Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #7

Yes, I do recognize the existence of another Hepburn.

And yes, I do think Katharine Hepburn is great. I will admit that her output during the 1940s is weaker than the 1930s or 1950s, yet even a lesser decade for Hepburn would be strong for anyone else.

These were MGM years, and it all started with the triumphant "The Philadelphia Story," a movie I love not just for the story but also for what it represented in terms of Hepburn's career.

Once her box office power dwindled during the 1930s, labeled "Box Office Poison" by the Independent Theater Owners of America, she bought out her contract at RKO rather than star in B movies. Hepburn returned to her home on the East Coast and considered her Hollywood career finished.

Friend and playwright Philip Barry called Hepburn with a few ideas about a new play, one involving the second marriage of a Philadelphia socialite and what might happen if her first husband turns up at the wedding. Intrigued, Hepburn asked Barry to see more. What blossomed was "The Philadelphia Story." Before it opened on Broadway, Hepburn's friend and sometime lover Howard Hughes convinced her to buy the film rights, knowing that if the play was a hit, she'd be in the driver's seat in terms of a silver screen comeback. The plan worked: The play was a hit, and Hollywood came courting.

She held out for the best studio in town -- MGM -- and she got it when Louis B. Mayer finally made an offer. She could choose her leading men, one of whom was Spencer Tracy, and actor she admired but had never met. Unfortunately, he was not available, so she called on good friend Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart to co-star (along with John Howard, below), and another good friend, George Cukor, to direct.

The result was golden and was a triumphant return to Hollywood for Hepburn. Plus, the story redefined her image. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a woman who is knocked off her pedestal for being icy and unattainable and rebuilt in a more accessible way. That pretty much is what Hepburn needed, an actress who people thought was too refined and strong, perhaps even snooty. With "The Philadelphia Story," audiences welcomed her back with open arms.

It would be two years before she returned to the screen, and this time she got what she originally wanted for "The Philadelphia Story" -- Spencer Tracy. The movie was "Woman of the Year," and besides being a great film, it was the first of nine films these two made as well as becoming an off-screen couple for 25 years. You can feel the chemistry in their first meeting onscreen, when sports columnist Sam Craig confronts international affairs columnist Tess Harding. You know he's expecting someone harder, perhaps older, but the woman he meets is smart, feisty -- and alluring.

Throughout the movie these two form a partnership that would work onscreen for years. And if "The Philadelphia Story" remade Hepburn as an accessible goddess, this film knocks her off the pedestal completely. The ending may seem a tad sexist by today's standards. But Tess is simply trying to show Sam that she can be change. At that time, there were fewer options for women, so her choice of a role to settle into was dictated by what society expected back then. Today, the role would be different, but the meaning the same. Regardless, by the end, the two were in love, and so were audiences.

Hepburn and Tracy would make six of their nine movies together during the 1940s (more on that in a minute). Even without Tracy, Hepburn kept busy for the rest of the decade with an odd mixture of movies. There are no failures, with some simply admirable tries -- think of "Dragon Seed," in which Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant, but not as convincingly as Luise Rainer did in "The Good Earth" in 1937. Still, the MGM production values and supporting cast are good, and Hepburn at least doesn't embarrass herself. She's fine in the melodramatic "Undercurrent" with Robert Taylor, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Although not a great film, it's still interesting fare.

Her union with Tracy produced strong results. "Without Love," another Philip Barry play, shows its age with the war-themed plot, although she scores as a woman who enters into a loveless marriage that allows Tracy to share her house and continue his war work amid the housing shortage in WWII Washington D.C. "Sea of Grass" and "Song of Love" are interesting if not great films.

But "State of the Union" from director Frank Capra has aged well and is often overlooked. Tracy plays a political candidate who hits the campaign trail with estranged wife Hepburn to create the illusion they have a happy marriage. The film is a bit overlong, but Hepburn shines as she grapples with conflicting emotions for a man she once loved and tries to decide whether her love can save him. Think of one of the themes in the current TV series "The Good Wife," and you've got a film that's ahead of its time.

Even better is the sublime "Adam's Rib." Release in 1949, Hepburn and Tracy (above) play lawyers who end up on opposite ends of the same case, setting off a war of the sexes. They battle, flirt, bicker -- and it's the audience that benefits.

What I love about their pairing is that each star is allowed to shine. This is not a case where one carries the other, or that either one would be lost going it alone onscreen. Both are stars individually and together, able to share the spotlight without conceding it.

As for Hepburn, these pairings allowed her to survive a time period when other actresses saw their stars fade. Finishing her second decade on film, she was stronger than ever and ready to tackle some of her finest roles during the 1950s.

But it's still a great decade for the great Kate. A complete original, one of the overall all-time best, she'll always be a favorite of mine.


  1. I'm surprised she's not higher up on your list! Excellent choice, though! Strong, independent, talented: that's my Kate! Q.

  2. Glad you like, Q. If I was doing an all-time list, she would rank higher. As for the 40s, she's still in the top 7, which is pretty darn good.