SPOTLIGHT: Precocious Pre-Code Hepburn (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unforgettable Katharine Hepburn. Though her greatest fame would occur after 1934, Hepburn nevertheless made several important and interesting pictures in the Pre-Code era. Last week we began with her screen debut,  A Bill Of Divorcement (1932). Today…

 

Christopher Strong (1933)

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An aviatrix’s affair with a married man could cost her her career. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Colin Clive, Billie Burke, Helen Chandler, Ralph Forbes, Irene Browne, and Jack La Rue. Screen play by Zoe Akins. Based on the novel by Gilbert Frankau. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Hepburn plays the epitome of the modern woman: a pants-wearing record-settting aviatrix too focused on work for love, that is, until she meets the right man; trouble is, he’s married. Written and directed by women, this progressive picture marvelously contrasts the characters of the bold Cynthia (Hepburn) with the delicate Monica (Chandler), and while the story verges too often on soap opera, the renderings of the characters and their arcs provides for fascinating study.

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“Determined to win her socialite aunt Carrie Valentin’s latest ‘treasure hunt’ challenge, young Monica Strong and her married boyfriend, Harry Rawlinson, set out to find and bring back a truly faithful husband and a woman over twenty who has never had a love affair. While Harry returns to the party with Lady Cynthia Darrington, an aviatrix with whom he had collided on a country highway, Monica fetches her father, Sir Christopher Strong, a respected London politician and model husband. After the party, Monica and Harry become good friends with Cynthia, who also grows close to Christopher. In spite of his love for his wife Elaine, Christopher is drawn romantically toward the single-minded Cynthia, and she, to him. Although she senses her husband’s growing passion, Elaine, who has forbidden Monica from seeing Harry, accepts Cynthia’s presence at their summer villa in Cannes. During her visit, Cynthia and Christopher take a midnight boat ride and confess their love for each other. At the end of the ride, the couple, whom Elaine sees kissing through her bedroom window, vows to end their relationship and separates.

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“Soon after, however, Monica shows up at Cynthia’s apartment, determined to kill herself because Harry, who has divorced his wife, refuses to marry her because of a one-night affair she had in Cannes. After preventing Monica’s suicide, Cynthia leaves England for New York to participate in a dangerous around-the-world flying competition. Although she wins the gruelling contest, Cynthia longs for Christopher and is ecstatic when he shows at her New York hotel. There they consumate their love, and Cynthia agrees to give up flying and devote herself to Christopher. Eventually, however, Cynthia’s affair is discovered and denounced by Monica, who is now married to Harry and is pregnant, grows restless and is about to accept a high-attitude flying challenge when she learns that she, too, is pregnant. Faced with destroying Christopher’s marriage and career, Cynthia chooses to remain silent about her pregnancy and, while breaking the altitude record, throws off her oxygen mask and crashes to her death.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM).

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As mentioned above, several parts of the story (including the ending) are quite soapy, requiring its audience to let go of common sense and except the machinations of the plot as they arise. But while the premise lacks distinction, the characters themselves make Christopher Strong worthy of examination. Much has been made before about our leading lady’s role as a renowned aviatrix, and Hepburn, strutting around in pant suits and declaring her independence, is a natural fit. However, her performance, though ballsy and captivating, lacks the nuances and layers that she would regularly exhibit in some of her later works. As in her debut, Hepburn’s talent is still raw — unmistakably powerful, but not yet developed or cultivated. She isn’t in control of her magic yet, or rather, she hasn’t found ways to release it organically. So some of the contrivances of the plot don’t come across as well as they could. However, she is completely believable as the character, and not surprisingly, remains the main draw of the film.

It’s important to note that this film was both directed and scripted by women. While I think it would be a little sexist to say the feminine imprint on this film is noticeable, I think there’s an astuteness that comes across — especially in the parallels the script makes between Hepburn and Chandler’s characters. At the start of the film, Chandler is the overly delicate “girly girl” who’s having an affair with a married man, while Hepburn is the androgynous happy-go-lucky working gal, who’s never had a love affair in her life. Ironically, it’s Chandler and her married beau that bring Hepburn together with the titular Christopher Strong, sparking the affair that drives much of the film. The film ends with Chandler married and pregnant, and Hepburn, also pregnant, deciding to end her life to avoid the scandal and pain it would cause the Strong family. And while Chandler’s character gets the happy ending, the film paints Hepburn as the much nobler, smarter, and more sympathetic figure. Basically, the modern woman is the best kind of woman — even if society doesn’t want her to get that happily ever after.

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The cast is uniformly solid (and though I ragged on Hepburn a bit, I must admit, she is still the standout) and the picture has a pacing that makes sense and manages to keep its audience invested. Some of the more “romantic” moments do come off as a trifle sappy, but most of them land quite beautifully — as does most of the cinematography. In short, this is a very good production. And with its statements about feminine independence (in 1933), this is a film for Pre-Code lovers everywhere. And, if you are a Hepburn fan, like the aviatrix’s lamé moth costume, Christopher Strong is not to be missed.

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Come back next Friday for another Hepburn Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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