Known for her distinctive look and ‘Bryn Mawr’ accent, American actress Katharine Hepburn ranks among the most important stars of 20th century Hollywood and is ranked the #1 actress of all time by the American Film Institute. Unusually for an actress in those times, her career lasted almost her entire life. Below is a sampling of some of her most important films.
Bringing Up Baby – After her early years in mostly ingénue parts (during which she won an Oscar for her role in Morning Glory) the studios decided to stick her in romantic comedy roles, a decision which proved disastrous at the box office. However, time has shown that Hepburn’s comedic flair is worth watching again and again. Bringing Up Baby, once labeled a flop and now considered a classic, tells the story of a scatterbrained heiress (Hepburn) who falls in love with a stuffy paleontologist (a glasses-sporting Cary Grant). To add complications, Hepburn’s character is the guardian of a “tamed” leopard, Baby. When one of Grant’s prized skeletons goes missing, Hepburn offers to help him find it. To make matters worse, a wild leopard with a striking resemblance to Baby escapes from a zoo nearby. Hilarity ensues, everyone ends up in jail, and Hepburn ends up in Grant’s arms.
Stage Door – In stark contrast to her slapstick comedy roles, Hepburn here portrays a wealthy young woman with theatrical aspirations. She comes to stay at a boarding house for young actresses only to find that she doesn’t have a thing in common with them. After sparring with them (especially an acidic Ginger Rogers and a wisecracking Eve Arden), she gains a grudging respect. But it soon also becomes clear that she has no particular talent. Nonetheless, she is given a star part in a new Broadway show (against the wishes of the director, a slippery and suave Adolphe Menjou). Tensions mount as another actress commits suicide, and Hepburn refuses to go on for opening night. The ending is both tragic and uplifting – life goes on in the theater world. Well worth a watch, this showcases Hepburn at her melodramatic best.
The Philadelphia Story – After being labeled “Box-Office Poison” (along with other Hollywood luminaries like Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Mae West), Hepburn took time off from the movies to star in plays on Broadway. When The Philadelphia Story became a smash hit, Hepburn acquired the rights and starred in the movie version. It was to be Hepburn’s great comeback, and rightly so. She plays Tracy Samantha Lord, a headstrong Philadelphia heiress who is approaching the day of her second wedding. Meanwhile, her charming ex (Cary Grant) has cooked up a plan to wreak havoc with Tracy’s big day. A team of reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) descend on the Lords’ mansion to cover the wedding, and extreme humor is the result. To make matters worse, Hepburn begins to fall in love with Stewart. Though outdated in its values (one scene is so sexist as to almost be unwatchable) The Philadelphia Story highlights the golden age of screwball romantic comedy and is a true gem for those watching.
The African Queen – Many years after the three films above, Hepburn appeared in a film noted for its stellar performances, witty dialogue, and unlikely plot. Hepburn plays Rose, a spinster missionary in WWI Africa whose world is rocked upside-down when the Germans invade. Against her better judgment, she teams up with Charlie Allnut (a grizzled Humphrey Bogart) for a trip down a wild river in Allnut’s rickety boat, The African Queen. Their mission? To use the boat to sabotage a German warship. The acting is top class, the love story sweet, and the film a true classic.
On Golden Pond – One of Hepburn’s last films, On Golden Pond tells the story of aging couple Norman and Ethel Thayer (Henry Fonda and Hepburn) as they spend their summer holiday in a cottage by the shores of Golden Pond. When their daughter (Jane Fonda) drops off her fiancé’s son before she goes off to get married, the Thayers are uncertain what to do, as he shows no interest in life on Golden Pond. Slowly, he builds a close and complex relationship with Norman. When their daughter returns to pick up her stepson, she is forced to face up to her rocky history with her father and must try to communicate once and for all the complicated feelings she has for him. Often written off as a romantic feel-good film, On Golden Pond is an emotionally touching film that showcases three great actors in a moving screenplay.
(Katharine Hepburn’s life is just as exciting as the films she made. Much has been written on the subject, but I personally recommend Charlotte Chandler’s I Know Where I’m Going, Karen Karbo’s tongue-in-cheek How to Hepburn and Hepburn’s eminently readable and humorous autobiography Me: Stories of My Life.)
Evan, Teen Advisory Group