By Andrew Liotta

When Katherine Hepburn came on to the Hollywood scene in the 1930s, hers was not an overnight success story. Even after Bringing Up Baby (directed by Howard Hawks), in which she plays a flighty heiress who falls for an absent-minded osteologist (Cary Grant), Hepburn was labeled "box-office poison" by the studios and, in essence, blackballed. Hollywood didn't know what to do with this handsome woman's beauty and unflinching confidence. She wasn't the type they knew how to handle. In fact, David O. Selznick decided against casting Hepburn in Gone With the Wind; he felt she lacked
the sexuality to pull off Scarlett O'Hara.

So as Gone With the Wind went into production without her, Hepburn (bankrolled by her friend, Howard Hughes) commissioned a biting comedy from playwright Philip Barry. She performed it to rave reviews on Broadway, and, after attaching George Cukor, brought the project to MGM. Box office poison or no, MGM grabbed up the hit play, cast Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, and made The Philadelphia Story (1940). It came to be
considered one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time.

The plot of The Philadelphia Story reads like an allegory for Hepburn's career troubles: The movie opens with Cary Grant (perhaps standing in for Selznick?) knocking Hepburn on her ass for being too perfect and unforgiving. The story follows the slow thaw of the ice princess, who gradually learns to forgive the imperfections of the world around her
after facing her own shortcomings in an unflattering mirror. In the pivotal drunk scene with Stewart, Hepburn stumbles upon the spontaneity-the sexuality-that Grant claimed she lacked. Though her movies before this had shown many sides of her dynamic talent, Hollywood considered her distant and invulnerable and didn't know how to market her.
Hepburn, however, knew how to market herself--and she was doing it.

Hepburn's characters often showcased a magnetism borne of an almost fanatical self-confidence, perhaps the defining strength of the actor herself, who had the guts to make her career happen, even when the ruling Hollywood patriarchy told her to give up. For a look at one of Hollywood's greatest leading ladies, take a trip to the video store and rent The Philadelphia Story, or any one of her other notable films: Stage Door (1938); Woman of the Year with Spencer Tracy (1942), Adam's Rib (1949); The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart (1951).

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