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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Just In Time For Father's Day --- The Katharine Hepburn Collection!

I’ll raise 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 males. They’d opt for a needle-nose plier to toenails rather than sustained exposure to Hepburn. 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 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, with its inspired casting of Hepburn opposite Colin Clive --- and Helen Chandler’s his daughter. 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 Rogers' 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 being 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. So much gender swapping gets knowing snickers now that we’ve had revealing bios of folks involved, but 1935 audiences weren’t hep to insider jokes, so down went Sylvia Scarlett to tune of $363,000 lost. Was it coincidence then to see Hepburn so cruelly caricatured in Warner’s animated Coo-Coo Nut Grove 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 failed. Exhibitors called out this Hollywood empress without clothes. You have to give the woman credit for developing a vehicle that would bring back the audience (The Philadelphia Story). Metro starrers in the forties would supplant RKO work that finished Hepburn 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 comedy 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. 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, when a star so intent on overpowering lead men weaker than Tracy? 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 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.

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 rode a leading man’s coattails into profit (one million). 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, plus costume changes that seem to take 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 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 when preparing for Undercurrent. The fact it’s one of her better performances without Tracy suggests a 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 crew members (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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm just speechless as usual. How do you come up with this stuff? What a way at examining Hepburn's (and Taylor's) career -- at least the early/mid part of it. Thanks for yet another insightful entry into your fabulous blog.

I hope you are feeling better.

11:06 AM  
Blogger The Siren said...

I am not sure what it says about my beloved husband that Katharine H. is probably his favorite actress, and one I have zero trouble getting him to watch. In anything. I think it is her superb angular beauty that hooks him as much as anything.

So you are a Robert Taylor fan! Just yesterday I was emailing someone about what I think is his best performance, in The Last Hunt. I completely agree that he played morally ambiguous far better than noble.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I "tried" to watch "Sylvia Scarlet" last night and only made it half way through. I found the film irritating. I'm a fan of Ms. Hepburn but just can't handle this film.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when is the John Wayne centennial post due to be uploaded?

5:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Chris --- There will be a John Wayne posting for the 100th. I've been working on it.

Loved your comment, Campaspe, as I do your terrific site ...

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only like Katherine Hepurn when she got older.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw Bringing Up Baby last night on a relatively large screen with an audience of about 70 or 80 youngish people, and they were howling! She borders on the comedic even when she doesn't mean to, which is why she works so well in BUB, I think.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see a respectable movie scholar (I think you deserve that title) who agrees with me about Hepburn. I've tried so hard to like her, I've tried to keep her social importance in mind, but I just can't do it. I also agree that Colin Clive is the real attraction in "Christopher Strong". I've read that he adored Hepburn, and just thought she was the bee's knees when it came to acting! So then I tried to appreciate her from his point of view, but it still didn't work.

6:12 AM  

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