‘The Philadelphia Story’: The Devious Way Cary Grant Used Katharine Hepburn’s Box Office Failures to Increase His Salary

The Philadelphia Story is a near-perfectly-written and incredibly-performed romantic comedy, first released in 1940. The award-winning movie, directed by My Fair Lady’s George Cukor, with a script penned by An Affair to Remember‘s Donald Ogden Stewart, stars Hollywood royalty Cary GrantKatharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart. However, Hepburn’s movie career wasn’t doing too hot at the time that The Philadelphia Story was set to come out. How did Cary Grant use this fact to his advantage during salary negotiations for the movie?

The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story cast | Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

‘The Philadelphia Story’ was first a successful Broadway play starring Hepburn

The 1940 movie ended up selling out theaters and winning Oscars. But during development, MGM studio chiefs were not too sure that The Philadelphia Story would be a hit. That’s because, despite Hepburn’s gorgeous legacy of work, her films were not doing too well in ticket sales before The Philadelphia Story. IMDb even refers to Hepburn’s reputation at the time as “box office poison.”

However, there was no way Hepburn wasn’t taking the lead in The Philadelphia Story. The famous actress actually owned the film rights herself. Howard Hughes, Hepburn’s very wealthy friend, had gifted her rights to the film.

Katharine Hepbrun in The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn in the 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Not to mention, the play that the film version was based on? The playwright Philip Barry wrote the part of Tracy for Hepburn specifically. He was trying to get the actress back on stage after her performance in The Lake was met with harsh critiques.

At the time that Hepburn was starring as Tracy in the Broadway play version of The Philadelphia Story, it was a total hit. The play went on 415 times, and it raked in a million dollars in ticket sales.

How Katharine Hepburn’s fellow cast member Cary Grant used her for his contract negotiations in the movie remake of ‘The Philadelphia Story’

Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story | Robert Coburn Sr/Getty Images

When MGM heads offered Hollywood star Cary Grant a part in The Philadelphia Story, they said he could choose which male lead role he wanted to play. Surprisingly, Grant went with the less-flashy character of Dexter. But he still had serious demands: that he get top billing for the film, along with a salary of $137,000. This was a pretty big chunk of change in 1940. However, according to IMDb, the studio executives eagerly agreed to Grant’s requests. They were so worried about Hepburn’s box office curse, they were willing to give Grant whatever he wanted. The North by Northwest star must have known about Hepburn’s reputation, and that she was inextricably attached to the film. He used this knowledge to gain leverage, to demand higher status and higher pay on The Philadelphia Story.

However, it’s not all bad; Grant didn’t keep his large salary from the movie. Instead, he donated it all to the British War Relief Fund.

Cary Grant
Cary Grant | Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

Hepburn, on the other hand, chose to take 45% of The Philadelphia Story‘s profits instead of a salary. In 1941, the movie was the 5th most popular at the box office, so it looks like Hepburn negotiated wisely.