In the spring of 1939, Phillip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, a play about a rich Philadelphia family about to hold a wedding in an elegant Main Line home, became Broadway’s hottest ticket. Katharine Hepburn, whose career had lurched like a roller coaster across the 1930s, played the lead. She enjoyed a spectacular initial success in movies, then was humbled by a series of mid-decade setbacks, and finally reclaimed her prominence in the entertainment world with The Philadelphia Story. Her precarious path illustrated the pitfalls that the studio system of the 1930s’ movie industry contained for ambitious artists who wanted to control their careers. In Hepburn’s case, she overcame adversity and positioned herself to become a big movie star of the wartime era.
The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, also major stars of the early 1940s, appeared on Broadway during that same 1939 season. Although they lacked the sense of refinement that Katharine Hepburn brought to her acting, they received a cordial reception from critics, who appreciated their skills at broad physical comedy and their ability to put over the routines they had learned from performing in burlesque. Like Hepburn, they managed, against considerable odds, to establish themselves as leading movie stars in the period just preceding World War II. In their case, not only Broadway, but also radio, figured in their rise to stardom.