Just In Time For Father's Day --- The Katharine Hepburn Collection!
I’ll raise some hackles today by perversely celebrating Katharine Hepburn’s centennial rather than John Wayne’s. Well, there goes some core readership, for how many male cineastes sit for feature-length doses of this still-hard-to-digest-even-after-100-years woman? Don’t tell me it’s a matter of taste either. I know I’m in the majority here, at least among guys. They’d opt for needle-nose pliers to individual toenails rather than sustained exposure to Hepburn performances. At fourteen, when CBS finally ran The African Queen in primetime, I wondered why Bogart didn’t chuck her off the boat, preferably in gator-infested waters. Warner’s DVD set was obtained with less enthusiasm than resignation, so how come me to watch four of them within days of the box’s arrival? Dotage increases tolerance, maybe. Morning Glory is the earliest sampling. Hepburn plays a girl who talks too much and gets on everyone’s nerves. Believe me, she nails it. There’s an extended drunk scene as well (note to aspiring directors --- never permit already irritating actors to do drunk scenes). Champ pre-code seducer Adolphe Menjou is up to old tricks, his coupling with Hepburn mercifully taking place off screen. Jaunty Doug Fairbanks Jr. unaccountably carries a torch, despite her frozen posture whenever he approaches. Though she plays an aspiring actress, we never see Hepburn’s character perform onstage. If she is the Morning Glory, then surely C. Aubrey Smith is Evening’s Triumph, for never was that grand old trouper better than here. What a missed opportunity for RKO to follow up with a vehicle about his character, which I found far more sympathetic and compelling than hers. Morning Glory, like most RKO ventures of the time, was finished at a low cost. $239,000 was spent, and $582,000 worldwide came back. A profit of $115,000 put the show in fifth position for RKO’s year behind Little Women, King Kong, Flying Down To Rio, and Son Of Kong. A Hepburn that lost money was the just preceding Christopher Strong, her only bonafide (in spirit) precode and one I wish they’d opted for on DVD instead of Morning Glory. What an inspiration to cast Hepburn opposite Colin Clive --- and Helen Chandler’s his daughter! Reason enough to watch, as Clive endures customary torment and is arresting as ever while doing so. One of the monster kids wrote Hepburn as to what it was like emoting with CC. Her one-sentence reply made me wonder how well she remembered him, if indeed she did at all (it had only been sixty or so years at the time). How could the nonagenarian have imagined they’d be asking about Colin Clive after all that time?
The boxoffice poison label would attach with Sylvia Scarlett and its misbegotten progeny. Until then (1935), the Hepburns did alright. Spitfire, Alice Adams, and Break Of Hearts made money. The Little Minister posted but a minimal loss ($9,000). Sylvia Scarlett was like a snake that kept on biting. Everything the actress did for RKO after this would choke, excepting Stage Door, which may have been saved by Ginger Roger’s presence on the marquee. Hepburn seems more content dressed as a boy in Sylvia Scarlett. Maybe she should have done it more often. The picture actually tumbles when she goes back to playing a girl. Like so many comedies (from any era), this one runs out of steam in the last third. Sylvia Scarlett has been called picaresque. That usually means trouble in my book. So much gender swapping gets knowing snickers now that we’ve had our revealing bios of principals involved, but 1935 audiences weren’t hep to those insider jokes, so down this went to the tune of $363,000 lost. Was it coincidence then to see Hepburn somewhat cruelly caricatured in Warner’s animated Coo-Coo Nut Grove (shown here) of the same year? The affectations were targeted further by Disney artists in 1938’s Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. By then, it was open season on the actress. Mary Of Scotland, Quality Street, and Bringing Up Baby all tanked. Exhibitors called out this Hollywood empress without clothes. You have to give the woman credit for developing a vehicle that would bring back her audience (The Philadelphia Story). Metro starrers in the forties would supplant RKO work that finished her in the thirties. Three of the MGM’s are included in the DVD box.
The William Powell/Myrna Loy series was more reliable than the Tracy/Hepburns. At least customers knew what they were getting. Metro’s realization of the latter team’s greater success with comedies came slow. As late as 1947, there were still missteps like The Sea Of Grass to frustrate fan expectations of laughs they preferred from these two. All the Tracy/Hepburns at MGM went into profit, however. Without Love showed up in the middle. Wartime concerns are front and center. Scientific work for the allies and a housing shortage encourages the pair to marry for convenience with an understanding there will be no consummation of said vows. A saucy proposition for Code-benumbed audiences no doubt led to grosses the highest so far for a Tracy/Hepburn, though it must have been clear to the actress that she needed Tracy far more than he needed her. It was always hard getting any warmth out of Hepburn, and too few leading men seemed able to arouse passion or break through her guard. Was male viewer resentment as acute then, or did it indeed go back to Hepburn’s RKO beginnings? With Garbo and Shearer gone, she might at least have functioned as a second-string Greer Garson, but who to stand in for Walter Pidgeon duties, when this star was so intent upon overpowering leading men weaker than Tracy (and that took in just about all of them)? Solo vehicles would consequently fail. Dragon Seed was a loser even in a year (1944) when civilians seemed to live in movie theatres, and Song Of Love (a million lost) convinced Metro to henceforth not use Hepburn at all sans Tracy. There was no gesture toward formidable leading men in these --- as Bette Davis once sang, they were either too young or too old --- thus Turhan Bey and Walter Huston in Dragon Seed, Paul Henried (romantic prospects usually nil with him) and Robert Walker. The one (post- Philadelphia Story) success Hepburn had in the forties without Tracy was Undercurrent, and thanks to Bad Bob (in fact, two of them), it’s my favorite of the Warner DVD lot.
Undercurrent was Robert Taylor’s welcome back after two years with the service. Patsy Kelly could have co-starred and it would still be a hit. Again Hepburn was riding a leading man’s coattails into profit (one million to the good). Undercurrent was a modern dress woman’s gothic and though stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, there’s the always-heavy hand of zealous Metro art directors and costume changes seemingly taking place from shot to shot. Hepburn starts out as Plain Jane (in outfits the actress likely preferred in private life) and is transformed into mid-career Joan Crawford, not a comfortable berth for a player of KH’s temperament (the hat shown here looks borrowed from Medusa). Still she’s believable opposite newly sinister Robert Taylor, whose opening bell this was for a whole series of disturbed/neurotic characters. The onetime matinee idol seemed given over to ongoing rehab for traumas experienced by a generation of leading men who’d served, his screen characters consigned to moral and psychological twilight relieved only by costume adventures that came along to rescue Taylor in the fifties. Could a volatile onscreen relationship shared by Hepburn and Taylor in Undercurrent reflect the turbulent offscreen association of Hepburn and Tracy? In the wake of assignations with moody (if not dysfunctional) types like Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Spencer Tracy, Hepburn may well have tapped into a well of personal experience whilst preparing for Undercurrent. The fact it’s one of her better performances without Tracy suggests a perhaps-closer identification with the character she was playing. Hepburn’s greater conflict, in front of and behind the camera, was with a newcomer she could dismiss but not ignore. Everyone knew Robert Mitchum had something or he wouldn’t have been there. His kind of insouciance was a poke in the eye to veterans who applied strict professional standards on movie sets. The fact he mocked Hepburn for the benefit of crewmembers (and Mitchum was a wickedly accurate mimic) challenged both the actress and an old guard she represented. Mitchum’s style and the kind of movies he’d make would have little to do with Metro factory methods. A final scene they enact on a piano bench is among the most awkward two players ever shared. Far more tense and effective is Mitchum’s confrontation with Robert Taylor --- the old giving way reluctantly to the new --- and both perhaps knowing it.