Katharine Hepburn in the 1930's: 1934-1936


Today, I'm writing about five of Katharine Hepburn's thirties movies from Spitfire (1934) to Sylvia Scarlett (1936).

This is the second installment in a three-part series. Go here for the first article.

Trigger Hicks in Spitfire (1934), dir. John Cromwell

By the autumn of 1933, Katharine Hepburn was one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood. Her first film was a major box-office success, her second movie was garnering think pieces from feminist writers, and her third movie was generating Oscar buzz (Hepburn won the 1933 best actress Academy Award for her performance as a struggling young actress in Morning Glory). 

Hepburn could have had her choice of roles in Hollywood, but instead the independent actress decided that she wanted to return to Broadway to star in The Lake opposite her Christopher Strong (1933) co-star Colin Clive. RKO Pictures had Hepburn under a seven-year contract, but they reluctantly agreed to let her leave for New York City as long as she completed one more picture by the end of the year.

Hepburn agreed on the condition that shooting would only last one month, so RKO rushed Spitfire into production. This adaptation of Lula Vollmer's unusual play Trigger, was originally intended for Dorothy Jordan, but, depending on which biographer you read, RKO gave it to Hepburn either because she wanted a change of pace or because it was the only project the studio could pull off in a short time period. 

Whatever the reasons, Hepburn is badly miscast as a simple girl living in the Ozarks whose faith-healing powers attract the skepticism of her neighbors and the attentions of two big-city men (Ralph Bellamy and Robert Young) who are working on a dam project. Hepburn's Southern accent is atrocious, but her performance is even worse, although she certainly wasn't helped by the rushed production schedule or the ridiculous script. DVD.

Babbie in The Little Minister (1934), dir. Richard Wallace

Spitfire was a dud, but Hepburn's fourth film, Little Women, which was released during the 1933 Christmas season, was still doing boffo business at the box office, so RKO producer Pandro S. Berman decided to star Hepburn in another lavish costume drama based on a 19th century classic. This time it was an adaptation of Scottish writer J.M. Barrie's 1891 novel The Little Minister.

Hepburn got the part of a Babbie, an eccentric noblewoman who masquerades as a gypsy, over her RKO rival Margaret Sullavan, and while the role doesn't fit her quite as well as Jo March, she plays Babbie with an offbeat charisma that makes her seem like the Victorian cousin to her later screwball heroines. The Little Minister was popular at the box-office, but because it cost so much to recreate a rural Scottish village in Southern California, the movie barely eked out a profit. DVD.

Constance Dane Roberti in Break of Hearts (1935), dir. Philip Moeller

Next. RKO planned to re-team Hepburn with her A Bill of Divorcement co-star John Barrymore for the romance, Break of Hearts, but once the great actor got a look at the original script from Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, and Anthony Veiller, he turned the project down flat. After several false starts, Charles Boyer was cast opposite Hepburn as an eminent orchestra conductor who falls for Hepburn's unknown composer.

The plot of Break of Hearts is basically A Star Is Born set in a classical music milieu, and, although the movie eventually collapses under the weight of its own melodrama, Break of Hearts is probably Hepburn's most underrated film. She and Boyer both turn in fine, sensitive performances, and they have great chemistry together. Plus, Hepburn looks amazingly chic in glamorous thirties fashions. TCM at 4:30 a.m. Aug. 29. DVD.

The Title Character in Alice Adams (1935), dir. George Stevens

Break of Hearts did only modest box office -- like many of Hepburn's movies, it performed well in urban centers but sank like a stone in rural America -- which meant that Hepburn badly needed a viable hit to keep her Hollywood career afloat. She got it in Alice Adams, which is the second screen adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a working class girl with high society pretensions living in a small Midwestern town.

Alice Adams earned Hepburn her second Oscar nomination, and it is certainly her best performance of the mid-1930's. For the first time onscreen, Hepburn manages to control her idiosyncratic mannerisms and give a fully realized performance of  a complex human being with complex emotions. Like many of Hepburn's thirties characters Alice is a little kooky, but she is also sympathetic -- it's hard not to feel sorry for her when she shows up at the dance in an old gown -- and, in the end, ruthlessly ambitious. TCM at 8 p.m. July 9. DVD and video on demand.

Sylvia Scarlett/Sylvester in Sylvia Scarlett (1936), dir. George Cukor

After the massive success of Alice Adams, Hepburn could write her own ticket in Hollywood. She did so by re-teaming with her frequent collaborator, director George Cukor, for Sylvia Scarlett, a quirky tale of a con artists and gender switches that is based on a 1918 novel by Compton Mackenzie. Hepburn plays the daughter of a con artist on the lam (Edmund Gwenn) who dresses up as a boy to evade the police.

The movie was a huge flop in 1936 -- as we shall see in the next installment, it's disastrous box office shaped the rest of Hepburn's RKO career -- but it has since gained a substantial cult following for its very modern take on gender identity, although the movie does owe a great debt to Shakespeare's gender-bender comedies like As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Hepburn pulls off the difficult hat trick of playing Sylvia/Sylvester with aplomb: She fully captures the character's range of identities from a young girl masquerading as a boy to a woman who is somewhat uncomfortable in her own body. DVD and video on demand.

Next week, I'll finish up the series with six of Hepburn's thirties movies starting with Mary of Scotland (1936).