALITY STREET, to name a few), the independent movie theatres had labelled Hepburn “box office poison.” This bad press made it difficult for even her good films of the period (ALICE ADAMS, STAGE DOOR, BRINGING UP BABY) to turn a profit for the studio. When RKO Radio Pictures offered Katharine Hepburn a part in a film entitled MOTHER CAREY’S CHICKENS, she knew it was time for her to quit that studio and move on to greener pastures. She paid RKO $75,000 to loan her out to Columbia for HOLIDAY (for which she was paid a handsome $150,000).

Hope Williams
as Linda Seton

This wasn’t the first time Hepburn had seen this material. After her graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1928, she got a job as understudy to Hope Williams who was playing the lead in Philip Barry’s play Holiday on Broadway (it was while working as Williams’ understudy that she married her beau from college days, Ludlow Ogden Smith, and moved to New York City). However, when Hepburn remembers this early opportunity in show business, she says “I soon realized that Hope was a very healthy girl. It wasn’t that I wished her anything bad. She was very talented and very nice. But I understood that being an understudy was almost worse than not being in the theatre at all, if you understudied someone who never missed a performance” (Chandler, 122). When Williams offered to stay home for a matinee and allow Hepburn perform in her stead, Hepburn turned her down. “An excess of pride,” explains Hepburn. “It was what I suffered from.” Hepburn would later use material from Holiday for her first ever screen test, which is how she caught the eye of director and long-time friend George Cukor.

Linda and Johnny perform an
acrobatic stunt in HOLIDAY

HOLIDAY is a very thoughtful story, bordering on the philosophical. Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is engaged to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) only ten days after meeting her on vacation at Lake Placid. When he comes home to meet the family, he confides in Julia’s older sister Linda (Hepburn) about his plans for the future. His dream is to quickly make enough money to quit work and take an extended holiday so that he can take time to think and discover what it is he is working for. Although he and Linda understand the grand potential of his scheme, he has a harder time convincing his fiancee and their father the viability of the plan. Linda and Johnny are both taken aback by Julia’s reluctance to stray from the severe conventionality of the patriarchal way of life exhibited by other members of their social class. Linda, like Johnny, has always despised wealth and the lifestyle it forces upon its subjects. Julia and her father, on the other hand, aspire to expand the family’s fortune and respectability as far as possible and are unsympathetic towards Johnny’s attempt to excuse himself from the cycle of acquiring wealth and privilege. Johnny is conflicted between his love from Julia and his desire to follow his dreams. Linda is conflicted by her love for her sister, and her sister’s potential happiness with Johnny, and her own romantic feelings for him and the life he wants to pursue. (NOTE: In a future post on this blog, I intend to pursue a feminist reading of HOLIDAY, examining the role of the Hepburn character in the narrative of the story, as well as the more subtle nuances concerning the representation of women in the film text as a whole.)

“Don’t you say a word about Leopold! He’s very sensitive!”
“Uh-huh – Looks like me.”

Although critics praised HOLIDAY, and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in it, depression-era audiences did not enjoy some of the inherent themes. While 30s movie-goers loved to observe “the privileged class enjoying its privileges” (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)), they were not sympathetic to the Johnny character who wanted to chuck a good job out the window so that he could have the freedom to think. America was looking for pragmatism and optimism during the 1930s, and Johnny’s happy-go-lucky scheme to quit work and philosophize about life was too impractical to be attractive.

Katharine Hepburn did not linger long in Hollywood after the release of HOLIDAY. Selznick was tempted to cast her as Scarlett in GONE WITH THE WIND, but she withdrew her name from that contest. Though she must have been aware of what such a role would mean for her dwindling career, Hepburn never felt that the part was right for her. When Vivien Leigh was discovered, Hepburn returned East for a year or so of self-imposed exile from Hollywood. She would not be in Hollywood for all of 1939, universally acknowledged to be the biggest year in cinema history, but she would return in 1940 in a big way with THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.



The Philadelphia Story (1940) marks the turning point in Hepburn’s film career. She had decided to return home in 1938 after being labeled “box office poison” for a series of failed costume dramas at RKO. After a hurricane swept away her family’s Fenwick home, Hepburn tried to piece her life and career back together. Playwright Philip Barry visited her in Fenwick with a play which he had written for her about a Philadelphia socialite modeled after Hepburn herself. The play ran for an unprecedented 415 performances. Hepburn’s then boyfriend, Howard Hughes, purchased the rights for her so that she would be able to return to Hollywood and call her own shots. Rather than returning to RKO, Hepburn signed a contract with MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. The Philadelphia Story was the first film in which Hepburn had almost exclusive control over the casting of the film. She was given top billing across Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and her friend George Cukor was chosen to direct. 

The Philadelphia Story is about an aloof American socialite who is about to be remarried. Her fiance is a “man of the people” type of guy who has had to work his way up from the bottom. Things get complicated when her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) appears with some unsettling news. In order to pacify the editor of Spy magazine, the family must allow a reporter (Jimmy Stewart) and camerawoman attend the wedding, or else the magazine will print a shameful article about the father’s philandering. The story spans the day and night leading up to the wedding. In this time, Tracy undergoes some serious character growth as she struggles to identify her purpose as a wife, woman, and as a human being. The script is witty and sophisticated, with just the appropriate amount of philosophical digging to get the audience thinking.

The plot of The Philadelphia Story both promotes and contradicts many feminist ideals. Some audiences viewed Tracy’s reformation as a taming, though many film critics debate this point. Although Hepburn’s character is scolded and insulted by the various male characters, they each in one way or another love, admire, or respect her. Tracy’s “upper-classness” (Andrew Britton, 1995) is the epitome of Hepburn, but in a way very much unlike her alter ego Jo March. Tracy is an intellectual with very strong opinions about herself and about other people. She is not ambitious like Jo March but she sets very high standards for herself and the people around her. One might observe that Jo March is very like the young Hepburn, the kid behind the star, while Tracy epitomizes that which audiences identify in her star persona – class, intelligence, wit, and high moral standards. Through her role as Tracy, Hepburn came to represent a “special class of the American female,” full of strength and “inner divinity.”

There are three male leads in this film, arguably four if you count the father. Each has a unique relationship with Tracy. She expresses contempt for her father’s philandering, and although he cruelly calls her a “prig and a perennial spinster,” the two are reconciled by the end of the film. Her fiancé in the film worships her but his narrow-minded class and gender prejudices limit him from being truly equal to her. Jimmy Stewart’s character, the journalist Macaulay Connor , falls for Tracy, but only after expressing his own contempt for her class and lifestyle. The impossibility of their being matched is prevented by his snobbishness not hers, and in many ways one could argue that he is as reformed by the end of the film as she is.

Tracy’s relationship with her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, is the most complex. He refuses to be impressed by her “so-called strength” and he leads the pack in trying to reform her, but it is clear that he truly loves her. His arguments for her reformation are not that she should be less of a strong, independent-minded woman, but that she should be more of a compassionate human being: “You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman until you have learned to have some regard for human frailty.” His appeal is not an attack on her female strength, but more an appeal to her humanity. It is clear that he and Tracy are evenly matched because he does not wish to break her will but only to refine it. The tension between Tracy and Macaulay is based on social and economic class division, but C.K. Dexter Haven argues on the basis of the human vs. either the merely material statue, or the other-worldly, deific goddess. He supports the refined, yet secular, view of mankind which is indicative of his expectations for perfection, regardless of social class. At one point he says “You (Tracy) could marry Mack the night watchman and I’d cheer for you!” 

Tracy’s father’s objections are the most infuriating because he blames her for his affair with another woman. He also attacks her womanhood when he says, 
“You have a good mind, a pretty face, a disciplined body that does what you tell it to.
You have everything it takes to make a beautiful woman except the one essential: an
understanding heart. And without that you might as well be made of bronze.”
Her father’s remarks might cut the deepest, but at bottom they are simply a reiteration of what Haven has already said, including the statue motif. The fact that these arguments are framed in a way that limits Tracy’s femaleness, they are not read as such by the characters involved. He also practically retracts all that he has said by the end of the film when he denies that Tracy has ever been a disappointment as a daughter, thus voiding his entire arguments against her.

The film concludes on a high note, and Tracy has been able to maintain every ounce of dignity she had a the beginning of the story, which is why it is difficult to view this film as another Taming of the ShrewThe movie was a big hit, winning Hepburn another Academy Award nomination Jimmy Stewart his first Oscar. Hepburn’s career was back on track. From this point forward, Hepburn had a direct hand in the parts she chose to play and in the casting and filming of future projects. Not all of them were as successful as The Philadelphia Story, but Hepburn was able select roles that both stretched her abilities and took advantage of the strength of her increasingly feminist persona.