The Philadelphia Story

Movie poster for The Philadelphia Story

As is the case with most “pages” here at jheroes.com, this essay is a changeable draft that may evolve into an essay for publication or a book sub-chapter. I’d appreciate it if you let me know if you plan to quote or cite it in its current form.

By Bob Stepno

While not exactly a “journalism procedural,” the romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story does feature a reporter and photographer on the trail of a high-society wedding — with the reporter literally getting in over his head. (In the swimming pool, by moonlight, with the red-haired bride-to-be.)

Other than that small lesson in journalistic detachment, and a hint of critique for tabloid obsessions over society celebrities, this Philadelphia story is much more about who is getting-the-girl than whether anyone is actually getting a story.

Radio anthology series producers apparently loved the tale, which was based on Philip Barry’s play and filmed in 1940 — with an all-star cast of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart as, respectively, the about-to-be-remarried socialite Tracy Lord, her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, and swimming-pool-susceptible reporter Mike Connor. Ruth Hussey played Liz Imbrie, the Spy magazine photographer romantically focused on Connor.

What might journalism students or newspaper readers subconsciously take away from the story?  “Don’t drink on the job and fall in love with the subject of your story,” might be a simple take-away. The editor, reporter and photographer’s differing opinions about the news value of a celebrity wedding story may be food for thought. Their technique of getting access to the event may raise questions (there’s a hint of blackmail involved).  So might the suggestion that there are two economic classes — the reporters who have to make a living, the wealthy socialites who are “news” simply because of their money.

There’s also a seed here for of a discussion of the intellectual divide between journalism and other kinds of writing — Mike Connor seems conflicted about his two careers as  “serious” author of fiction and as writer of society news for Spy.

“Can you imagine a grown-up man sinking so low?” Miss Lord remarks at one point. Unfortunately, more serious forms of journalism beyond the gossip photo-magazine do not enter into the conversation.

On the radio, the story was presented at least a half-dozen times, with a variety of casts and script modifications. (Where MP3 versions are available, they are linked to the program titles below.) The original stars recreated their roles in 1942 for Cecil B. DeMille’s wartime-renamed (Lux Theater) Victory Theater

NOT the original cast

According to the researchers at Digital Deli and Jerry Haendiges log, the Screen Guild Theater also broadcast a version of the story in 1942, but I haven’t found an audio archive copy. The cast was impressive, according to Haendiges log: Greer Garson, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray. MacMurray, in particular, put on the “reporter” hat in quite a few radio productions, including remakes of “Front Page Woman” and “His Girl Friday” as well as his own 1952 series Bright Star, co-starring Irene Dunne as his publisher and romantic interest.

The next year, DeMille was back introducing the same story under his usual series Lux Radio Theater name, but with Robert Taylor (Dexter), Loretta Young (Tracy) and Robert Young (Mike). Why all the remakes? “It’s as fine a play for radio as it was for stage or screen,” DeMille says during his introduction, between the Lux soap promotions.

In 1947, The Screen Guild Theater brought back the original three film stars, but sped them through a compressed half-hour script. I wonder if this coincided with a theatrical re-release of the film, or was just their contribution to the charitable work sponsored by the program, whose proceeds went to a motion picture relief fund and home for aged actors.

The similarly named Theater Guild on the Air produced the story again in 1948, according to the Guild-sensitive radio historians at Digital Deli, this time with James Stewart returning, but John Conte and Joan Tetzel in the other leading roles. Alas, the usual online audio archives do not have a copy.

Even Lois Lane got into the act

Last, but not least, the radio anthology series Best Plays brought plenty of journalism coincidences to its 1952 production. As Tracy Lord (the Hepburn role), it featured Joan Alexander, who for the past decade had been the voice of Lois Lane on radio and cartoons.

As Liz, the photographer, it cast Betty Furness, who the year before had begun a TV series called “Byline” or “News Gal” and a year later would have her own TV talk show. Nationally known as a commercial spokeswoman, a presidential appointment as special assistant for Consumer Affairs later set her on a course back toward journalism as Peabody-winning consumer reporter.

As Mike, the James Stewart reporter role, Best Plays cast the relatively gruff-voiced Myron McCormack, who also played a newspaperman in State of the Union, according to the program introduction by John Chapman.

Chapman, the series host, was drama critic of the Daily News and editor of the annual anthology of Best Plays. The Cary Grant role as C.K. Dexter Haven didn’t get top billing this time, but popular radio actor Joseph Curtin is identified in the final credits. (He played leading men in both radio’s The Thin Man and Mr. & Mrs. North.)

For pop-culture journalist coincidence collectors, Curtin’s actress daughter, Valerie, had a role in the movie “All the President’s Men,” and his niece, Jane Curtin, co-anchored the “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live in its early days.

DigitalDeli also has an impressive history of the Best Plays radio series.

One Response to The Philadelphia Story

  1. Pingback: Philadelphia wasn’t really the story, but radio kept telling it | Newspaper Heroes on the Air

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