Films to Love: Katharine Hepburn
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t declared the month of May to have any particular theme. Why, you might ask? Well, dear readers, as this month marks the first anniversary of Whiskers on Kittens, I have actually come up with a theme that’s a theme but not really a theme. You see, this month, I’m writing about a few of my favorite things.
That being said, today I’m talking about one of my favorite persons: Katharine Hepburn. Tomorrow happens to be her birthday. Were she still alive, she would be 110 years old. Considering she lived to the ripe age of 96, never slowing a bit (she was an impressively active woman the whole of her life), that stretch doesn’t seem like much to make, does it?
As a matter of fact, Katharine has been on mind since the writing of Monday’s post. Remember I teased you, dear readers, with a parody? “The myrtles are in bloom again, really they are.” Now, do you know from whence this line was derived?
Well, in 1933, a British play written by Dorothy Massingham and Murray MacDonald debuted on Broadway. The play was called The Lake, and it was one of the first Broadway roles of Katharine Hepburn’s career. Directed by Jed Harris, who Hepburn once described as “hands-down the most diabolical person I have ever met,” the play flopped royally. However, one of the lines from the play came to live on when Hepburn trotted it out in the film Stage Door. What’s the line, you might ask? The Calla lilies are in bloom again, really they are. When Hepburn said it in the movie, she was making fun of the play. Well, it stuck, and since it has been quoted and re-quoted, and in Lucille Ball’s case, translated into shoddy Italian.
Ever since I was a little girl, I have known about and enjoyed the films of Katharine Hepburn. My Nana even read me Katharine’s autobiography one summer when I was staying with her in Michigan.
There are so many amazing things that can be said about Katharine Hepburn. I will not even attempt to try and list her many accolades- cinematic, theatric, or philanthropic. My posts aren’t long enough. However, I will recommend, if you’d like to learn more about this tour de force of a female, that you read her autobiography simply titled, Me.
Today’s post is about the films that I love starring, you guessed it, Katharine Hepburn. Well, not all, as it would make this post longer than I’d like. However, there are a handful of her films that are in the hierarchy of my favorites. Some I have mentioned before, others I haven’t.
This screwball comedy helmed by Howard Hawks (one of the best and my favorites) was Katharine Hepburn’s first foray into comedy. Considering how brilliant she is at it in this movie, it’s a bit of a wonder that she struggled with her timing so much. In fact, Hawks tried to recruit vaudevillian veteran, Walter Catlett, who played Sergeant Slocum in the movie, to give Hepburn acting tips to improve her comedic skills. Catlett refused, believing such interference to be a breach in etiquette. However, when Hawks mentioned to Hepburn that he thought Catlett could help her improve, Hepburn didn’t let the suggestion disabuse her pride; she marched right over to Catlett and asked him for help. That should tell you something about the character of Katharine. She wasn’t interested in taking offense at constructive criticism. Rather, she was self-possessed and humble enough to realize she could benefit from the help of others, even if they weren’t one of the principals. By the end of filming, Hawks was praising her for ad-libbing ability, comedic timing, and even her physical control.
The movie co-stars another of my favorites: Cary Grant. Katharine and he got on so well, they showed up early on set in order to cut up as they came up with new comedic ad-libs to spring on Hawks during filming. Grant and Hepburn had acted together in the heavy drama, Sylvia Scarlett, but their chemistry in this comedy spurred on their pairing in two more comedies. One I’ve spoken about before- The Philadelphia Story (see post here). The other, well, it’s the next one of my list:
Every year, I watch this on New Years Eve. It’s climactic scene occurs as Auld Land Syne plays and fireworks are heard in the distance. This film is an excellent example of the witty sophistication alive in so many of the films made during this golden age in Hollywood. While Hepburn shines spectacularly, especially in that bit where she balances on Cary Grant’s shoulders in her evening dress, and together, they pull off the acrobatic feat of both doing synchronized summersaults (Katharine’s father encouraged her and her siblings to push their minds and bodies to their limits, so she was an accomplished athlete, and able to pull off this stunt herself), I think my favorite person in this film is the absent-minded, somewhat awkward academic friend of Johnny Case (Cary Grant), Professor Nick Potter played by Edward Everett Horton, who deserves prime real-estate in the pantheon of character actors. (You can see him in such greats as the Astaire/Rogers classic Top Hat, the Cary Grant frolic Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as Frank Capra’s swan song Pocketful of Miracles.) This film is a sheer pleasure and well worth the watch if you’re a fan of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, or George Cukor.
This film is a favorite for so many reasons, one of them being it’s locations in Venice. Then, of course, there’s Rossano Brazzi. So handsome. However, I think this movie stays with me because Jane Hudson, Katharine Hepburn’s character, is readily identifiable. She’s a pragmatic, older woman, who has made an excellent life for herself. However, she has a dream of going to Italy, Venice to be precise. In an intrepid moment, she seizes the day and books her ticket, traveling alone because it’s her desire to go there. And her vacation is the perfect idyll for romance, too. Her first true romance. The film is one of hope that one is never too old to embrace her dreams, as well as open her heart to love.
I’m forever thankful that this movie is one of my mother’s favorites. She even had a miniature replica of the Africa Queen boat displayed on her desk for years. Starring Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer, a prim missionary in the wilds of Africa left with no other recourse but to embark with Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), rapscallion riverboat captain of the African Queen, when her brother dies in unsavory circumstances. The story takes place during World War I. Filmed on location in Africa, Hepburn and Bogart shine as only such consummates can. The movie is equal portions dramatic, suspenseful, comedic, and romantic. Hepburn is an excellent choice for Rose Sayer because she possesses such strength of character in herself, that purveying a woman with the same strong conviction and strength, but tempered with a warm, compassionate heart has complete integrity.
The Lion in Winter
Now, I include this one because I cannot imagine anyone else playing Eleanor of Aquitaine. I know I’ve seen others do it, and they have done it well, but Katharine Hepburn plays the role as though Eleanor lived for the whole purpose of having Hepburn portray her centuries later. In fact, Katharine Hepburn is a descendent of Aquitaine. From the manner in which she controls the whole of it, it’s no surprise. She not only stole the show, as the saying goes, she walked away with an Oscar for her performance.
The film also stars Peter O’Toole as Henry II, with such greats as Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton making their film debuts. All three men were in awe, and a little afraid, of Hepburn. In fact, Hepburn is reported to have scolded O’Toole when he showed up late on set or hung-over. However, while O’Toole said of her, “She is terrifying. It is sheer masochism working with her. She has been sent by some dark fate to nag and torment me,” Hepburn only spoke of O’Toole with the highest gratitude, saying that his lust for life helped infuse her with vitality during a time when she needed it most. (Hepburn filmed The Lion in Winter only months after the death of longtime lover, Spencer Tracy.)
There are a few things about Hepburn that bear mentioning.
Firstly, she pushed many boundaries within her career. While they weren’t all blaring, she pushed them nonetheless. For example, the wardrobe malfunction she has in Bringing Up Baby pushed the bounds of the censors of the time; never before had a woman’s undergarments been shown in such a manner. There was nothing prurient about her skivvies showing, and since Hepburn knew this, she was able to utilize comedy to push past the censors and give the audience some of the most rip-roaring humor ever caught on film.
Second, she was a champion athlete who adopted practices that are only now being highlighted for their amazing healthy benefits. For example, every morning, repeating the phrase the bitterer the medicine, the better it is for you, Hepburn would take a freezing cold bath. While filming The Lion in Winter, she swam twice daily in the frigid Irish sea, telling her co-stars:
Today, the medical community lists a bevy of benefits from such an action. (See article here.)
Thirdly, whether you agree with her or not, she held her convictions very deeply and stood by them. When she gave her word to something, she kept it. That is admirable in every way.
Fourth, she never got to big for her britches. She possessed the whole of her life a keen understanding of herself, her flaws, her foibles, and her strengths. And she was always honest about them. Ask Peter O’Toole. When he complained to her that she frightened him, she replied:
And, lastly, Katharine Hepburn never compromised as a woman. She was strong. She had a sense of humor. She had integrity and intrepidity. She went after the things she was passionate about. She wasn’t afraid to grow into a better version of herself. She pushed her limits. But, she was never afraid to show vulnerability. Particularly in Summertime, she demonstrated how a woman could still be strong and resilient while still falling in love and showing softness. This balance is not always achieved without one element or the other suffering. But, just as in her life, Katharine didn’t compromise on her performances until she was satisfied that she had sucked out all the marrow of life and stood as an example to other women after her.
Today, we honor her memory and her body of work. Now that you know my Hepburn favorites, what are yours?