(On Cable TV, November 2019) Considering the sheer number of 1930s historical dramas, no one will blame anyone for overlooking Mary of Scotland—neither a terrible nor extraordinary example of the form. But there are a few interesting names here, and a vexing historical conundrum to resolve. Considering that the real story of Mary of Scotland does not end well, history-minded viewers will be most interested by the film’s almost-desperate attempts to rewrite history so that the ending is palatable to audiences. (I’m not sure how the Catholic propaganda played in 1936, but let’s just say that it has not aged well.) But so did nearly every other historical costume drama of the time—and Mary of Scotland certainly fits within the lavish production means used for those movies—extravagant costumes, scripts that combined historical material with accessible dialogue, and sets that crammed the most they could fit in a Hollywood sound stage. Where the film gets interesting, perhaps for the wrong reasons, is in the top names involved in toe production. Fredric March, sure (I’ve never been much of a fan), but Katharine Hepburn yes! She wasn’t particularly well suited for the role at that stage of her career (her take on royalty in The Lion in Winter would be far more successful) and the film seems to be using her for royal demeanour and little else. But the surprise here is seeing John Ford, best known for all-American westerns, undertake an early job-for-hire here as the film’s director. None of his trademarks show up here, which is reasonable considering that this was a fairly early effort limited by mid-1930s Hollywood technical means. None of this makes Mary of Scotland particularly interesting, unless you’re using the film as a parallax measure against other films or later entries in the principals’ filmography. Or if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan of 1930s period dramas, of course…
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m on a mission to watch all of the nine Hepburn/Tracy movies, and Pat and Mike is not only the eighth… it’s one of the better ones. It’s certainly one of the nine in which the distinction between actors and roles is most blurred. Written specifically for the pair, Pat and Mike has Katharine Hepburn as a naturally gifted athlete who pairs up with a gruff sports promoter. Sparks fly, a fiancé is ditched and you already know how it’s going to end … but the fun of the film is seeing Hepburn playing Hepburn, relying on her usual clipped dialogue patter and not using stunt doubles for the sport sequences. She actually looks younger here than in some of her late-1940s films, probably helped along by a looser haircut and an active role. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is up to his gruff self in trying to keep up with her. Occasional special effects add to the subjective impact of the comedy. Pat and Mike is not meant to be a deep or surprising film, but rather an occasion to spend some time with two likable stars doing what they do best, and it’s quite successful as such.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) The links between Hollywood and Broadway remain an enduring source of fascination, especially in the early years of sound cinema where stage shows could finally be portrayed on film with some fidelity. Consider Stage Door, which takes us to a 1930s boarding house dedicated to young women trying to find a place in showbiz: an ideal environment to feature many young actresses, and to riff on themes of interest to movie audiences without quite talking about movies. To modern viewers, much for the initial attraction of the film will be its cast. Not only do we have Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball in leading roles, but Ann Miller (who was, amazingly only 14 at the time) is unmistakably recognizable in a smaller role. But as Stage Door begins, it’s the quality and the snark of the free-flowing dialogue between the ensemble cast that holds our attention. The women here have fast wits and some of the film’s best moments consist in merely hanging out in the building’s foyer with them as they chat about their careers, their dates and their shared dislike of the house’s food. Hepburn is magnificent as a haughty upper-class girl wanting to make it as an actress and becoming far more sympathetic in the process. She’s not the only one that changes quite a bit along the way, as the film goes from fast-paced comedy to drama somewhere around the beginning of the third act. Despite the sobering (but not entirely unpredictable) shift, that change of pace works rather well and provides to the film a dramatic heft that a purely comedic approach may have lacked. It certainly improves the ultimate impact of the result, with Stage Door surviving admirably well even today.
(On Cable TV, September 2019) The main draw for State of the Union is that it’s another Tracy/Hepburn pairing. There’s a good reason why it’s not usually considered one of the most popular of their films, though: as a Frank Capra political drama featuring both of them as an estranged, nearly divorced couple, it doesn’t have the feel-good comic legacy than many of their movies do—except for Sea of Grass or Keeper of the Flame, which I like but are this close to downbeat. The chosen tone for most of the film isn’t the kind of stuff that makes for fond memories. If you’re familiar with other Frank Capra movies delving into American politics, you can already see the shape of the plot as a down-to-earth businessman is convinced to run for president by his insanely ambitious girlfriend (Angela Lansbury, in a surprisingly detestable role that prefigures her turn in The Manchurian Candidate). Of course, our hero will see the light of American democracy and send the vultures away. Still, the fun of the movie is getting there, the political aligning with the personal as Spencer Tracy rediscovers his morals and boots the bad girlfriend away in order to reconcile with the virtuous Katharine Hepburn. That’s how it goes, and even knowing it doesn’t tarnish the heartfelt way the film makes his point. American politics circa 2019 aren’t exactly the purest, warmest, incorruptible they’ve ever been—and it’s at times like these that movies such as State of the Union can remind us of some good old-fashioned basic values. Now that we’ve established that political junkies will like the film’s timeless message, what about Tracy/Hepburn shippers? Well, State of the Union is average when it comes to the romance—Hepburn doesn’t come in until the second act, and while the dramatic arc of reconciliation does offer something different from their other movies, it’s not quite the fizzy feel-good material of their highlights. The film does have its comic moments, but it’s far more interested in its dramatic points. As a viewer, its success will depend on whether you like Capra’s straightforward and sentimental paean to democratic ideals. I happen to like it a lot, but I can see the rough spots during which the film gets overtly preachy—even if I happen to agree.
(On Cable TV, July 2019) The historical record tells us that Sylvia Scarlett was a notorious flop upon release; that it had a legendarily bad test screening; and that it helped send Katharine Hepburn’s career in a slump that would take five years to correct. And certainly, it’s a film with its share of flaws—starting with a herky-jerky plot that’s unpredictable not because it’s particularly clever, but because it goes from one thing to another without much forethought. There are some intensely weird mood swings to the story, as it goes from comedy to the death of a main character to once more into comedy. But it’s also a film with many interesting things, especially from a modern perspective. The biggest of those is probably the presence of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, both of them young and dashing and still developing the persona that would follow them throughout their career. Grant’s charm is a bit subdued under a Cockney accent and a character meant to keep audiences either guessing or seething. Hepburn’s turn is far more interesting, as the tergiversations of the plot mean that she spends about half the film in drag, playing a young man. She goes from long tresses to a boy’s haircut, with makeup accents meant to highlight her masculine features. It’s not a bad look, and she does sell the illusion despite being, well, 1930s world-class beauty Katharine Hepburn. Brian Aherne also does quite well as a deliciously likable character absolutely unphased by the revelation that Hepburn’s character is, in fact, a girl. One can see, however, that depression-era America may not have known what to do with the gender-bending comedy of the film (complete with real same-sex kissing and proposed perceived same-sex cuddling). Director George Cukor keeps things moving, but there isn’t that much directorial prowess to the 90-minute film. The comedy is more a case of chuckles than outright laughter: it doesn’t go the extra mile and never makes the fullest use of the elements at its disposal. The ending is odd—satisfying at a basic romantic level, and yet a bit scattered in the way it gets there. It’s perhaps best to see Sylvia Scarlett as a curio, an early showcase for two legendary actors, and also an early example of queer cinema at a time when the Hays Code was starting to crack down on anything outside heteronormativity. (One notes that Cukor was homosexual and that Hepburn was widely rumoured to be bisexual.) By 1935 standards, Sylvia Scarlett may have been an odd flop—but today, it’s far more interesting than most other movies of the time.
(Popcornflix streaming, July 2019) I probably expected a bit too much out of On Golden Pond-the-movie as compared to On Golden Pond-the-career-highlight. For cinephiles with extensive knowledge of film history, every movie operates on at least two levels—the basic surface level of what we see and experience on-screen, and the way the film slots into the history of its genre, actors, and filmmakers. On that second level, On Golden Pond is essential: It’s one of Katharine Hepburn’s last great performances in a role that cleverly builds upon her own lifelong evolving persona; it’s Henry Fonda’s sole Oscar-winning performance; it’s an illustrated peek into the relationship between father and daughter Henry and Jane Fonda’s relationship; and it’s a major Oscar-winning movie. How could you not want to see a film with that kind of pedigree? I was there as soon as “Hepburn” was shown on-screen. But then there is the film, in which an old couple gets to care for their daughter’s new step-son during a summer at the cottage. Given that On Golden Pond is a theatrical adaptation, you can bet that the film is an actor’s dream with fully realized characters, strong dialogue, an undeniable thematic depth (with death and father/daughter relationships jockeying for importance) and a structure that allows for a lot to happen in a confined space and time. And yet, and yet, I think I was expecting just a bit too much. For all of Fonda’s fantastically cantankerous performance, witty bon mots and deathly obsession, I expected a grand finale for him—but the film is a bit too nice to get to the end of that thematic obsession. Hepburn is great, the Fondas are very good but the film does seem a bit too good-natured to truly get to the bottom of its themes. I’m as surprised as anyone to feel this way—I’m usually the first person to argue in favour of happy endings even when they’re not deserved. But it strikes me that this story had the potential to wring a lot more drama out of what it started with, and that it blinked in favour of far more superficial results. I’ll allow for the possibility that I’ve misunderstood the result or wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind for it. But it seems to me that the legend of On Golden Pond has outstripped its actual viewing experience.
(On Cable TV, July 2019) Being a fan means tracking down even the more obscure films, which is why I’m now one of the relatively select audience of people having seen the somewhat forgotten 1935 drama Break of Hearts. (How forgotten? Well, even TCM played it in the wee hours of the morning, without subtitles, and it barely gets a few hundred votes on IMDB.) I was obviously there for Katharine Hepburn; In full mid-1930s form, she headlines this somewhat dull romantic drama of the film. Here, an unknown composer (Hepburn) begins a relationship with a famous, troubled, handsome (etc.) conductor (Charles Boyer). There’s a whirlwind romance, some heartbreak, and so on. Hepburn is far better than the material (which often undermines the headstrong persona that she was trying to establish at the time), and she does get to wear a few good outfits out of the whole experience. At the very least, it’s a short film: this plays both to its disadvantage (as we compress through a deteriorating relationship not that far removed from A Star in Born) and to ours, as it’s over relatively quickly. Worth watching for Hepburn fans. Everyone else? Not so sure.
(On Cable TV, July 2019) There’s been quite a few film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women over the decades, with the 1994 version being most familiar to modern audiences and two more versions released in 2018 and 2019. Still, one of the most enduring versions remains the George Cukor 1933 Little Women, featuring no less than Katharine Hepburn in one of her earliest featured roles. The story is episodic—it’s about the coming-of-age adventures of four Massachusetts sisters during and after the Civil War, as they try to keep the household together in their father’s absence. Romantic and dramatic vignettes follow. This being a 1933 film, barely six years out of the silent movie age, there’s quite a bit of period melodrama in what is presented on-screen. Still, it was a big-budget, good-natured blockbuster movie at a time when the movie industry was under fire for pushing vulgar sensibilities … and it became a hit. The can-do spirit of the film found resonance in the then-current Depression, and the absence of an outright villain was (and remains) a nice change of pace. It can still be watched with some amount of interest, although frankly you can be there just to watch Hepburn and Edna May Oliver. (This being said: I’m a big fan of 1930s Katharine Hepburn, but she gets some serious competition here from Jean Parker.) It’s a film of its time, but it was close to being the best of what was produced in early-1930s Hollywood. As an actor’s showcase from past generations, Little Women is still worth a look.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) Cukor, Hepburn, Spencer—it didn’t take much more than that to get me watching Keeper of the Flame without even taking a look at the plot description or any of the material about the film. I just knew that I’m on my way of seeing all of the nine Hepburn/Spencer movies (this being my sixth) and also (eventually, maybe) seeing all of George Cukor’s films. If you were expecting a romantic comedy, the first minute of the film will set you straight as a famous man dies in a car crash and the entire nation mourns. Tracy Spencer plays a journalist who wants to get the story behind the death, his primary objective being meeting the deceased’s widow (Katharine Hepburn). What he discovers will go far beyond anything he (or we) could have imagined. The film is structured along the lines of a mystery, with enough sombre hints to get us hooked on the promise of something sinister. Hepburn is at her best here: still looking like a gorgeous ingenue, but acting with the strong will of her later matronly roles. But I defy anyone from guessing how the film ends. By the time it does, the female lead effectively becomes the woman who looked forward in time and stopped American fascism in the nick of time. The second half of Keeper of the Flame does have issues: the romantic drama slows down, and the delivery of the film’s secret is done through a ham-fisted fashion that weighs down the film’s laudable intentions and daring premise with inelegant exposition that never stops unspooling well after the point is made and too densely to be satisfying—certainly more could have been done to prepare viewers for the revelations. Keeper of the Flame remains relevant well after it served its purpose as an anti-fascism call to arms against the axis, and its lack of contemporary success can be squarely attributed to the public revulsion at even considering the possibility of homegrown American fascism. We twenty-first century viewers know better.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) In looking at Christopher Strong, many twenty-first century cinephiles will focus on Katharine Hepburn’s performance for a few good reasons—it’s her second movie role, and while it casts her in a tragic “other woman” character, you can already see her strong-willed personality shining through it. Playing off the romance of 1930s aviation, Christopher Strong has her as an aviatrix seducing a respectable married man—it doesn’t end well for her. On the other hand, the film does feature Hepburn in a silver form-fitting moth costume: it’s hard to find any kind of Hepburn retrospective that doesn’t feature a photo of it. Absent Hepburn, however, Christopher Strong isn’t much of a film: The absurdly complicated romance at the heart of the film makes it melodramatic to the point of having no reasonable way out, then shifts tones from comedy (with moth costume) to drama, ending at tragedy more out of default. This is really Hepburn’s show, even at such an early stage and secondary role.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) As someone who’s spent too much time getting interested in Katharine Hepburn’s career (wait, is that even possible?) the 1940s were an interesting decade for her, going from the career renewal of being a young romantic interest in The Philadelphia Story to the more mature role in Adam’s Rib. In those ten years, she met Spencer Tracy, her hair went shorter, her roles became more complex and she managed the transition from girlish ingenue to matronly powerhouse. This transformation is very much at work in The Sea of Grass, along with a striking odd note in her screen persona: As the story heads west for another tale of homesteaders against cattle ranchers, we also get one of the very few departures from Hepburn’s very urban screen persona—Aside from Rooster Cogburn, I can’t recall another western of hers, which is almost statistically improbable considering that she lived through the rise and death of westerns as a dominant film genre. Anyway—here she finds herself on the frontier along with Spencer Tracy (another largely urban type, albeit to a lesser extent) in a multi-generational epic drama of colonization of the grassy plains. (This being said, this is one of the few westerns in which the importance of big cities is recognized and exploited.) The time skips, when they first take place, are a bit startling and feature far more dramatic twists and turns than you’d expect from a story with a shorter time span. On the other hand, this adaptation from a hefty novel does feel long and the melodramatic turns of the narrative are not necessarily what we now associate with a Hepburn/Tracy film. Ah well—if you’re forewarned that the film lasts 131 minutes and there’s a lot of heartbreak on the way to a milder conclusion, then it may be successful—as long as you’re in the mood for a low-violence, high-melodrama western. The really funny thing, in retrospect, is that while The Sea of Grass is not usually ranked very highly on the list of the nine Hepburn/Tracy films, it was at the time the highest-grossing of them.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) As an Information Technology professional, I have a bigger interest than most in the place of computers in movies, and Desk Set manages to bring together that interest with another one—seeing Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in a romantic comedy. Set at the dawn of corporate IT, this film takes the burgeoning anxieties of the era and recasts them as fuel for a workplace comedy with a big dose of romance. As the story begins, Hepburn is the manager of a research library for a TV network—her staff can answer any question anyone could have. But in walks Tracy as a mysterious eccentric eventually revealed to be an “efficiency expert”—tasked with bringing a computer in the building to complement the work of the research staff. This being a comedy from the early days of computing, madness ensues. In one of Desk Set’s funniest scenes, the quasi-magical computer ends up firing everyone in the building, something swiftly ignored as the staff learns to get along with their computerized assistant. Said computer ends up taking over most of the set and the plot, leading to a high-energy finale. In the meantime, we do get some good romantic sparring between the whip-smart Hepburn and the ever-affable Tracy. It’s not a great movie, nor is it a great romance, but it does work well enough as a comedy. The dialogue is nice, and the increasing absurdity of the film does work in its favour as it hits its finale. The romantic plot is never surprising, but the bits and pieces along the way are fun. This is later-day Tracy/Hepburn (she wears her gray hair consistently pinned back), but the first of their movies shot in colour. Still, Desk Set is fun and fun is what it aims for. Contemporary IT professionals should get quite a kick out of the mid-1950s look at the potential and perils of computers in the workplace.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Oh boy—at a time when we talk a lot about cultural appropriation, it’s worth remembering that once upon a time Hollywood had no qualms about using the whitest of white actors to play other ethnicities, and so I suspect that Dragon Seed will forever live in infamy as the movie where Katharine Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant. That’s right: New England exemplar Hepburn as an Asian woman, in grotesque makeup. Oh boy. Beyond sharing a common literary origin in Pearl S. Buck’s novels, there’s a clear line from The Good Earth (with similar Caucasian casting) to Dragon Seed, and the film is trying to make heroes out of its Chinese characters … just as much as it’s trying to make despicable villains out of its Japanese antagonists occupying the village. But do remember that the film was made at the height of WW2, and designed to be a propaganda piece as to why the United States should fight Japan. Still: the miscasting here is astonishing, and while the black-and-white of the film makes it just slightly more convincing … it’s still incredibly gauche. There’s a small consolation in that this allowed Chinese characters to be made accessible to American audiences and in that light the idea to use a strong-willed actress such as Hepburn to present a female character with a strong agenda feels just a bit more acceptable. But there’s no denying that the film takes and gives racism—this is a war film, and it’s meant to whip up anti-Japanese fervour. The wartime focus of the film does make it more interesting than the similar The Good Earth, but also more offensive as well: while some scene do offer a warm and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese couples in love, it also makes for an infuriating portrait of the Japanese occupation. Dragon Seed is clearly a film of its time, but I feel better knowing that it would be unacceptable these days.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) When you’re Kathleen Hepburn and have remained a star through six decades of Hollywood history, the least you can be given is a feature-length documentary during which to comment your life and career. This is exactly what Katharine Hepburn: All About Me is about: Hepburn welcoming us home, leaving the camera running as she putters around the house and gives us the highlight reel of her career. Hepburn fans will note that the film came shortly after Hepburn’s 1991 autobiography and so offered her a complementary opportunity to cement her legacy even further by offering a movie-length trailer of the image she wanted to portray. In fact, you could argue that Hepburn here had a better vehicle for legacy summation than a book—after more than sixty years in show-business, the 85-year-old Hepburn remained an actor even when talking about her own life. Here we have poignant recollections, a few laughs, a warm portrait of Spencer Tracy (at a time when Hepburn was free to talk about their relationship without fear of being contradicted or annoying Spencer’s wife). This is all supported by great archival footage (including home movies) and Hepburn’s still-distinctive speaking style. This is Hepburn on Hepburn—much as I like her (and I really do like her a lot), there isn’t any place here for critical commentary on her life and work. This being said, All About Me remains quite a fascinating document for Hepburn fans—a 70-minute whirlwind tour of a career that could have sustained a much longer film, but also the portrait of a screen legend in her last few years. Perhaps her last great performance as well.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) If you’re even a casual fan of classic cinema, The African Queen is a must see, even for no other reason than it features Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in familiar roles—Bogart’s kind-hearted rogue, and Hepburn later-career matriarch. The story takes place deep in Africa during World War I, as a Canadian adventurer (Bogart) rescues an English nun from German attack. Escaping to friendly territory is not a certainty, especially when their tiny boat is faced with the threat of a German warship blocking their way. The adventures build up to a pretty good finale. While the innovation of shooting much of The African Queen on-location deep in Africa has paled a bit for today’s audiences, the results are clearly appreciated on-screen with a film that looks quite a bit more realistic than many of its studio-shot black-and-white contemporaries. (Legend has it that most of the crew suffered greatly from the shooting conditions, except Bogart and director John Huston who mostly drank alcohol rather than water.) Bogart got an Academy Award out of the film (a lifetime achievement reward in all but name) while Huston and Hepburn got nominated for their efforts. The result is a product of its time, but The African Queen has aged rather well and significantly better than many other films of the time.