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« And Then There Were Four. Oscar Nomination Revoked In Yet More Music Branch Drama | Main | We Can't Wait #5: Inherent Vice »
Wednesday
Jan292014

A Year With Kate: Spitfire (1934)

Episode 5 of 52 wherein Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order.

In which a New England debutante plays a hick named Hicks, and the result is about what you’d expect.

Oh man. This movie. I knew the day would come when this project tested my commitment, but I didn’t know it would come so soon. Folks, this movie is bad. Very, very bad. So bad that no book in the five Katharine Hepburn biographies I’m reading will devote more than a few sentences to it. The best way to sum up this film is in Katharine Hepburn’s own words, taken from her autobiography, Me:

"Shame on you, Kathy."

Some of you are probably still morbidly curious, so consider this next bit my public service. Here’s the plot... <SPOILERS AHEAD>:

Unintelligible Ozarks laundress Trigger Hicks (our own Kate) steals a preacher’s bible cards and decides she is a faith healer. Since she’s on a shoplifting streak, she steals a sick baby in order to heal it, but gets distracted by a sweet-talking dam engineer (Robert Taylor). She ditches the baby (and her accent) for a sunny love scene, but then the engineer breaks her heart. The townspeople go on a witchhunt, the baby dies, and Trigger’s life--if not her faith--is saved by Ralph Bellamy. (I forgot to tell you, he’s in this too.) Ralph Bellamy kisses Trigger, and - miracle of miracles! - Trigger regains her faith through the power of Ralph Bellamy’s complete lack of charisma. Fade to black.

There, I just saved you two hours.

Spitfire is a misfire because it tips too far away from Kate’s inherent classiness. She just cannot play a believable hick. Even if you could ignore Kate’s awful Ozarks accent (which is impossible unless you watch the film on mute) and the movie’s meandering plot (which is impossible if you watch the film on mute), Kate’s performance never goes beyond shallow caricature. The loudmouthed Trigger Hicks looks to have been an attempt to replicate the tomboyishness Kate played so successfully in Little Women. But Jo March was intelligent, vibrant, and charming. Trigger Hicks is an unintelligent stereotype of a yokel whose face is permanently stuck in this expression:

 

 

That’s not an attractive look for the American Garbo to make. You may remember from our first post (or your own Kate trivia) that initially RKO had tried to build Kate’s star image as the next Garbo; all drama, glamor, and cheekbones. However, the success of Little Women, along with her public trouser-wearing, enmity with the press, and (no joke) pet gibbon, tore that image to tatters. This led RKO to flail wilder and wilder as the studio tried to figure out how to market its unusual star.

Spitfire wasn’t the only thing Kate got horribly wrong in 1934. This was also the year of The Lake, the play that bombed on Broadway and spawned Dorothy Parker’s immortal barb. This was a one-two punch that could have killed a lesser career, but luckily for us in the long term, Kate was more resilient than that. Things are going to get worse before they get better, though.

As a reward for getting through Spitfire, please enjoy this unrelated picture of Kate with the aforementioned pet gibbon:
 

Previous WeeksA Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women
Next week: The Little Minister (1934) In which Katharine Hepburn has a little Scotsman in her

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Reader Comments (7)

Oh God. Oh God. This performance! Saw the movie on TCM last fall, and it's such a titantic misfire of casting that it's captivating through sheer perversity. I don't know if there's any actor who could have made such dodgy, patronising melodrama work and not feel like a cartoon (Ginger Rogers? Miriam Hopkins?), but I almost 100% sure that there's no actress who would have been worse. I'd have even rather seen Garbo in it, at least then there'd be some cockeyed exoticism.

January 29, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Garbo as Trigger Hicks! I now feel a morbid curiosity that I shall never be able to quell...

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Oh Anne Marie if only your advice had come about 15 years earlier. That's how long ago it was that I saw this wretched thing and can still remember how awful it was. This is her worst performance and a tie with The Iron Petticoat for her worst film with Olly, Olly, Oxen Free a close third.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Greta in this? I can see the tag line now: Garbo squawks.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I am guilty of forgetting what trash Hepburn appeared in. Bette Davis wasn't the only star who had to endure such unintentionally hilarious films. Next time this should be on a double bill with "Beyond the Forest."

And as this film proves, Hepburn knew how to chew scenery as well as later Davis did.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Is this her worst miscasting, or was it when she played, I guess, Chinese in that later movie? You'll get to it eventually. I remember giggling at Kate's usual voice in the asian drag makeup. Yikes.

I am very happy to say that I can't seem to find this movie and assume I never have to see it. There is probably not enough vodka in the world to make it pleasurable.

Too bad the gibbon couldn't have played Trigger Hicks. Now that I'd see!

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

I think either Garbo or the gibbon as Trigger would have made it a much more interestingly bad movie.

I haven't actually seen Dragon Seed yet, so only time will tell whether that's worse than Spitfire. I did see part of The Iron Petticoat (I think?) but I must have blocked it from my memory because I have only vague recollections of bad Russian accents and Bob Hope jokes. Time will tell.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

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