Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Aviation movies have long held a fascination for me, but I haven’t seen many featuring female aviators — and most of those I have seen are a disappointment. For instance, I was recently excited at the chance to see the German silent film The Ship of Lost Men (1929), starring my favourite actress, Marlene Dietrich, as a pioneering pilot, but sadly she is only seen in the air for a second or so before landing in the sea, and the film as a whole isn’t very memorable. Dorothy Mackaill, another fine actress, plays a spoilt rich girl playing at being a pilot in the pre-Code Love Affair (1932), the film which features Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic lead role, but, again, she spends very little time in the air and the film doesn’t really live up to its great cast.

So, when a pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn as an aviator turned up on TV in the UK recently, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that she actually does quite a bit of flying in the film. Christopher Strong might take its name from the main male character, an aristocratic politician, played by Colin Clive of Frankenstein fame, but the central character is undoubtedly the heroine, Lady Cynthia Darrington (Hepburn). And, with rather heavy irony, she is the strong one. The film is best-known for an astonishing moth costume that Hepburn wears, while a poster of her as an aviator was used to publicise a Led Zeppelin tour.

Colin Clive with Hepburn in her moth costume

Colin Clive with Hepburn in her moth costume

The film is adapted from a novel by Gilbert Frankau, and I found an interesting essay online, From Written Text to Cinematic Images:  The Erasure of the Feminine Voice — unfortunately with no author credited apart from the University of New Hampshire, and I can’t link to it as it is a pdf file  — which says that, as the title suggests, in the original book the main viewpoint is that of Sir Christopher, but in the film this has been shifted to put the focus on Cynthia.  Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director working in Hollywood at this period, frequently put forceful heroines at the centre of her films, as she does here, together with scriptwriter Zoe Akins, who also worked with her on several other films around this period. Set in London, the film begins with a human treasure hunt similar to the famous one in My Man Godfrey, though here the bright young party-goers are not searching for down-and-outs. Instead, the two rare specimens they are asked to find are a faithful husband and a “woman who has never had a lover”. Party girl Monica (Helen Chandler) persuades her father, politician Sir Christopher, to come along to the party as her prize exhibit, and he does so, briefly lecturing the assembled party-goers about his love for his wife, Elaine (Billie Burke).

However, Christopher is about to find his words ringing hollow in his own ears, as he promptly falls for the other piece of human treasure exhibited at the party, young aviator Cynthia. In the original novel, this character is a racing driver, but for the film she has been turned into a daring aviator in the mould of Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson. Cynthia arrives at the party by chance rather than design, and explains that she has had no time for love because of her dedication to her career. She starts by befriending Monica, who has fallen in love with a married man, Harry (Ralph Forbes) – but Cynthia is soon involved with the whole family, and getting into dangerous emotional territory.

Billie Burke and Helen Chandler as mother and daughter

Billie Burke and Helen Chandler as mother and daughter

One of the most refreshing aspects of this film is that all the characters are sensitively drawn and there are no caricatures. Cynthia genuinely likes and cares for both Monica and Elaine, and fights her attraction towards Chris. Scriptwriter and playwright Zoe Akins wrote a number of works featuring strong female friendships, including The Old Maid with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, based on Edith Wharton’s story, and the original play adapted in the pre-Code The Greeks Had a Word for Them/Three Broadway Girls (1932). Both these films have a sense of warmth and genuine liking between the central women characters, despite the various rivalries of the melodramatic or comic plots, and the same is true in Christopher Strong.

In particular, Hepburn and Helen Chandler, who is great as a hard-drinking lost soul in The Last Flight (1931),  have some good scenes together. Billie Burke had earlier starred with Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement (1932),  and she is good in that film, but here I think she is even better, underplaying delicately to give a feeling of Elaine’s primness and yet at the same time doing enough to suggest the emotions beneath the surface.

That moth costume again

That moth costume again

Unfortunately, though, the weak point of the film is the central love affair, as there is so little chemistry between Hepburn and Colin Clive. The film includes some sexy pre-Code scenes, including one daring sequence where Christopher and Cynthia are clearly in bed together and the camera just focuses on Hepburn’s arm. But Clive seems so stilted and old-fashioned that it is hard to see why a dedicated young pilot would be interested in him, let alone consider giving up the skies for him.

In the later scenes, the film does move into wild melodrama and becomes increasingly unconvincing, and, unfortunately, as so often, the heroine is forced into tragic self-sacrifice, with flying turned from something she loves into a way of obliterating herself. However, overall, while the film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, it does give Katharine Hepburn a powerful early role and a chance to show her versatility as an actress, and the ending can’t obliterate all the lively scenes of Cynthia as a woman pilot that have gone before.

For further reading, here are links to two detailed reviews at The Great Katharine Hepburn blog and Pre-code.com

Katharine Hepburn and Colin Clive

Katharine Hepburn and Colin Clive

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20 thoughts on “Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)

  1. I’ve never seen this one but I’m going to watch for it, based on your review. Movies about female aviators (movies where they actually fly) are quite rare, aren’t they? I hadn’t thought about it until you pointed it out.

    That is some moth costume, all right!

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    • The costume is amazing, isn’t it?! I have come across one or two 1930s films with female aviators in them – it slipped my mind while writing this, but I’ve just remembered ‘Wings in the Dark’ (1935) where Myrna Loy plays a similar character, who is a stunt pilot as well as a round-the-world aviator, opposite Cary Grant. I will hope to write something about that one in future. Also June Travis plays a trainee air mail pilot in a Hawks film, ‘Ceiling Zero’, and I think she does have a flying scene although it is a long time since I’ve seen it – but it seems such characters are few and far between compared to all the male pilots. Thank you for the comment, Ruth, and I hope you get to see the movie!

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  2. That moth costume is something,isn’t it!
    I always like reading about Kate Hepburn and this one is quite rare.
    I do agree Colin Clive is a weak costar.
    A good topic – women aviators. You can add Irene Dunne is A Guy Named Joe.

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    • Thanks, Vienna – definitely agree on the costume. I find I love most of the lead actors of the period, but there are one or two who are hard to warm to, like Colin Clive and his half-namesake Clive Brook, because they show so little emotion that it’s difficult to sympathise with them at all. I haven’t seen ‘A Guy Named Joe’ as yet but have been meaning to and will now hope to get to it quicker after you pointed out that it has a female aviator.

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  3. I was going to pop into mention Wings in the Dark and then saw you beat me to it! It has probably the most improbable story line ever but Myrna Loy sure is fetching in her aviator suit?

    For my money, Colin Clive spells the kiss of death for a movie unless it contains “Frankenstein” in the title. The rock bottom was his Rochester in 1934’s Jane Eyre. Horrible.

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    • It certainly is an improbable storyline, must agree! I haven’t seen many Colin Clive films but am not in a great hurry to put that right – as a fan of Jane Eyre, I do mean to see his take on Rochester some time, but won’t expect too much, especially after your warning. Thank you for the comment!

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    • Thank you! I had a look at your blog and it looks good too – I am hoping to see ’12 Angry Men’ soon and will be dropping by to read your review of it.

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  4. Judy, Have not seen this but will keep an eye out for it. Unfortunately, Colin Clive, in my head, is purely associated with FRANKENSTEIN (It’s alive!, it’s alive) and I cannot imagine him as a romantic lead to Kate Hepburn. And maybe he wasn’t up to it since you mention how stilted he is. Excellently done as always!

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    • Colin Clive certainly isn’t my idea of a romantic lead, but it’s still worth seeing if you get a chance, John. And thanks very much!

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  5. Thanks so much for the pingback! I was wondering why that post had suddenly become so popular! I love how the female collaboration on this film (Zoe Atkins, Dorothy Arzner, KH) gives the story a bit of depth into the relationships between the female characters. I had no idea that the original book was from Strong’s POV, but I guess that makes sense. Oh, and I absolutely agree that Clive has zilch sex appeal in this film!

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    • Margaret, thanks for the nice comment and I’m very glad if I’ve helped anyone to find your posting. I do agree that the rare combination for that time of female director, lead character and screenwriter gives a bit more depth to the relationships between the women in the film. Thanks again!

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  6. As always you are incomparable is assessing pre-code cinema, bringing to the table a plethora of experience and references. I can see why the lack of charisma between Hepburn and Clive would seriously impede this drama from working, but you do a great job in discussing the strengths and weaknesses. This is definitely a change of pace of Hepburn in a film that would seem better suited to Wellman. I don’t think I remember Hepburn playing the “other” woman aside from this. Excellent review Judy, sorry I got here so late.

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    • Sam, it’s interesting you should mention Wellman, as I did wonder how he or Hawks would have handled the aviation material here, but Arzner is a director I’d like to know more about and I think she does a good job here in creating interesting and strong female characters. I have read somewhere that this was the only time Hepburn played the ‘other’ woman, as you say. Thanks so much for the over-kind comments and support, as ever.

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  7. Just discovered your blog. I’m a long time classic movie fan. While I didn’t love this movie, I thought it was a great fit for Katharine Hepburn. She does so well playing strong female characters. Although she also portrayed the character’s weakness in the film as well. Myrna Loy made a great pilot in Wings in the Dark. I believe she also played one in Too Hot to Handle.

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    • Hi, Brittaney, thanks so much for visiting my blog and for the comment! I do agree that Hepburn is great in strong roles like this (with a weak side too in this film as you say) even though the movie overall has its flaws. Thanks for the info about ‘Too Hot to Handle’ – I haven’t seen that film but will hope to do so!

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    • Good news if you get TCM. I just checked next month’s schedule (August) and they will be showing this film on Clark Gable day. You can catch it then.

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    • Thanks, Brittaney, but I live in the UK and we have a different TCM channel here, I’m afraid, which only shows a tiny fraction of the films you get in the US! I’ll watch the schedules just in case, though.

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