Holiday Notes

Philip Barry was an American dramatist best known for the plays Holiday (1928) and The Philadelphia Story (1939), both of which enjoyed successful premieres on Broadway and were later made into popular films starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Born on June 18, 1896, in Rochester, New York, Barry was the son of Irish-American parents: a mother born of old-Philadelphia, Irish-Catholic heritage, and an Irish immigrant father turned successful businessman. A frail child with poor eyesight, he nonetheless became an avid reader and eventually a literary student at Yale University.

Rejected for military service during World War I because of his eyesight, Barry found a wartime job in the Communications Office of the U.S. State Department in London deciphering cable transmissions. When the war was over, he was released from duty and returned to Yale to write poetry and short fiction. Among his many honors and successes, his one-act play Autonomy received a prestigious writing award from the school’s dramatic society and was produced by the Yale Dramatic Club.

Despite demands by members of his family that he return home from Yale after graduation to work in the family’s marble-and-tile business, Barry enrolled in a prestigious playwriting course taught by George Pierce Baker at Harvard University that counts among its alumni Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Sidney Howard (The Late Christopher Bean), S.N. Behrman (Biography), and Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward Angel). His first full-length play written for the class – A Punch for Judy – found success in a tour of the Northeast U.S. but failed to generate financial backing for future productions. But another Barry play also written for the class – The Jilts – won greater acclaim and the class award for best drama before becoming the playwright’s first Broadway production when it opened in New York in 1923 under the name of You and I.

You and I’s success marked the first of 21 plays written by Barry to be produced on Broadway between 1923 and 1951. Writing in a variety of styles – from psychodrama (In a Garden) and mystery (Cock Robin) to fantasy (Hotel Universe) and other genres – Barry’s earliest plays dealt with lessons learned from the war, his preoccupation with fidelity and infidelity, his struggles with his Catholic beliefs, and his examinations into the sources of evil and despair. Above all, he is perhaps best remembered as one of the theater’s greatest progenitors of “high comedy,” a style of writing characterized by witty dialogue, satire, and a biting, sardonic humor. Barry’s work continues to enjoy productions by professional and regional theaters around the country, as well as in New York in successful Broadway revivals. Several of his plays have been reimagined as musicals, including High Society, which is based on The Philadelphia Story.

Barry’s first genuine box office hit was Holiday, a romantic comedy that tells the story of a young man torn between his desire for a free-thinking lifestyle and the demanding constraints of traditions embraced by his wealthy fiancées’ family. Produced on Broadway in 1928, it ran for an amazing 229 performances. The play was filmed twice: first, in 1930 (when it starred Academy Award-nominated Ann Harding, Mary Astor, Edward Everett Horton, and Hedda Hopper) and, second, in 1938 in the better known version directed by the legendary director George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The play was revived on Broadway in 1973 with Charlotte Moore and John Glover and in 1995 featuring Laura Linney and Tony Goldwyn.

Barry’s best-known work is The Philadelphia Story, a play about a socialite whose wedding plans are complicated by the arrival of her ex-husband and a tabloid magazine journalist. Written by Barry specifically for its star Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story was turned into a successful movie by Hepburn herself, who acquired the rights with the help of ex-boyfriend Howard Hughes and used the film to resuscitate her then flagging Hollywood career. In 1956, a musical version of The Philadelphia Story was filmed as High Society, starring Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong. A revival of the play was produced on Broadway in 1980 and featured Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann.

Barry died of a heart attack in his family apartment on Park Avenue in 1949. He was 53 years old.