Friday, June 01, 2007

SPENDING A LITTLE TIME WITH KATE. Been perusing the 100th Anniversary Katharine Hepburn Collection DVD box set. You just KNOW I preordered it. Well, it's got six of Kate's movies (not ALL of them the best, I might add): those movies are "Morning Glory", "Sylvia Scarlett", "The Corn Is Green", "Undercurrent", "Without Love" and "Dragon Seed".
Many of these films I haven't seen in a great while but it was nice to see them all again in sparkling DVD format. The best of the bunch would have to be "Without Love" and "Undercurrent". The former is one of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn team-ups and is, in fact, one of the better ones. It's quite funny and I recommend it. Meanwhile, "Undercurrent" is the one and only film noir that Kate ever made; this one is quite good too with Hepburn teaming up with Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in a nailbiter that holds your interest all the way through.
"Dragon Seed" is the screen adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's book of the same name starring Kate, Walter Huston, Turhan Bey, Akim Tamiroff, Agnes Moorehead et. al. as Chinese peasants during the World War II invasion by the Japanese . . . and they're all wearing prosthetic "Chinese eyes" yet. As distasteful (and potentially hilarious) as this might sound, the film is actually a respectable one due mainly to the heartfelt performances by the cast. While the sight of so many famous "occidental" actors like Hepburn and Huston as Chinese is quite jarring at first, the viewer will soon forget about it as they become caught up in the story. Hepburn conveys the correct amount of meekness as a 1930's Chinese peasant wife but her character knows how to read and gently nudges her husband (Bey) into treating her as a person. One scene features Turhan Bey, angry that his wife is in town rather than home cooking his dinner, goes off to collect her; he snatches a thin branch from a nearby tree and begins stripping it of leaves en route in preparation to taking the switch to her. Of course, Bey deeply loves his wife and cannot bring himself to follow everyone else's advice (to beat her); they actually talk their disagreement out and, when they finally reach home, Hepburn glances at the switch that Bey is holding and gently takes it from his fingers. "Dragon Seed" is better than one might expect.
Then there's "Morning Glory": the film which won Hepburn her first Academy Award as Best Actress. This film was only Hepburn's third and boom -- Oscar! Watching the film today may lead one to confusion as to why. Granted, Hepburn's performance is excellent in places but the whole film (and her performance) creaks BADLY and betrays it's early-30's release date. This is the story of a starstruck young actress Eva Lovelace (Kate) who goes to Broadway to become a star. Naturally the stuck-up lead actress of a play refuses to go on opening night, Hepburn is the last minute replacement and triumphs in the part. It sounds like a total cliche now but apparently wasn't then. Anyway, there are some great scenes; the opening sequence involving Kate in a theatrical agent's office (involving Adolph Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and C. Aubrey Smith) as well as the party scene in which Hepburn gets drunk on an empty stomach and performs Shakespeare. Other than that, the scenes not involving Hepburn are something of a chore to sit through. The film itself sometimes seems to have been edited with an axe and the end of the film comes up so abruptly that one almost shouts "What?!? That's the end?!?!?!" Unless you're a Hepburn fanatic (like me), there's really no reason to watch this one. Rally, there isn't.
"The Corn Is Green" is actually a late-1970's TV movie remake and the last teaming of Hepburn with director George Cukor (who filmed her debut in "A Bill of Divorcement" in 1932 as well as many other films). I never liked this one the first time I saw it but re-watching it today I enjoyed it better. Still not one of her best but completely watchable and entertaining. The presence of Patricia Hayes in the cast was also a great help.
Lastly, we come to "Sylvia Scarlet"; if ever there was a Katharine Hepburn film that deserves the label "cult movie", this is it. It was a complete bomb when released in the 30's but was rediscovered decades later as a cult film. Hepburn spends most of the film in drag (dressed as a boy) and the resulting sexual hijinx was apparently too unsettling during the Great Depression to be funny to audiences. The well-known story about Hepburn and Cukor turning to each other in the audience of the film's premiere and saying "But, why aren't they laughing" is true. And justified. While many view this as a classic cult film, it just ISN'T funny. Or really entertaining. This is another one that seems to be rushed in spots and cut with a hacksaw; perhaps this owes more to the nervous studio chopping bits out. One scene where a woman kisses Hepburn (in disguise as a boy) on the mouth is abruptly dropped like a hot potato as it cuts to the next scene. Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street's Kris Kringle himself) plays Hepburn's profligate father and overacts shamelessly in places. Brian Aherne as the artist similarly chews the scenery often with a forced, bellowing laugh that will have your eyes rolling. Even the presence of Cary Grant, playing a scampish Cockney scalliwagg can't save the procedings (even though he himself is perfectly fine in his performance). As is Hepburn. Other than the occasional early 30's style of acting, Hepburn does a very good job in her role. The problem lies with the script itself (ridiculously improbable and clunky) as well as, I'm sorry to say, the direction by the usually reliable George Cukor. Perhaps another director could have made this funny but somehow I doubt it. A flop-eared curiosity in Hepburn's resume.
Well there you have it: the Katharine Hepburn Collection. It's worth a look for every Hepburn fan. Especially if you can find it on sale!

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