HAPPY 400 POSTS!
Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion 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. So far we’ve covered A Bill Of Divorcement (1932), Christopher Strong (1933) and Morning Glory (1933). Today…
A backwoods faith healer falls for a married man from the big city. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Robert Young, Ralph Bellamy, and Martha Sleeper. Screenplay by Jane Murfin and Lula Vollmer. Based on the play by Lula Vollmer. Directed by John Cromwell. It is unfortunate to end our brief four-week series on Katharine Hepburn’s Pre-Codes with the one that works the least. Despite warnings from several well-respected sources, I tried incredibly hard to like Spitfire. The film, adapted from a play, features an interesting story and a lot of fascinating themes (that I think would be great fodder for a theatrical work). The problem is Hepburn herself, who is cast in a role that really doesn’t suit her, dragging the picture to an irredeemable level of, for lack of a better word, rottenness. Is it a complete waste? No, but the worthwhile moments come too late.
“Trigger Hicks, a proud but poor and barely literate mountain girl, takes in wash but dreams of a finer, more romantic life for herself. She is indifferent to the criticisms of her superstitious neighbors, who mistake her intense religious faith and bad temper for signs of witchcraft. When the Construction Company arrives in the region to build a dam, Trigger attracts the amorous attention of John Stafford, the married assistant engineer, whose supervisor, George Fleetwood, disapproves of his deceptive romancing. Inspired by a pack of Bible cards that she has stolen from the local Sunday school, Trigger snatches a sickly, neglected baby from a neighbor’s house and carries him to George’s cabin, where she prays over him and nurses him back to health. John, hearing of the abduction, finds Trigger at George’s cabin and continues his flirtation, not revealing to her his marriage.
“When John’s wife appears, however, John is unmasked, and Trigger is heartbroken. Concerned for Trigger’s safety, George convinces her to relinquish the child and return him to his now frantic parents. When the child falls ill again and eventually dies, an angry mob shows up at Trigger’s shack and accuses her of witchcraft. Although George and John try to subdue and reason with the stone-throwing mob, Trigger is forced to agree to leave town. The next day, as she packs her few belongings, her faith in herself and in God and prayer shattered, George arrives at her shack to say goodbye. Touched by her simple devotion, George convinces Trigger not to give up her faith, and makes her promise to meet him at the shack a year from that day, come what may.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The film works best when the story is allowed to play honestly and without hokum — particularly when addressing faith and what it means to believe in a higher power. Because religion is such a meaty motif in drama, its inclusion brings a much needed substance to the story and the characters, who otherwise contend with the age old clash of city vs. country and the damning effects of idle gossip. Additionally, we have a good case of marital infidelity thrown into the mix, complicating our understanding of the characters and forcing the fascinatingly pious heroine (our eponymous “spitfire”) into a situation in which we wouldn’t expect to find her. Narratively, this is a well crafted piece. And, I must point out to readers attempting to screen this film for the first time, it gets better once it goes along. (Of course, you have to wait until past the halfway mark to stop loathing it.) Once Trigger is met by the mob (about an hour into the running time), the film finally works.
Unfortunately, all potential for consistent drama is bogged down by the performance of Katharine Hepburn, who simply isn’t suited for this role. Now, I can understand why RKO may have chosen her. She’s perfectly believable as a tomboy, and her knowledge and appreciation of the wilderness is evident. Additionally, this lofty piece of drama required an actress capable of handling its weight, and Hepburn, who, like the story, came from the stage, is able to deliver the needed realism. But Hepburn isn’t a hillbilly, and this terrible piece of miscasting is glaring. In the beginning, in particular, Hepburn’s performance is laughably bad. Well, that’s incorrect: she’s giving a decent performance, but we simply can’t believe it. Even when giving her the benefit of the doubt and suspending all the disbelief we can muster, it just doesn’t add up. (Just her voice is affected to the point of ridiculousness.) As the film gets going and the quieter moments settle in to the story, Hepburn doesn’t try as hard and we’re able to accept her presence a little more. But it takes SO long to get there, and by that time, we’ve already checked out of the story.
Since it’s Hepburn’s vehicle, the other performances don’t matter. They really don’t. Spitfire rides on her shoulders and her shoulders alone. And because Hepburn’s performance is so spotty (due to the miscasting and some of the silliness of the script, which never lives up to the expectations of the story), the film as a whole is uneven. Most moments don’t play believably. Again, however, I must reiterate that the end — and the last 25 minutes of the picture, in particular — play wonderfully and some of the aforementioned themes are allowed to converge. But it’s not enough. So unless you’re like myself and enjoy a good challenge, I do not recommend seeking out this film. Even Hepburn fans should approach with caution. No what you’re in for; adjust your expectations.
Come back next week for another Pre-Code Film Friday! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!