- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

Philip Barry is best known today as the playwright who created two of the defining comic roles of Katharine Hepburn’s career: Tracy Lord, the haughty rich girl who sails through “The Philadelphia Story” on a soft breeze of wealth, beauty and privilege, and Laura, the down-to-earth heiress ill at ease with her wealth who captures Cary Grant’s heart in the 1938 George Cukor film, “Holiday.”

Miss Hepburn’s career in Hollywood was on the skids when Mr. Barry created Tracy Lord with the actress clearly in mind. After 14 starring film roles, Miss Hepburn was perceived as affected, remote and aristocratic. In an egalitarian culture, that spelled box-office poison. Tracy Lord, whom her own father says lacks “an understanding heart,” is just such an inaccessible goddess. “Philadelphia” is the story of Tracy’s — and implicitly Miss Hepburn’s — comeuppance, humanization and redemption.

Both the play, which Miss Hepburn starred in at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in 1939, and the 1940 George Cukor movie (like “Holiday,” adapted for the screen from Mr. Barry’s play by Mr. Barry’s good friend, the great Hollywood scenarist Donald Ogden Stewart) were smash hits. The twin successes revived Miss Hepburn’s sputtering career and established a template, in the view of critic James Harvey and others, for her most successful future roles — the superwoman humbled.

In his day, Philip Barry (1896-1949) was favorably compared to fellow playwright Noel Coward, but while modern audiences may remember the author of “Private Lives” and “Present Laughter,” Mr. Barry has slipped into obscurity.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, Mr. Barry’s finest plays were glittering champagne comedies about the rich and sophisticated that managed at the same time to probe such weightier themes as the relations between men and women, rich and poor. In addition to becoming one of the great screen comedies of all time (and Miss Hepburn’s signature role), “The Philadelphia Story” was adapted a second time, by screenwriter Tom Patrick, as the smash 1956 movie musical “High Society,” starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong.

In 1928, Philip Barry established himself as the reigning American master of high comedy with “Holiday,” the story of a wealthy young man who rejects the work ethic to live a life of hedonism while he is still young enough to enjoy it. It was an immediate success, but Philip Barry was no flash in the pan.

Throughout his career, “he constantly experimented with form and content,” says Jack Marshall, artistic director of Arlington’s American Century Theater, which revived Mr. Barry’s play, “Hotel Universe,” in 2001.

His plays were fodder for Tinseltown, but Mr. Barry never wrote the film adaptations, leaving them to Mr. Stewart and other screenwriters. As a stylist, Mr. Barry was summed up by New Yorker writer Brendan Gill in his book, “States of Grace,” as someone who writes about “conditions in the life of the present time which shall be amusing, and at the same time amuse in such a way that one finds one is thinking about the play afterwards — not exactly in amusement, but thoughtfully and pleasantly.”

According to his papers at the Georgetown University collection, the upstate New York-born Mr. Barry began writing at age 9. After an education in Catholic and public schools, he entered Yale in 1913.

In his Yale years, he wrote an experimental one-act play for the drama club titled, “Autonomy.” The play was sound enough to win him entry into the prestigious English 47 Workshop at Harvard, directed by George Pierce Baker, who helped launch the careers of George Abbott, Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, and S.N. Behrman. It was Baker who encouraged Mr. Barry to forget about European avant-garde aestheticism and concentrate on American themes and what he knew — namely, the lives of the rich and entitled.

In fact, it is widely believed that for the character of Tracy Lord, Mr. Barry drew in part from the real-life model of Hope Montgomery Scott, the wife of his school chum, Edgar Scott, heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune. A Main Line Philadelphia socialite of the 1920s and ‘30s, Mrs. Scott was a perennial fixture on the New York Couture Group’s annual list of best-dressed women, and her beauty and slim, angular figure was much photographed and painted. Her racy, sporty personality is clearly evident in Tracy.

Out of the 47 Workshop came “The Jilts,” written under Baker’s guidance. It was retitled “You and I” and became Mr. Barry’s first Broadway hit in 1923. His next success was “The Youngest,” which opened in 1924 at the Gaiety Theatre and ran for 104 performances. These two plays cemented Mr. Barry’s reputation as a playwright of high comedy.

He was also a high liver. The antithesis of the starving artist, Mr. Barry was raised on a generous inheritance after his father died of a ruptured appendix at age 45. He married his childhood, sweetheart, Ellen Semple, whose father, a wealthy lawyer, gave them a home in Mount Kisco, N.Y., as a wedding gift. The Barrys divided their time between an apartment in Washington Square, the Mount Kisco cottage and a villa in Cannes, France — where they entertained the likes of the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways.

Although upper-class comedy was his metier, Mr. Barry was determined to experiment and broaden his skills.

Sophisticated hit comedies such as “Paris Bound” (1927) and “Holiday” (1928) (Miss Hepburn was the understudy for the leading role of Laura on Broadway) were interspersed with works that included a tragedy about John the Baptist and a stark murder mystery in collaboration with playwright Elmer Rice. His one serious drama, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (1931), which was also made into a movie, was a surprise Broadway success that ran for 206 performances.

His other experimental works were “In the Garden” (1925), which bombed after just 40 performances, and “Hotel Universe” (1930). “Hotel Universe,” which featured Ruth Gordon, was produced by the Theatre Guild and dabbled in time travel, philosophical parables, psychotherapy and the theories of Einstein.

The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson spoke for many when he declared that the play exemplified the playwright’s “futile yearning for the prophet’s role instead of doing what he did best,” which was to evoke shimmering and inviting worlds of wit and wealth and gaiety while at the same time tweaking the fundamental emptiness of the lives of the idle rich. Mr. Barry’s mind, according to Mr. Atkinson, “was not sharp, lucid, and angry enough, and his invention not spontaneous enough for moralallegories.” Ouch.

The savage reviews of “Hotel Universe” did not stop American Century Theater from producing the play a few seasons back. “Nobody could write between the lines better than Philip Barry, which is why he is a joy to act and a pleasure to direct,” says Mr. Marshall, who directed the production.

Mr. Barry died of a heart attack in 1949, in the midst of writing a dark and reflective play, “Second Threshold,” which was completed by Robert Sherwood and produced on Broadway in 1951.

By far his most lasting legacy is 1939’s “The Philadelphia Story.” The play has been revived numerous times by regional theaters across the country — including Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center for the Arts — and the movie version tops many an all-time list of favorite flicks.

Without “The Philadelphia Story” — and the Philip Barry story — the Katharine Hepburn story isn’t quite complete.

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