The Great Kate
by Chris Dashiell

The passing of Katharine Hepburn on June 29, 2003 marked the end of an era. The age of the Hollywood studios - the classic sound era of American film - seemed to be still with us somehow, as long as she was still alive. I was beginning to wonder if Hepburn could be immortal - a cinematic avatar, perhaps, of the goddess Athena. Yet she was, in fact, an exception to the standard image of Hollywood glamour. In the movies, as in life, she was utterly individual -- independent, high-spirited, a personality that wouldn't fit into a type. In this tribute, I focus on her long movie career, assessing the high and low points, and evaluating her influence on the American film.

She had the good fortune to be born to well-to-do parents who believed in freedom of thought (her mother was an activist for women's rights) and put no obstacles in their daughter's way. Her outspokenness got her into trouble during her meteoric rise on the New York stage, where she was more than once fired for her behavior during rehearsals. She played hard to get with Hollywood, turning down the offer of a test with Paramount, and later naming what she thought was an absurdly high price for a one-picture deal with RKO. To her surprise, they accepted.

A Bill of Divorcement
George Cukor wanted her to play John Barrymore's daughter in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). The director saw something in the screen test what no one else could - "freshness" and "spirit" along with very unusual looks. Thus began one of the more productive relationships between a director and a performer in film history. They made eight pictures together (plus two TV movies in the 70s), some of them classics, and all of them worth seeing.
A Bill of Divorcement seems rather dated now, with a static quality inherited from its stage source, but Hepburn is the best thing in it, especially in the tender scenes between her and Barrymore, who plays a shell-shocked veteran. Her next film was Christopher Strong ('33), directed by Dorothy Arzner, who picked her for the role of a British flier who falls in love with the eponymous aristocrat (Colin Clive), a married man. It's a fascinating and provocative film with a proto-feminist message compromised by a submission to traditional values (the flyer has to sacrifice herself to save the man's marriage). Despite the name of the movie, it's not really about the man (and unfortunately, Clive is a poor lead) but about Hepburn's character, and she's compulsively watchable in it.
It didn't do well at the box office, but her next film, Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933) was a hit, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She plays an aspiring Broadway actress who is naively optimistic and burdens herself and others with theatrical affectations and mannerisms. It's too talky by far, and the romantic plot with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is uninspiring, but Hepburn still outshines everyone on the screen, including veteran Adolphe Menjou.

Morning Glory
It was this film that made her a star. It was also the one performance that invited popular caricature. The Bugs Bunny cartoons in which Bugs imitates a high-toned actress ("Rally I do, rally...") are making fun of this image. Hepburn's upper-class Connecticut accent, polished at Bryn Mawr, seemed to have rubbed a good percentage of the public the wrong way. To them she seemed snooty and pretentious -- a classic case of confusing the performer with her character.

Another common (although not universal) belief at the time was that she wasn't good-looking. I can't help thinking that those who believed this needed a check-up with their eye doctor. The younger Katharine Hepburn, the Hepburn of the 30s and early 40s, was incredibly beautiful. But the ideal at the time, for men at least, was softer, less angular (think Merle Oberon). In any case, this prejudice ended up working to Hepburn's advantage. Her strength and essential character allowed her to continue to make movies long after her beauty faded.

She then did another movie with Cukor -- Little Women ('33), still the best version of the Alcott book, as Jo March, a part she was born to play. The first half is perfect fun. And although the second half lets down a bit, Hepburn is bright and touching and funny, carrying the picture and making it worth repeated viewings. It was a huge success, but her further career at RKO was spotty.

After three duds, including a saccahrine version of J. M. Barrie's The Little Minister, and a disastrous return to Broadway, she rebounded with Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), from a Booth Tarkington novel about a small town girl from a poor family who wishes she could be popular. She is wooed by the town's most popular boy (Fred MacMurray), but his first visit to her home is ruined by the hilariously crude behavior of her family. The film is marred by a bit of casual racism (unfortunately typical of the time) and a happy ending imposed by the studio (some things never change). Still, Hepburn is radiant and funny, seeming more confident and at ease here than usual.

Alice Adams

Sylvia Scarlett
With Cukor again for Sylvia Scarlett ('35), she plays a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to help her swindler of a father (Edmund Gwenn) escape the law, and meeting up with a swaggering con man played by Cary Grant. She is never believable as a boy, but the film is madcap fun, its anarchic narrative ahead is of its time, and the chemistry with Grant (this was the first movie where he really stood out as an actor) is delicious. It was too far out for audiences, though. Hepburn always tended to challenge conventions of gender. This was just more overt than usual. It has been said that she "put women in pants." Certainly she was one of the first to popularize that choice of clothing in the movies.

On paper, Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936) must have looked sure-fire: prestigious Maxwell Anderson play, adapted by Dudley Nichols, directed by one of Hollywood's premier veterans, and co-starring Fredric March. But it never comes alive, drowning in its own prestige and period detail. Another costume drama, A Woman Rebels (Mark Sandrich, 1936) is more promising, with Hepburn as a 19th century feminist magazine editor championing women's issues. It chickens out at the end, unfortunately, but one must say that her choice of roles was significant. Hepburn wouldn't play a weak person, or someone who was merely a romantic object for the male characters. She insisted on playing characters that were interesting in their own right, who had their own subjective presence and complex qualities. This alone makes her an important figure for women in films.

Stage Door
She was back with Stevens for Quality Street ('37), from another (better) J. M. Barrie play, a Napoleonic-era period piece that has her competing with sister Fay Bainter for the attentions of Franchot Tone. The style is a bit stiff, and the plot becomes too predictable, but Hepburn sparkles. She seems to have completely lost her stage mannerisms, attuned now to the kind of acting required for film. In Gregory La Cava's Stage Door ('37) she plays a young actress who arouses the jealousy and resentment of her thespian boarding house roommates, sharing the screen with Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball, among others. It's full of great wisecracks and overlapping dialogue, a fun movie, although Hepburn doesn't get to shine much, because she's essentially playing a straight woman to a bunch of comediennes.
Most of these films after Alice Adams got good reviews, but they didn't make money. And her last film for RKO was a complete flop. This was Bringing Up Baby ('38), a screwball comedy that later, thanks to the enthusiasm of French critics for director Howard Hawks, became recognized as a classic. Hepburn plays a complete zany who meets up with a shy paleontologist (Cary Grant) and proceeds to turn his life into a shambles. Of course Grant is about to be married to a boring, respectable woman (a standard convention in the genre), and Hepburn is out to snare him for herself.

Bringing Up Baby
But Hawks cranks the ridiculousness up a few notches to the outrageous, with the situations becoming more and more incredible as the film proceeds. Hepburn's performance is pure lunacy -- the laughs come most of all from the reactions of Grant, who is superb, to her impossibly ludicrous behavior. Even today, some people find this film too silly to tolerate, but it's one of my favorite movies precisely because of its lack of moderation. The supporting cast, including Charlie Ruggles and Mary Robson, is perfection. And no one, other than Carole Lombard, ever equalled Hepburn's no-holds-barred approach to the screwball form.

I would speculate that audiences in 1938, although they liked madcap comedy, felt that this film didn't season the laughs with enough romance. For whatever reason, the movie failed, and RKO lost faith in her, especially after a group of exhibitors famously labelled her as "box office poison." She bought out her contract rather than submit to the less promising roles the studio began to offer her. In hindsight, despite the decline in profits, she seems the perfect star for RKO in the 30s, a studio that prided itself on its high-class urban style and adaptations of prestigious stage productions.

She jumped to Columbia to do Holiday ('38), reunited with Cukor in the adaptation of a well-known play that had been filmed before in 1930. Once again she rescues Cary Grant from a boring marriage (to her sister), although this time Grant is the unconventional thinker who finds himself drawn against his will to Hepburn's free soul. It's a charming romantic film, marred only slightly by the play's philosophical pretensions. Although Hepburn will always (understandably) be associated with Spencer Tracy, I consider her match-ups with Cary Grant to be among the most delightful in film. Grant's mixture of suavity with nervous energy and alarm, combined with Hepburn's mercurial alertness, produces some fine sparks.

It looked like she was finished in Hollywood. Actually, Selznick offered her the role of Scarlett O'Hara, out of desperation at finding anyone suitable, but she was wise enough to sense that she was wrong for the part, and even though she tentatively accepted, it was no surprise when the part went to Vivien Leigh. The story of how Hepburn finally revitalized her film career is too famous to do more than briefly summarize. She asked Holiday author Philip Barry to write a play for her, which turned out to be The Philadelphia Story. She bought the film rights while she was at it, then triumphed on Broaday in the lead role of Tracy Lord. MGM wanted to make it into a film; but Hepburn came with the package. They starred her with Cary Grant and James Stewart. Cukor directed. The result was a hit in 1940, and her film career was (almost miraculously) resurrected.

The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story is about a spoiled, arrogant socialite (Hepburn) who divorces her easy-going husband (Grant) and becomes engaged to a boring twit. Grant retaliates by inviting a gossip magazine to cover the nuptials. One of the magazine's reporters (Stewart) falls for Hepburn, resulting in a tipsy romantic episode that embarrasses Hepburn into a new humility. In terms of her screen persona, the strategy seems to have been, "So Hepburn is perceived as snooty? Well, let's entertain you by giving her a comeuppance." This is overplayed in the film by a few too many self-righteous speeches concerning Tracy Lord's heartlessness, but the movie's elegant style goes down easy. Hepburn transcends the conventions of romantic comedy, making the story seem interesting and adult by the sheer magnetism of her personality.
Then began her long partnership, and love affair, with Spencer Tracy. It started as an inducement for Metro to offer her a contract - a picture called Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942). She and Tracy play newspaper writers who fall in love and get married. She becomes a world-famous celebrity and advocate for women, but her success causes him to feel neglected. She then has to sacrifice her ambition in order to save the marriage. The chemistry between the leads is marvelous - the tenderness is palpable. The comedy in the film's first half is excellent. Then the boom falls in the film's second half, with Hepburn getting lectured on the sanctity of motherhood and the importance of knowing her place as a woman. The film ends on a note of pathetic slapstick. The idea of giving Hepburn her comeuppance has gone too far. For the first time in a film, her image as independent woman seems degraded. It's a shame, and a woeful commentary on the sexual politics of that era, but the film still has its pleasures in the first half that make it worth a look.

Woman of the Year

The movie succeeded, Hepburn got her contract, and ended up making nine films with Tracy. Most of them are worthy of note, and a few are more than that. Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943) is an unjustly neglected political drama about a journalist (Tracy) investigating the death of an American patriot, who falls in love with his widow (Hepburn). The film's left-wing sympathies make it something of a Hollywood curiosity (and later got screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart in trouble during the postwar witch hunts), but it's an interesting film on its own merits, and Hepburn is fine in it. Without Love (Harold S. Bucquet, 1945) is a rather too-mild romantic comedy that gets by on the Tracy-Hepburn charisma and not much else. Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947) is a big budget spectacle about husband and wife pioneers in New Mexico. It's beautifully shot and acted, but the studio cut the heart out of the film by suppressing its class-conflict themes, and so it remains one of those "what might have been" type of movies. State of the Union (1949) is a very interesting film by Frank Capra that deserves to be better known. Tracy plays a presidential candidate in danger of being corrupted by special interests, and Hepburn is his no-nonsense wife who sees the danger her husband, and her marriage, is in. It's smart, fast-talking, and full of ideas, and once again the leads are excellent.

The best of the Hepburn-Tracy movies, without a doubt, is Adam's Rib (George Cukor, 1949), in which they play attorneys arguing opposite sides of a case. Hepburn is a feminist and Tracy is a male chauvinist, but unlike Woman of the Year, they both get their licks in, they both get to look ridiculous, and the picture (written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) is unalloyed, hilarious fun.

Adam's Rib
I think a big part of the Tracy-Hepburn charm is that they often played married people who were in love, like William Powell and Myrna Loy, except a bit older, more mature, more realistic in their comic interplay. Tracy's gruffness and quiet humor was a perfect match for Hepburn's pointed wit. Those who don't like Hepburn (and there are more than a few of those folks) claim that her career would have been nowhere after the 30s if it hadn't been for Tracy, but the same could be said for him. They were smart enough to know they had a good thing, and their movies need no apologies. Most of them stand up very well today.

Hepburn's other films from the 1940s are a mixed bag. Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway, 1944) is a sort of Pearl Buck re-tread with Hepburn miscast as a Chinese freedom fighter. Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946) is a thriller that shows some promise, featuring Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum, but Hepburn seems a bit unsure of herself in the film noir genre, and Minnelli's direction is tentative. In Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), Hepburn gets to play Clara Schumann, a chance she must have jumped at. The film, with Paul Henreid as Schumann and Robert Walker (!) as Brahms, falls victim to the usual clichés of the Hollywood artist biopic, but the style and production values are rather good, and Hepburn keeps the movie from sinking.
She returned to New York to do Shakespeare for a few years, and it seems to have done her good. In 1951 she starred in The African Queen, playing a missionary who must enlist the help of a boozing steamboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) to escape East Africa after the German occupation in World War I. Written by James Agee and directed by John Huston, its luster has not dimmed with time. Whoever had the odd idea of teaming Hepburn with Bogart turned out to be a genius. It would appear that opposites not only attract; they make good movies too. Bogart seems fresh and vulnerable and endearing. He won an Oscar for the role, and this tends to make us forget how good Hepburn is in the picture. It's one of her most sustained performances - very controlled, perfectly timed, a tour de force of subtlety and quiet strength. That this prim and proper lady would fall for the washed up, uncouth Bogart character seems unlikely. She makes it seem not only likely, but inevitable.

The African Queen

It's interesting to note that Hepburn seemed to have a knack for gathering Oscars, not only for herself (she won four Best Actress awards, still the record), but for the leading men, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, who were lucky enough to star with her. Well, Tracy had already won a couple before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), so her coattails didn't work there. But consider that James Stewart won his only statue for The Philadelphia Story, Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar for The African Queen, and Henry Fonda his only one for On Golden Pond (1981). A pity she couldn't do the trick for Cary Grant, but nobody's perfect.

Pat and Mike
She was with Tracy again in Pat and Mike (George Cukor, 1952, from a Gordon/Kanin script). It's not Adam's Rib, but in my opinion it's their second-best film together. She plays a super-athlete engaged to a boring twit (notice a pattern here?) and Tracy is her tough-guy manager and trainer. The comedy is low-key, but very pleasant indeed.
In Summertime (1955) she plays a middle-aged spinster who finds unexpected romance with Rossano Brazzi in Venice. The film is directed with great vigor and intelligence by David Lean, and Hepburn's performance is a many-faceted wonder. She doesn't play for pathos or sentimentality. She makes the character tough, despite a certain awkwardness and vulnerability, and it's a complete triumph. The Rainmaker (Joseph Anthony, 1956) was an odd little movie with Burt Lancaster that couldn't quite decide whether it wanted to be a drama or a lighthearted comedy. Hepburn does pretty well in it, considering, and the picture made money at the box office.

In her 50s and 60s, a time when most film actresses were consigned to supporting parts at best, Hepburn continued to succeed in major roles that challenged her as an actress. Not all her movies were good, but she became a sort of institution, beloved by audiences and critics alike. Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957) a comedy with Tracy about the computerization of a company, has its moments, but is generally one of the weaker Hepburn-Tracy films. In Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the outrageously baroque Tennessee Williams play, she gets to play an outright villain for once in her career, as a woman obsessed with persecuting the niece (Elizabeth Taylor) whom she blames for her son's death. It's a ridiculously overblown film, but Hepburn is suitably scary in the role.

Sidney Lumet cast her against type as the drug-addicted mother in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). Hepburn aims for high tragedy in a role that requires more underplaying - amazingly, she still achieves quite a few soul-stirring moments, and it remains one of the best filmed versions of O'Neill ever.

Long Day's Journey Into Night

The Lion in Winter
In The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968) she plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, battling it out with husband Henry II (Peter O'Toole). There's a trifle too much bombast here for my taste, but Hepburn's third Oscar was deserved. She dominates the film and draws the best out of O'Toole, who became her devoted friend for life when she scolded him on the set for his self-destructive ways.

After this film, Hepburn's career was sporadic, with several noble attempts to translate great theater to the screen. The Madwoman of Chaillot (Bryan Forbes, 1969) was too literal minded in its approach to the Giradoux play. The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis, 1971) sported a jaw-dropping cast (Hepburn co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Papas and Geneviève Bujold) but failed in the difficult task of making Euripidean tragedy cinematic. A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973), co-starring Paul Scofield, seems to have brought out the best in Hepburn, whose performance is admirably fierce, although the film is cramped by the two room set-up of the Edward Albee play. She also did Love Among the Ruins (1975) with Lawrence Olivier, and a version of The Corn is Green (1979), both done for TV, and her last films with the man who discovered her, George Cukor.

Hepburn lived so long that she seemed to outlive the audiences that best remembered and loved her. In her later years, her cantankerous nature (a trait she has displayed from the beginning) seems to have gotten the better of her more often. She wrote a successful autobiography called Me (the title couldn't be more typical of her self-confidence, although the text contained its share of self-deprecation), and made occasional appearances on TV and in films, despite the quavering caused by Parkinson's disease. The woman certainly had her faults, but there was no escaping a sense of awe when regarding her career, spanning six decades, and with enough great performances to sustain six lifetimes. Nobody had better instincts, or a finer technique. Yet she expressed the wish that she could have done more, regretting some of the time and opportunity wasted when she was younger.

Always ambitious, always driven, ever her own person, Katharine Hepburn escaped categorization. In her individuality she seemed like a friend we all knew, a unique character whose talents, passions, strengths, and flaws became part of us.

©2003 Chris Dashiell