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.
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.
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.
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.