The play was Hepburn's first great triumph after several movie flops which had led to her being labeled "box office poison", and she purchased the film rights to the play in order to control it as a vehicle for her movie comeback. The film was a great success.
The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won two: Stewart for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was adapted in 1956 as the musical High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
In 1995, The Philadelphia Story film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time in her life and takes an impromptu, innocent swim with Mike. When George sees Mike carrying an intoxicated Tracy into the house afterwards (both of them wearing only bathrobes), he thinks the worst, that his bride-to-be has disgraced herself. The next day, he tells her that he was shocked and feels entitled to an explanation before going ahead with the wedding. Tracy takes exception to his lack of faith in her and breaks off the engagement. Then she realizes that all the guests have arrived and are waiting for the ceremony to begin. Mike volunteers to marry her (much to Liz's distress), but Tracy graciously declines. At this point, Dexter makes his successful bid for her hand.
Hoping to create a film vehicle for herself which would erase the label of "box office poison" that the Independent Theatre Owners of America had put on her after a number of commercial failures (including Bringing Up Baby, now considered a classic), Hepburn purchased the film rights to the play and convinced MGM's Louis B. Mayer to buy them from her for a paltry $250,000 in return for Hepburn having veto over producer, director, screenwriter and cast.
Hepburn selected George Cukor, who had directed her in A Bill of Divorcement and Little Women to direct, and Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Barry's and a specialist at adapting plays to the big screen, as writer.
Hepburn initially wanted Clark Gable for the "Dexter Haven" role and Spencer Tracy as "Macauley 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 Fund. The pairing of Cukor and Clark Gable would have been problematic in any case, as they had not gotten along on their last pairing, Gone with the Wind, and Cukor had subsequently been fired from the production and replaced with Victor Fleming.
The Philadelphia Story was in production from 5 July to 14 August at MGM's studios in Culver City. The film was shot in eight weeks with no retakes, and came in five days under schedule. At one point, James Stewart slipped in his hiccuping during the drunk scene. Grant turned to him, surprised, and said "Excuse me." The scene was kept and was not reshot.
Stewart had been extremely nervous about the scene in which Conner recites poetry to Tracy and believed that he would perform badly. Noel Coward was visiting the set that day and was asked by director George Cukor to say something to encourage him. Coward remarked to Stewart offhandedly, "Did I mention I think you're a fantastic actor?" Stewart was also quite uncomfortable with some of the dialogue, especially in the swimming pool scene. He said at the time that if he had played the scene in just a swimming costume, it would have been the end of his career.
Hepburn performed the dive into the swimming pool entirely by herself without the help from 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 Phladelphia Story premiered in New York City in the week of 27 December and it was shown in other selected theatres in December, but MGM had agreed to hold the film's general release until January 1941 in order not to compete with the stage play, which was no longer playing on Broadway, but was touring the country. The film went into general American release on 17 January .
The film broke a box office record at Radio City Music Hall by taking in $600,000 in just six weeks.
Stewart was not expecting to win and was not planning to attend the awards ceremony. He was called and "advised" to show up in a dinner jacket. Stewart himself said he had voted for Henry Fonda for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath, and always felt the award had been given to him as compensation for not winning the Academy Award for his portrayal of Jeff Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Donald Ogden Stewart, on the other hand, declared upon winning his Oscar: "I have no one to thank but myself!"
Hepburn won a 1940 New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance, and the film was named one of the ten best of the year by Film Daily.
In 1995, The Philadelphia Story film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The American Film Institute ranked The Philadelphia Story #44 in its list of the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), #15 among the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs and #44 in the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.
In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. The Philadelphia Story was acknowledged as the fifth best film in the romantic comedy genre.