Updated: May 12, 2021
As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s comeback film, Screen Chic looks at both her career strategy and onscreen style.
Katharine Hepburn’s career almost ended when she was just shy of her 31st birthday.
On May 3, 1938, the Independent Theatre Owners’ Association of New York took out an advertisement in the Independent Film Journal, in which Harry Brandt, who had led the organization since 1933, declared that a select group of highly paid actors and actresses were no longer worth their salaries, and the association was “tired of losing money on such stars as Mae West, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.” Also making the list, which the association had collectively dubbed “box-office poison”: Katharine Hepburn.
Some actresses, like West, laughed it off; others threatened to sue. Hepburn, unsurprisingly, was wholly pragmatic. “During this period, my career had taken a real nosedive,” she wrote in 1991’s Me: Stories of My Life. “It was then that the ‘box-office poison’ label began to appear. The independent theatre owners were trying to get rid of Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and me. It seems that they were forced to take our pictures if they got certain ones which they really wanted.”
Hepburn added that she actually felt sorry for the theatre owners, listing off a “string of very dull movies”: Break of Hearts, Sylvia Scarlett, A Woman Rebels and Quality Street. But she also defended her work of the period, pointing to Alice Adams, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, the latter two both released in 1938. “These last four were good pictures, but I had apparently become someone the independents avoided because of the four dull preceding,” she continued in Me. “I did Holiday on a loan-out from RKO, who were anxious to get rid of me and had offered me Mother Carey’s Chickens, which I had turned down.” Hepburn also revealed in her autobiography that she paid RKO $75,000 to be allowed to do Holiday at Columbia, where studio head Harry Cohn had offered her $150,000. The deal also effectively ended her RKO contract.
But with Holiday set to premiere in Los Angeles on May 24, 1938, Hepburn’s “box-office poison” status threatened the success of Cohn’s George Cukor-directed film. Cohn thought about taking out his own ads, asking “What’s wrong with Katharine Hepburn?” but she nixed that idea. “I advised him not to: ‘Look out! They might tell you,’” she recalled in Me.
Amid those challenges, Hepburn decided the time was right to head back east and do a play. At that point her theatre career paralleled what she had experienced in Hollywood – in other words, it was a mix of successes and failures. Among that work, Hepburn had understudied the role of Linda Seton in Philip Barry’s Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1928. She was hunkering down at her childhood home in Fenwick, Connecticut, when the phone rang one day: It was Philip Barry, who wanted to run some story ideas by her. The playwright appeared in Fenwick the next day for tea, and over the course of the day, he pitched her two stories: “one, a father and daughter; the second, The Philadelphia Story,” she wrote in Me. “The latter one sounded better to me.”
A few weeks later, Barry sent his draft of the first act; Hepburn said she was thrilled with the story and the part of Tracy Lord.
Of course, one person hadn’t been thrilled with her decision to depart Hollywood: Hepburn’s then-boyfriend, Howard Hughes. In Me, she noted that he preferred she stay, not only to pursue film work, but also to remain by his side. Today it’s much easier to understand that it’s to Hepburn’s credit that she put her career before romance. “As I look back, I have to realize that I took what I considered a good business step and did not let my personal life dominate my actions,” she wrote, then immediately added, “I did not want to marry Howard.”
Though their relationship was dwindling, Hughes gave Hepburn some excellent advice: “Buy the film rights before you open,” he told her. The reclusive millionaire also gave her the money to do so. The decision indeed was a turning point in Hepburn’s career.
The Philadelphia Story opened in New York City at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street on March 28, 1939, and ran for 417 performances. The play was an immediate success, but Hepburn didn’t disclose early on that she also owned the film rights – that is, not until MGM’s Louis B. Mayer turned up at a performance one night, with Norma Shearer on his arm. “All of the obvious ladies wanted to buy it,” she wrote in Me.
Knowing she held all the cards, Hepburn agreed to meet with Mayer to discuss the film version. Though she had been labeled “box-office poison” just a year earlier, the studio head seemed to quickly acquiesce to her demands for the film, which extended to who would direct and who was cast. Hepburn wanted only Cukor to direct; done, said Mayer. Casting was a bit tricker: Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were her preferred co-stars, but Mayer said it was doubtful either would consent. When that turned out to be true, Mayer suggested James Stewart as a substitute, largely because “we have control over him,” she remembered in Me. He also offered her $150,000 to find the right actor to play C.K. Dexter Haven.
That turned out to be Cary Grant, who agreed to the film on two conditions: that his work would require no more than three weeks, and that he receive top billing. The second condition seems a bit questionable by today’s standards, given the dominance of Hepburn’s Tracy Lord in the story, but it’s offset by an additional note by Hepburn in Me, that Grant donated his entire salary from The Philadelphia Story to the Red Cross.
With primary cast and crew in place, production on the film was underway. Because this was an MGM project, that also meant there was only one choice for costume designer: Adrian. Hepburn only briefly mentions his participation in her remembrance of the experience in Me, noting that the film “was all done at MGM under the most luxurious circumstances. The clothes by Adrian – great sets – music, etc. … We had great fun doing it, as we always did on one of George’s pictures.” (Cukor likewise had enjoyed success just the year before helming another MGM film, The Women, also with costumes by Adrian.)
Because Hepburn understood the part of Tracy Lord so deeply after a year on Broadway, it was natural that she and Adrian could collaborate on the character’s look. Her costumes for the theatre version of The Philadelphia Story had been designed by Valentina, a New York couturier who had opened an atelier on Madison Avenue in 1928 and had worked with actresses that ranged from Lynn Fontanne and Katharine Cornell to Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. Valentina’s work on Philip Barry’s play ultimately proved to be a melding of his character – the goddess-like attitude of Tracy Lord – with her own aesthetic, which tended toward inspirations like Madeleine Vionnet and the signature pleats that had made Madame Grès a well-known name in society circles.
Valentina followed through with these themes, but it’s clear that Adrian had other ideas. For the scene in which Macauley Connor professes his love to Tracy after her pre-wedding party, for example, Valentina had designed a white pleated gown for Hepburn, which was meant to evoke thoughts of a Greek goddess or statue and the icy, standoffish demeanor that was key to Tracy Lord’s personality. (Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed Hepburn in the look in 1938 for Life magazine; it can be viewed here.)
Adrian, however, decided to both loosen up and “Hollywood-ize” this notion. As Howard Gutner writes in Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941, “To start, he smoothed out the pleats in her gown. As an accent around Hepburn’s collar, he added an embroidered pattern in gold braid and sequins to the stark white costume, repeating to motif in a band around her waist that encircled her bodice … [this] dress ultimately became a contributing factor in the success of Hepburn’s film comeback.”
Other looks likewise play their role in Tracy Lord’s image of American glamour via the lens of Hollywood, from the tiered gingham skirt – a print Adrian had sourced during a 1938 trip to Appalachia, and which he also put to good use in blue for Judy Garland in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, Gutner notes – to a scene that seemed more than a little forward-thinking for its time: to show Tracy Lord in pants. Hepburn, of course, had favored wearing trousers in public for years, but Mayer tried to put the kibosh on the idea. Adrian and the actress aligned and refused to budge, however, and the pantsuit ultimately created by the costume designer would be among the earliest and most high-profile examples of seeing Hepburn in the silhouette on film.
If one look took its cue from both the play and the character, it’s the draped asymmetrical white robe Tracy wears over her swimsuit by the pool, after she invites Stewart’s Macauley Connor to join her for a swim, and Grant’s C.K. arrives to stir up some trouble. Adrian’s inventive belted design for this scene features an undeniable Grecian influence, and perhaps it’s no accident that the look is worn during a moment in which Tracy’s coldness and sense of superiority are pointed out in no uncertain terms.
The Philadelphia Story “was all done at MGM under the most luxurious circumstances. The clothes by Adrian – great sets – music, etc. … We had great fun doing it, as we always did on one of George’s pictures.”
Adrian would retire from MGM in September 1941, following two additional collaborations with Hepburn – Woman of the Year and Keeper of the Flame, both released in 1942 – but this initial partnership more than accomplished its goal. Hepburn once again was vaulted into A-list status as an actress, while The Philadelphia Story would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress in a Leading Role. Only Stewart took home the trophy as Best Actor in a Leading Role, but Hepburn didn’t seem to mind. “George was very helpful to both Jimmy and Cary,” she wrote in Me. “And of course he was always perfect for me. He was a wonderful director and this was his ideal material. It’s such fun to do a really good comedy. We all got nominated and Jimmy won the award.”
Though he had threatened Hepburn’s career with such an incendiary title, Brandt, it should be noted, wasn’t such a bad guy. According to his New York Times obituary in 1972, he was one of the founders of The March of Dimes, a vice president of the Will Rogers Hospital, and staged benefits at Madison Square Garden to benefit UNICEF. But surely the woman who’d been at the receiving end of his 1938 proclamation felt a touch of satisfaction; though she outlived him by 32 years, by the early 1970s Katharine Hepburn already was a bona fide icon, and any idea of “box-office poison” was a long-distant memory.
Still, Hepburn never forgot how The Philadelphia Story turned her fortunes around: “I gave her life,” she said of Tracy Lord in the 1993 TV documentary Katharine Hepburn: All About Me—A Self Portrait, “and she gave me back my career.”