Posts tagged The Philadelphia story.
Katharine Hepburn on stage in The Philadelphia Story
→ The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Tracy Lord: The time to make up your mind about people is never.
“Hello, Dexter” (spoken warily). “Hello, George” (spoken disapprovingly). “Hello, Mike” (spoken breathlessly). Only one voice does one hear - only one face does one see. It could never be otherwise.
I was 15, sitting in a 55-cent balcony seat at the Shubert Theater on Broadway when I heard those words and saw the face of Katharine Hepburn live for the first time. It was “The Philadelphia Story.” I knew then that she was different. She is that rare creature, her voice immediately bringing to mind her astonishing face. She is a member of that club of very few actresses who at their sound are totally identifiable. An immediate vision.
“This is the story of Philip Barry’s play, The Philadelphia Story, and of Katharine Hepburn. Kate and Mary Martin, incidentally, are two of the finest women I have known in forty years of the theatre.
Philip Barry, very Irish, tempermental and delightful, had been having a bad time as a playwright. In fact, he had been looking at his list of failures with something like despair. Kate had had some disastrous Broadway experience during the 30s. Brooks Atkison had been tough on her and Dorothy Parker had written the celebrated review in which she said Kate had “run the gamut of emotion from A to B.” A succession of poor pictures had done little for her reputation as an actress. She was, according to Hollywood, “box-office poison.”
Philip and Kate were two of the partners in the enterprise. The third was the Guild, disrupted in management and tottering on its feet. Kate was in Hollywood doing the film version of Barry’s Holiday. Philip began to discuss the play with Kate and before long he started to write The Philadelphia Story as a starring vehicle for her. He talked to me about it. He wanted the Guild to do it.
I had worked with Kate in the past. She had come to me long before, looking for a job, and got one as an understudy for the road tour of A Month in the Country with Nazimova, though it had not worked out.
Then I cast her as the lead in Jane Eyre. I might say here that the play is not good. Something is wrong with that story for the stage. I don’t know of any successful attempt to stage the novel.
Working with Kate was a delight; she is a wonderful person to do a play with, honest and forthright, and unusually generous. Fred Stone, who had co-operated with her in the movie version of ‘Alice Adams,’ remembered how, when the film had to be cut, Kate went to the director to say, “Fred has done a marvelous job with his big scene. If you have to cut, cut out some of my stuff.” I don’t know of any other incident quite like that in Hollywood.
Kate has a rock-bound sort of character. Her loyalties are unswerving. Her friends last. She lives simply, never flamboyantly. Her family, made up of distinguished scientists, never took her career seriously until she made her smash in The Philadelphia Story. I still grin to myself when I think of the party Kate gave after a performance. As long as her family was there she served beer; when they had gone she brought out the champagne.
Working with Kate on that first play, Jane Eyre, had been an interesting experience, because, with a movie background, Kate had to learn from the beginning how to create and build character. She was a hard worker and highly intelligent. She knew how to do the little pieces of the mosaic by which a film is built up, but she had no conception of building a character through three acts. It was wonderful to watch how she did it, groping her way from a stale performance that had a certain brilliance and charm, but no solid characterization, to the full realization of the woman she was portraying.
We opened The Philadelphia Story in Philadelphia where it made a great hit. There was no doubt about it, Phil and Kate and the Guild had struck a bonanza. Let me point out that this was not the end of the job. It might be interesting to those who aren’t familiar with theatrical procedure, to see Lawrence’s notes made during our first conference after the Philadelphia opening:
1. Set theme and mood in Act I before Uncle William-father situation.
2. End of Act Three
3. Middle of Act III
1. Dexter - point up character throughout and build his position in relation to Tracy and clarify situation in ACT III. (Not telephone call to George.)
2. Cut Sandy scene, Act I, by making exposition clearer and cutting down exposition of publishers’ papers, etc.
3. Improve Stacy scene beginning Scene 2, Act 2.
Act III, make clear that Dexter motivates Dina telling the dream.
Deepen Dexter-Tracy scene.
Develop idea of Tracy having become a better person — do this in situation if possible.
Cut letter reading scene and George denouement. Avoid dragged in effect of the Destiny speech. Can this be handled more deftly?
Final denouement of play too long.
Cut last part of Act III.
During the try-out period we went on to Washington. Of course, we had a theatre booked in New York, but the big question was: to bring the play in or not to bring it in. On that decision rested the future of us all.
At that time, Lawrence was wrestling with the peculiar activities of Orson Welles and his Five Kings in Boston and he left the whole thing to its fate while he came down to Washington to discuss the momentous question.
We sat around the hotel most of the night, drinking milk and orange juice — typical of theatrical people in spite of their reputation — balancing the pros and cons. Should we? Shouldn’t we?
“For God’s sake,” Kate exclaimed, “don’t throw away your money. Let’s be practical about this. We’ve got a fortune if we stay out of New York.”
On the other hand, I pointed out, if we kept the play on the road for a long time we would take the bloom off it by the time we brought it in. The performances would have lost their freshness. It pulls a performance out of proportion to be long on the road because of the large theatres in which it is played.
Phil thought we were taking a risk if we brought it in. On the other hand, he was prepared to take the risk.
Lawrence and I weighed the pros and cons. We made a list of them and we thrashed them out one at a time.
We looked at each other. We nodded. We were going to bring it in. We were shaking in our boots.
Kate threw up her hands. “Do anything you want, dear,” she said in a tone of foreboding. “Throw your money away.”
We brought it in and it was a smash hit. It re-established Philip Barry’s reputation as a playwright; it made Katharine Hepburn famous; and it paid off the Guild’s debts. That’s the theatre for you in a nutshell.
Later, during her season at the American Shakespeare festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, Kate was an inspiration to the whole company, with a quality of vitality, understanding and kindness that made them all adore her. Though she is as vital as a dynamo she does not have the rampant ego of most actresses. She knows clearly what she wants but she says so directly, instead of using the devious methods of most women. She argues out her points and tries to see your point of view as well.
She took a scholarly approach to her Shakespeare parts, did a lot of work and research, planned her own costumes, and so forth. It was also her idea to produce Measure for Measure as a Western.”
—transcribed from Theresa Helburn’s autobiography, A Wayward Quest.
Photo courtesy of the Theresa Helburn Theatre Guild Photography Collection, part of Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections. © Florence Vandamm.
Katharine Hepburn publicity portrait for the stage production of The Philadelphia Story
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