He was a billionaire with great taste. Howard Hughes splashed out 250K—what would be more than $4 million today—to buy his main boo Katharine Hepburn the rights to the 1939 hit play The Philadelphia Story. She’d famously been labeled “box office poison” after a few flops, but Hepburn was canny enough to see that the role of smart, outspoken, stubborn society gal Tracey Lord was the perfect way to earn back box-office favour.
The film takes place on the eve of her nuptials to the monied, mustachioed, mundane George Kittredge. The girl’s got options: also in town for the wedding weekend are a scrappy newspaper reporter (James Stewart), and her ex-husband, the dashing, debonair, spectacularly named C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Good thing she looks so fierce: legendary costumer Adrian swathed Hepburn in a series of gorgeously draped pale gowns, nipped in at the waist and embellished only with the occasional brace of sequins or tidy cord bow. (She also sports a few pairs of her signature trousers, of course.)
Stewart, normally so bumbling and earnest (à la It’s a Wonderful Life), is unexpectedly hot here as he and Hepburn get wasted on champagne and make out—and hilariously weather the hangover the next day. Who will win out in the end: the completely uncurious George? The wisecracking reporter? Or C.K., with his killer fashion sense and the heart-melting way he still calls Tracey “Red”? With its crackerjack repartee and surprisingly modern romance, The Philadelphia Story is the perfect gift: timeless.