Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story, and Why We Love A Good Comeback Narrative
“Wake up! Hollywood producers” demanded the ad on May 4th, 1938. The call? That certain studios were better off letting go of certain ‘has-been’ stars, whose star power no longer drew audiences to the theatre—they were poisoning the box office, so to say. The now infamous ad, commonly known as a list of ‘Box Office Poison’, listed names such as Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, and, most notably, Katharine Hepburn.
After a rocket launch into stardom, Hepburn saw an equally quick downfall from it. The ad gave her the push to make a quick decision: buy out her contract at RKO Radio Pictures for 75,000 dollars, and move back to the East Coast. When she returned to Hollywood, it was with the script of Philip Barry’s play ‘The Philadelphia Story’ in hand.
What’s fascinating about Hepburn’s comeback is that she engineered it entirely on her own. She backed the play financially, starred in its highly successful run on stage, and sold it to studios with the ultimatum that she be the star of the film adaptation. If anything would be her comeback, this would be it.
In ‘The Philadelphia Story’, Hepburn plays wealthy heiress Tracy Lord who, on the eve of her wedding, faces emotional conflicts as her ex-husband and a tabloid reporter show up and question her decision to marry. Tracy is as arrogant as she is charming, as aloof as she is vulnerable, both graceful and graceless all at once. And like many of Hepburn’s previous characters and Hepburn herself, is privileged and affluent. It’s the final scene of the film—when Tracy lets go of her perfectionist tendencies and is brought down to earth—that made audiences think twice about Hepburn. Many people saw Tracy as an extension of Hepburn. Her goddess-to-human fall paralleled Hepburn’s own fall from Hollywood’s graces, and her subsequent humbling by the end of the film a depiction of the lessons Hepburn had learned whilst away from the industry. Gone was the toffee-nosed Hepburn the public knew, and in its place was a friendly, amicable version of her. A review in The Philadelphia Inquirer put it as, “She is Tracy Lord—or one might say, Tracy Lord is Katharine Hepburn. And when Katie plays herself, that is really something”.
Hepburn once remarked, “A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face”. Instead, they saw her get her third Oscar nomination. She lost to Ginger Rogers, but in the end, it didn’t even matter, as she’d go on to become the most awarded woman in Oscar history. Katie was back.
Society may not treat them well, but they sure do adore their female film stars. In some ways, their returns to the screens feel like watching a hero pick themselves up again after being struck down in battle. We love a good comeback narrative, but rarely do we see successful depictions of this on film. Mainly, we see faded actresses in degrees of mental anguish, fingers desperately clutching at their relevance. ‘The Star’, ‘Veronika Voss’, and ‘All About Eve’ all showcase this, but none of these depictions is as popular as Billy Wilder’s 1950 film ‘Sunset Boulevard’, a story about a silent film star, Norma Demond, who lures a screenwriter into coming up with her return path to fame. It was a tricky role to cast, with no one wanting to play a forgotten legend.
And yet, the success of the film came up with a contrary result, becoming a comeback vehicle for its star, Gloria Swanson. Swanson, like her character in the film, was also a silent film star who failed to transition to the talkies, until Sunset Boulevard. She recounts in her autobiography, after an early screening of the film: “But that night the whole audience stood up and cheered...I could read in all their eyes a message of elation: If she can do it, why should we be worried?” She was correct: the stars mentioned in the Box Office Poison ad needn’t have worried. Crawford, Dietrich and Francis all made successful comebacks, and have their places solidified in classic film history.
It seems that now, the comeback has gone out of style entirely. The age limit, the dreaded turning forty for actresses, is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past, leaving no need for an actress to ever drop out of the public eye and from our screens.
As Norma Desmond put it, “I hate that word [“comeback”]. It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen”. Separating it from the context of the film for a moment, the line is a hopeful one. Because who wouldn’t want to see a phoenix rise up from the ashes, ready for her closeup?