Community Players’ production of The Philadelphia Story previews September 4, 2014. In this article, Bob McLaughlin explores the history of this classic comedy. Read the PREVIEW by John Lieder here.
Philip Barry’s smart comedy The Philadelphia Story would enjoy a place in history if only for its success on the stage on screen. But beyond its artistic accomplishment, it played an important—indeed vital—lifesaving role for two important institutions: the Theater Guild and Katharine Hepburn.
The Theater Guild was originally founded as the Washington Square Players in 1918, a part of the nationwide Little Theater Movement, out of which many great theaters were founded, including our very own Community Players in 1923. The Guild was founded by Lawrence Langer, Philip Moeller, Helen Westley, and Theresa Helbrun, who served as a board of directors, later augmented by others.
Rejecting the prevalent commercial-theater model, the Guild’s board chose the plays, produced them, and managed them, devoting profits not to paying off investors but to new productions. In short, they functioned much as a nonprofit theater works today. Responding to a commercial theater that was dominated by superficial comedies and melodramas, the Guild dedicated itself to “grown-up” drama, often importing it from Europe but also nurturing American playwrights. They helped transform the American theater in the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, producing almost all of Eugene O’Neill’s new work and the American premieres of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, plus such groundbreaking plays as R.U.R, Porgy, and, later, Porgy and Bess.
But success brings challenges and problems. Riding on the success of the 1920s, the Guild built its own state-of-the-art theater on West 52nd Street (now the August Wilson Theater, currently home to Jersey Boys), established a company of actors on year-round salary, promised a five-play season and recruited thousands of subscribers, and committed to a complex road-tour schedule, selling subscriptions in majors cities around the country. The outlay of cash these initiatives required became difficult to sustain as the Depression deepened, and the need to feed the subscription audiences meant accepting many subpar plays to produce. The result of all this was that by 1939 the Guild was in a desperate financial situation.
Philip Barry to the rescue. When The Philadelphia Story opened at the Shubert Theater on March 28, 1939, with a cast that included Katharine Hepburn, Shirley Booth, Joseph Cotten, and Van Heflin, it was just the hit the Guild needed. It ran for over a year in New York and many more months on the road. It gave the Guild the financial breathing room it needed, at least until March 31, 1943, when their production of Oklahoma! opened and they didn’t have to worry about money for a long time.
The Philadelphia Story played an equally important role in the career of Katharine Hepburn. After establishing herself as a stage actress in the late 1920s, Hepburn went to Hollywood in 1932 and quickly made her mark, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for Morning Glory in 1933. But the second half of the decade was less kind to her. A few bad films combined with her uncongenial relations with the press and public resulted in the label of “Box Office Poison.” RKO, the studio to which she was under contract, kept trying to revive her career, giving her such films as Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby, which are now considered classics but which at the time tanked. She finally bought out her contract for $75,000 and went back to New York, hoping to resurrect her career on the stage.
Barry wrote the role of Tracy Samantha Lord for Hepburn, tailoring it to her imperious public persona but leavening it with vulnerability. The play and Hepburn’s performance were widely praised, and her former lover, kazillionaire Howard Hughes, bought the film rights before the play even opened and then made them a gift to the great Kate. When the Hollywood studios inevitably began lining up to make a film version of the play, Hepburn was able to dictate her own terms, the first of which was that she would be cast in her stage role. MGM also allowed her to choose her own director, George Cukor, and co-stars, Cary Grant and James Stewart. She followed up this screen hit with Woman of the Year, her first film with Spencer Tracy, and her career was back on track.
The Theater Guild and Hepburn both showed their gratitude to lifesaver Philip Barry, the Guild by producing his next play, Liberty Jones, an odd allegorical take on the world situation and far from a crowd-pleaser or money-maker, and Hepburn by coming back from Hollywood to star in his next play after that, Without Love. Don’t you love a happy ending?
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