Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Almost Wasn't Wednesday #2: The Philadelphia Story With Clark Gable And Spencer Tracy
If you're reading this blog, I assume you know the sophisticated comedy classic, The Philadelphia Story. Designed as a comeback vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, the movie won two Oscars (Jimmy Stewart as best actor, and best screenplay) and features what many consider the best performance of Cary Grant's illustrious career.
But if Hepburn had had her way, the movie would have starred not Grant and Stewart but Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. That's right—Hepburn, who owned the film rights, wanted Gable and Tracy, and if they hadn't been tied up with other projects, that's who the studio would have cast.
And in the context of the times, you can see where she was coming from. Gable was the most popular actor in Hollywood, fresh off the smashing success of Gone With The Wind. And he'd made a career of taking the mickey out of upper class actresses—his Oscar-winning turn across from Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, in the aforementioned Gone With The Wind with Vivien Leigh, and many others.
As for Tracy, he'd won two Oscars, and Hepburn's instincts that she and he would be good together was right on the money—they eventually made nine movies together, including such comedy classics as Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike.
Not to mention Grant and Stewart weren't necessarily sure things in early 1940. We look back on Hepburn's three previous films with Grant as being treasures, particularly Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, but the fact is, all their previous pairings had been flops at the box office—indeed, the colossal failure of the former is why Hepburn needed a comeback vehicle in the first place.
And while Stewart had earned an Oscar-nomination the previous year with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, nobody was ready yet to put him on the Mt. Rushmore of acting.
But sometimes, not getting what you want is the best thing that can happen to you. While I'm certain The Philadelphia Story would have been a hit with Gable and Tracy, it would have lacked Grant's champagne fizz and Stewart's fevered act-three naivete. You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, and you don't mess with a movie that film guru Leslie Halliwell called "Hollywood's most wise and sparkling comedy."
Bonus Trivia: On Broadway, Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin played the Grant and Stewart roles, respectively.