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14 Fast-Talking Facts About The Philadelphia Story

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Katharine Hepburn was as much a personality as she was an actress, and The Philadelphia Story is the quintessential depiction of both. Here is where Kate's public persona—haughty, patrician, and fiercely independent—came to be defined. But it's also one of the best showcases of her considerable acting talent, alongside great performances by fellow legends Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. What else is there to know about this sophisticated comedy classic? Let's eavesdrop and find out. 

1. IT WAS LOOSELY BASED ON A REAL PERSON.

The character of Tracy Lord was inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (1904-1995), a beautiful socialite whose family had been Philly royalty for generations. (Vanity Fair called her "the unofficial queen of Philadelphia's WASP oligarchy.") Her husband, railroad heir Edgar Scott, had been friends with playwright Philip Barry since their days at Harvard, and the Scotts and Barrys often socialized. Barry used some of Helen's exploits during the 1920s and '30s as inspiration for Tracy Lord's free-spirited ways. Mrs. Scott had no problem with the play, saying, "I thought it was great fun, but I really didn't pay much attention. I don't really think Tracy Lord was like me, except that she was very energetic and motivated." 

2. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR KATHARINE HEPBURN. 

Philip Barry had been a friend of Hepburn's since she (and Cary Grant) starred in the movie version of his play, Holiday (1938). When Barry became aware of Hepburn's desire to recalibrate her career (see next item), he began tailoring the Tracy Lord character to suit her. The finished version created a persona for Hepburn that audiences would adore for the rest of her life: independent, sharp-tongued, icy, but ultimately vulnerable.  

3. BEFORE THIS, HEPBURN SPENT A FEW YEARS AS “BOX OFFICE POISON.”

It's hard to believe given her legendary status today, but after a string of flops in the 1930s, Hepburn was considered "box office poison." That was an official designation, by the way; a 1938 survey of theater owners labeled her as such, along with such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich. (The theater owners weren't wrong about those stars' movies not being big sellers lately, though perhaps it wasn't very nice of them to publish a list like that.)

4. IT WAS A HIT ON BROADWAY FIRST, ALSO STARRING HEPBURN.

The actress was so intent on rebuilding her Hollywood cachet that she left movies and returned to the stage. The Philadelphia Story, written as a comeback vehicle for her, opened on Broadway on March 28, 1939 and ran for a year.  Ever the trouper, Hepburn performed for several months in the nationwide tour as well, appearing onstage as Tracy Lord even after the movie version was in theaters. (She had shrewdly foregone a salary for the Broadway production and taken 10 percent of the gross instead, netting her $150,000—about $2.6 million in 2016 dollars.) 

5. HOWARD HUGHES HELPED.

The not-yet-completely-insane tycoon was Hepburn's friend (and former lover), and he ponied up some of the money for the stage production as well as the movie rights. He doesn't get all the credit, though: Hepburn pitched in plenty of her own money (box office poison or not, she was loaded), as did the Theatre Guild and Barry, the playwright.

6. CLARK GABLE AND SPENCER TRACY WERE HEPBURN’S FIRST CHOICE OF CO-STARS.

It would have been her first film with Tracy, an actor she admired, but he was unavailable. Instead, their first (of nine) movies would be Woman of the Year (1942), followed by a love affair that would last the rest of his life. As for Gable, he may have had a scheduling conflict, but there was probably another reason he didn't play C.K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story: the film's director, George Cukor, had been fired from Gable's Gone with the Wind, and the two did not get along.  

7. CARY GRANT HAD TWO SURPRISING DEMANDS.

One, he wanted top billing, even though Hepburn's character was the protagonist and Stewart's character had more dialogue. Two, he wanted a salary of $137,500, to be paid directly to the British war relief effort.

8. THE SCREENWRITER WAS GIVEN VERY SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS.

Donald Ogden Stewart (no relation to Jimmy), a successful Broadway playwright who'd come to Hollywood in the late 1920s, had actually adapted a Philip Barry play into a Katharine Hepburn movie once before: Holiday, in 1938. But his job of turning The Philadelphia Story into a screenplay was made more difficult by a peculiar demand from MGM producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. He gave Stewart an audio recording of a live performance of the play so he could hear the audience response, and told him to make sure the same laughs all made it into the movie. Stewart felt "restricted" by this, to say the least, but he managed to mostly comply. When he accepted the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Stewart said, "I have no one to thank but myself!" 

9. IT RESULTED IN JIMMY STEWART'S ONLY COMPETITIVE OSCAR.

The beloved actor had been nominated for Best Actor the year before, for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and would be nominated another three times after this. But The Philadelphia Story was his only lifetime win, surprising those (including himself) who thought Henry Fonda deserved it for The Grapes of Wrath. (Some observers felt it was Stewart's compensation for not getting the Mr. Smith win.) In 1995, Stewart won an Honorary Oscar.

10. STEWART GOT SHAFTED, SALARY-WISE.

As mentioned, Cary Grant got $137,500. Hepburn got $75,000 for acting, plus $175,000 to sell the play's movie rights (which Howard Hughes had helped her buy before the play even opened), plus a percentage of the box office. And poor old Jimmy Stewart? He got $3000 a week, which amounted to $15,000.

11. THE FINISHED VERSION INCLUDES SOME AD-LIBBING FROM STEWART AND CARY GRANT.

When a drunken Macaulay Connor shows up at C.K. Dexter Haven's place to chat, Stewart decided to play it loose and improvise a hiccup before beginning to speak. Grant, caught off-guard, smiled slightly and quipped, "Excuse me," probably assuming Cukor would call "Cut!" and they'd redo it. But Cukor liked the natural, playful interaction between the two and kept it in.

12. IT BROKE SOME BOX OFFICE RECORDS. 

In 1940, Radio City Music Hall was "the nation's No. 1 movie house" (according to TIME magazine), the world's largest (6000 seats), and a useful yardstick for determining how successful a movie might be. When The Philadelphia Story opened there the day after Christmas 1940, it quickly drew the longest lines in the theater's eight-year history, selling a record 110,168 tickets in the first four days. It went on to play there for six weeks, beating a record set by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

13. YES, THE "BOX OFFICE POISON" LABEL WAS REMOVED.

Hepburn made The Philadelphia Story as a way of getting off that "box office poison" list, and it worked. Harry Brandt, the Manhattan theater owner who'd said it on behalf of his industry, wrote shortly after the film was released: "Come on back, Katie, all is forgiven." 

14. THE MAIN CAST REPRISED THEIR ROLES FOR A RADIO PERFORMANCE.

The film was adapted into a 60-minute radio play in 1942, and a 30-minute one in 1947. Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart all came back for both versions. Hey, when you find a role you love, it's hard to let go. 

Additional sources:
DVD commentary and features
American Film Institute

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

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ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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