—Cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, recalling The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Broadway playwright Barry wrote the play specifically for Hepburn, who ended up backing the play, and forgoing a salary in return for a percentage of its profits. Her co-stars were Joseph Cotten as Dexter Haven, Van Heflin as Mike Connor, and Shirley Booth as Liz Imbrie.
The original play, starring Hepburn, ran for 417 performances. It made over $1 million in box office sales and later went on to tour, performing another 250 times and making over $750,000 in sales. The play also originally featured another character named Sandy. However that role was eliminated for the movie to make more room for the character development of Mike.
At this time, Hepburn hoped to create a film vehicle for herself which would erase the label of "box office poison" that she had acquired after a number of commercial failures (including the classic Bringing Up Baby). So, she happily accepted the film rights to the play from Howard Hughes, who had bought them for her. She then convinced MGM's Mayer to buy them from her for only $250,000, in return for Hepburn having veto over producer, director, screenwriter, and cast.
Hepburn selected director George Cukor, in whose films A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Little Women (1933) she had acted, and Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Barry's and a specialist at adapting plays to the big screen, as writer.
Hepburn wanted Clark Gable to play Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy to play Mike Connor, but both had other commitments. Grant agreed to play the part on condition that he be given top billing, and that his salary would be $137,000, which he donated to the British War Relief Society. The pairing of Cukor and Gable would have been problematic in any case, as they had not gotten along on the recent Gone with the Wind, and Cukor had been replaced with Victor Fleming, who was a friend of Gable’s.
The film was in production from July 5 to August 14, 1940 at MGM's studios in Culver City. It was shot in six weeks and came in five days under schedule. At one point, Stewart slipped in his hiccuping during the drunk scene. Grant turned to him, surprised, and said, "Excuse me", then appears to have stifled a laugh. The scene was kept, and was not reshot.
Stewart had been extremely nervous about the scene in which Connor recites poetry to Tracy, and believed that he would perform badly. Noël Coward was visiting the set that day, and was asked by Cukor to say something to encourage him. Stewart was also quite uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, especially in the swimming pool scene.
Hepburn performed the dive into the swimming pool by herself, without the help of doubles. Forty years later, during the filming of On Golden Pond, Jane Fonda was frightened to do her own dive, to which the annoyed Hepburn responded, "I did my own dive in The Philadelphia Story."
The film premiered in New York City in the week of December 27, 1940, and it was shown in select theaters in December, but MGM had agreed to hold its general release until January 1941 in order to not compete with the stage play, which was no longer playing on Broadway, but was touring the country. It went into general American release on January 17, 1941. It broke a box office record at Radio City Music Hall by taking in $600,000 in just six weeks.
The model sailboat that Grant gives Hepburn is based on an actual boat, the True Love (originally the Venona II, based on the Malabar design by John Alden built for racing), which currently sails on Seneca Lake out of Watkins Glen, New York, as a excursion boat for Schooner Excursions, Inc.