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Why the Line to See The Philadelphia Story Was Epic

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Today, Katharine Hepburn is solidly established in the pantheon of Hollywood stars. But there was a time when that seemed far from likely. In the late 1930s, a few of Hepburn’s films had flopped so badly that one New York City theater owner declared her “box-office poison.”

He took it back, however, when The Philadelphia Story opened 75 years ago, on Dec. 26, 1940, quickly drawing what TIME then called “the longest line in the eight-year history of the Radio City Music Hall.” People “queued up during a spell of foul weather to pay top prices,” and within four days “had set a new record for the period with 110,168 paid admissions in the nation’s No. 1 movie house.”

It was a long road to that point. Hepburn had spent a few years prioritizing her stage career over Hollywood jobs, eventually finding herself starring, in early 1939, in the Broadway production of a new play: The Philadelphia Story, by Philip Barry. The play was, TIME’s critic reported, “a kind of pious froth about an attractive Main-Line Philadelphia society girl with a high and historic sense of her own importance” but “an entertaining evening, thanks to gay, lively dialogue and Actress Hepburn’s amazing aptness for her role.”

Hepburn agreed that the role was meant for her. Even before the curtains went up on opening night, she had purchased the film rights to the story, with the help of the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. Hepburn demanded that The Philadelphia Story get star treatment too, so the studio found Cary Grant and James Stewart to star alongside her.

The result was good—”terribly funny, terribly upper class,” TIME’s film critic declared. “Woven into [the] saga of the supertaxed is a thorough discussion of snobbery, from which [the writers] spring to the conclusion that it is possible to have money and social position and still be nice. …In short, The Philadelphia Story lifts the daily drudge into a charming never-never land, with complete footnotes excusing its existence. And besides, it’s a good, entertaining show.”

Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: The Philadelphia Story

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com