Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936)

This is my contribution to the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, organised by Margaret Perry. Please do visit and take a look at the other posts!

Mary of Scotland 2

Katharine Hepburn in one of the amazing costumes created by Walter Plunkett

On paper, it ought to have been so good. A great director, John Ford, a great star, Katharine Hepburn, and a legendary story of rivalry between two queens. Yet somehow on the screen this historical spectacular doesn’t live up to its pedigree. It’s a slow and often boring film, despite its atmospheric, shadowy lighting, lavish art direction and evocative score by Nathaniel Shilkret, featuring snatches from many Scottish folk songs. There are some memorable patches, but the film as a whole doesn’t live up to its best scenes.

Ford famously “printed the legend” rather than worrying about historical accuracy, and that’s certainly the case here. The film turns Mary into a tragic heroine and her controversial relationship with Bothwell, played by Frederic March, into a picturesque romance. Of course, biopics and historical dramas always reshape events, and this one does that shaping from a pro-Stuart, anti-Tudor angle, editing out facts and speculation which work against its chosen story. Many dramas taking Elizabeth as the heroine have done just the opposite.

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The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Philadelphia Story 4This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian.  But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also  suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.

The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman,  George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute.  It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.

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Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949)

Adam's Rib 2Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a total of nine films together, but, for my money, Adam’s Rib is the best. It’s a film with just about everything, from a sharp script to a great performances by the central couple as rival lawyers. It was also ahead of  its time in its trenchant querying of  the sexual double standard, a theme flagged up in the title. And there is a fine supporting cast, headed by Judy Holliday. You can see why this film was such a shot in the arm for the romantic comedy at a time when the genre was starting to struggle.

I’ve always been fond of films where couples work together, which tends to make for great dialogue as their personal relationship becomes messily entwined with rivalries and tensions in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had already made one good film where they are rival journalists, Woman of the Year (1942), though that one is marred by a cringe-making ending. In Adam’s Rib they are married colleagues again, but this time they play lawyers.

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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.

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A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn

John Barrymore may be best-known for his work in the theatre and in films of the silent era. But, every time I see him in an early talkie, I’m struck by how great he was in these too – and A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a melodrama directed by George Cukor for RKO Radio Pictures, is no exception. Barrymore gives a heart-rending performance as a father coming home after 15 years in a mental hospital. However, although Barrymore was the star with his name above the title, these days the film is best-remembered (when it is remembered at all, that is!) as the debut role for Katharine Hepburn, playing the daughter whose world is about to be torn apart. She was fourth-billed and her name was actually spelt wrong in the final credits, but, even so, she is really a joint female lead with Billie Burke , and has several scenes where her unique film personality comes across.

The film is adapted from a play by British dramatist Clemence Dane, and set in England, although none of the stars worry too much about doing English accents. As with some other movies from this period, this is very much a filmed version of a stage play, with almost all the scenes taking place on the same set, so at times it gives a feeling of what it might have been like to see Barrymore on stage. I have seen some reviews suggesting that the film feels too static, but this is a movie where I think this works, as with Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), because again the atmosphere is intended to be claustrophobic and intense.

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Desk Set (1957)

Filmed in truly glorious Technicolor, this is probably the lightest of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies I’ve seen so far. ( I only have a couple of the ones they made together still to go.) This time there’s no real sense of conflict – although obviously the romantic comedy plot brings up its share of misunderstandings but more of friendship and shared humour, and sheer enjoyment of each other’s little eccentricities.

The film is directed by Walter Lang, with a script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant.As so often with movies based on stage plays, the dialogue is beautifully crisp, but this one doesn’t feel too slow and stagey.

The plot seems extremely forward-looking for 1957, with Hepburn playing the woman in charge of a broadcasting station’s reference library, who fears she will be put out of work by a computer , invented by absent-minded boffin Tracy. Fifty years on, computers have, sadly, indeed put paid to such departments in some newspaper offices – I don’t know about broadcasters, but suspect it may be the same story there too. Anyway, the computer in this movie, EMERAC, nicknamed Emmie, is a magnificent sight, huge and taking up a whole room, with lights flashing and a selection of loud noises. My teenage son was most impressed to see it, and pointed out that it would have had a lot less power than a modern calculator!
An information overload

An information overload

I enjoyed the scenes in the library over the Christmas period, where Hepburn is constantly answering the phone and saying: “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Back in the 1980s, there used to be a list of Santa’s reindeer up on the wall in the reference library at a newspaper where I worked, because this exact query came so regularly over the festive season.

In those days, and still more so in the 1950s, it seemed unlikely that a computer would ever be able to answer any random question you put to it. Now, of course, with the arrival of the internet, computers can do just that, and the science fiction has become reality.

Tracy is endearing as scatter-brained scientist Richard – wearing one blue sock and one brown one, and constantly looking as if he isn’t quite sure where he’s just been or where he should be going next. “I had a tape measure a minute ago – you didn’t see where I put it, did you?”

Hepburn provides the perfect contrast as  quick-talking Bunny, with a memory at least equal to that of his computer.She might check her engagement diary for show, but you know she has it all by heart, and probably next year’s engagements too. I especially enjoyed the scene where Hepburn and Tracy eat a picnic in the cold while he fires questions from a prepared list.

Among the supporting cast, it’s fun to see Joan Blondell in good form as one of Hepburn’s colleagues, while Gig Young is suitably infuriating as Hepburn’s on-off lover Mike, an unthinking male chauvinist who has taken her for granted for years until some competition turns up.

I enjoyed the gentle, understated feeling to the whole movie – and, especially, the scenes where everyone is running around after Emmie the computer !