Theatre in Philadelphia
Theater has declined, everywhere in the western world. But in Philadelphia, even today if you attended every new play you would keep pretty busy.
In no particular order, here are the author's own favorites.
Great Depression (1929-1939)
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Howard Hughes, Swashbuckler
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A fair lady's image depends, Bernard Shaw told us, not on how she acts, but on how she is treated. The case in point is a beautiful Main Line heiress in The Philadelphia Story, who can choose any man she wants. What she cannot do, is escape grief for a wrong choice.
When Broadway and Hollywood paint your image, not believing your own press releases takes strength. Toward the end of the Great Depression around 1938, show business turned full and nasty attention to Philadelphia high society. Earlier, while author Christopher Morley was at Haverford College, Katharine Hepburn at Bryn Mawr College, and Grace Kelly at school on Schoolhouse Lane, Hollywood had picked up just enough authentic detail to be dangerous. Kitty Foyle and The Philadelphia Story are two fairly accurate snapshots of a complex society, but one cannot be fully understood without the other. Indeed, the real-life trivialities of Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Ginger Rogers sharpen the outlines of the graceful gentlefolk they attempted to portray.
In 1938, Hepburn was a smash hit on Broadway with Philip Barry's Philadelphia Story, which essentially tells of the agonized turmoil of a Main Line princess, facing a three-way choice between a charming but worthless blue-blood, a self-made dullard, and a poor but noble New York magazine writer. (Just guess who the author was rooting for.) In real life, of course, Ms. Hepburn chose to spend four years with movie producer Howard Hughes the dare-devil Texan with a hundred starlets in his bedroom. Most of her competitors wanted a movie contract and/or a diamond bracelet, but Katy wanted the movie rights for Philadelphia Story, which Howard readily bought for her. Although other actresses played the role, she made herself into the image of a Philadelphia heiress, thereby nudging that Main Line image toward her own. At the time the image did not include much mention of Howard Hughes or actor Spencer Tracy, another long-time companion.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers, who was also engaged to Howard Hughes at one point, was making a great name for herself as the star of Christopher Morley's Kitty Foyle. Morley's Haverford experience taught him somewhat more respect for the Philadelphia Gentleman than Barry ever had, while his experience at the Curtis Publishing Company also made him appreciate the smart and plain-spoken Philadelphia girls from working-class districts. Highborn Philadelphia women are only sketchily imagined by Morley, except they somehow fail to appeal to his manly fictional cricket-player from the Main Line.
As matters turned out, Katy lost to Kitty. Although Hepburn was surely the more talented actress, eventually winning five Academy Awards, Ginger Rogers walked away with the 1940 Oscar for her interpretation of a working-class Philadelphia lady. Either way it turned out, of course, Howard Hughes was bound to be a happy fellow.
And yes, in 1956 Grace Kelly was the star of High Society, a renamed version of the Philadelphia Story for which, remember, Katherine Hepburn still controlled the rights. The film was a mediocre performance, just a little short of embarrassing. But however inexact all three of these portrayals may have been, there is little doubt that Philadelphia society moved a bit in their direction, involuntarily living up to an image created by three observers who seemed to their own observers to retain hostility traceable to their own undefined turmoils.
Philip Barry stacks the deck somewhat, portraying the leading lady as movie audiences during the Depression were likely to fantasize, indulging a luxury only a rich girl would supposedly be careless about. She rejects the colorless rich suitor out of hand. But while her remaining choice between a charming magazine writer and a charming playboy is made to seem a closer call, it really never makes our Philadelphia Cleopatra hesitate very long. In the single editorial comment, the play's author permits himself, is tucked the snarl, "She's a lifelong spinster, no matter how many times married." That's New York talking. Bitter, bitter.
|Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class: E. Digby Baltzell ISBN-13: 978-0887387890||Amazon|
Originally published: Thursday, November 07, 1991; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019
|Posted by: Chadia | Feb 14, 2012 12:34 AM|