Oscar History

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A Year with Kate: Christopher Strong (1933)

ICYMI - New Series! - Episode 2 of 52

In which Katharine Hepburn plays another British lady, and her acting gets better even if her accent doesn’t.

If Katharine Hepburn has one problem in her early career (besides her infamous intractability) it is her inability to be anything other than herself. That odd quality that made her a star in A Bill of Divorcement also plagued her through her career. She’s too stubborn to be an ingénue, too young to be a dame, too androgynous to be a femme fatale and too fascinating to be a character actor. What then to do with her? Once she hits MGM she definitely hits her stride, but sadly that is seven years, twelve movies (and for us, twelve very long weeks) away.  First we have to get through the trial and error period of Kate’s career, where she tried on many hats.

The next hat is this:

Young Kate plays a British aviatrix named Lady Cynthia Darrington, a daring woman of upstanding character who falls madly in love with Sir Christopher Strong, a British man with a moustache and a wife (poor Billie Burke again). Sir Christopher is played by Colin Clive, best known for playing Dr. Frankenstein in the 1933 Frankenstein film. While electricity may have crackled through that horror classic, there’s none to be found in Clive’s onscreen love affair with Kate. In fact, the two of them are about as sexy as two British planks of wood. Added to this problem is that one of them isn’t actually British.

Joking aside, it is a joy to watch Kate grow. She’s still got many rough edges, but it’s a huge leap from A Bill Of Divorcement to Christopher Strong. In A Bill of Divorcement, Kate was interesting enough to be noticed, but in Christopher Strong she becomes fascinating enough to be a star. Don’t get me wrong. She’s still pretty stiff, and she's more than a little miscast as a seductress. I can believe Chris would be enchanted by her--I certainly am--but she’s not the kind of enchanting you leave your wife for. Still, Kate has developed a presence and personality that make her engaging even when the film is not.

The contradiction between the movie’s tedium and her charm inspires a kind of bifurcated viewing experience. During the many lifeless loves scenes between Clive and Hepburn, I found myself vacillating between “Goodness is this dull,” and “Wow! Look at her!”  She charms! She laughs! She wears pants! Who needs chemistry with your co-star when you’ve got chemistry on your own? She is definitely on her way to becoming Katharine Hepburn the Star.

One more thing before I wrap this up. We need to talk about the moth gown.


I wish I could explain the purpose of this costume. I can’t. She shows up in it, has a conversation with Chris, and then exits. And the gown is never addressed.

Next week: Morning Glory (1933) - In which the seeds of Oscars history are sown

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Reader Comments (17)

The movie may not be up to much, but if it produced these two images, its existence is justified.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

THE MOTH GOWN. I could sit through a 3 hour movie for that image. But now i don't have to. Except maybe to prove to myself that you aren't fibbing with the "and is never adressed" thing because... ????????????????????????

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yeah. You can't even say it's an implicit "make this woman a superheroine" plea, because it would be FIVE YEARS before we got ANY KIND of superhero and another THREE on top of that before we got Wonder Woman.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Nathaniel, I can mail you my VHS so you can witness the moth gown in all its glory. It's maybe a five minute scene. I can't even remember what they were discussing because all I could think was, "What is that? Why is she wearing it? WHY AREN'T WE TALKING ABOUT THIS?"

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I just started coughing fitfully just thinking about the moth gown and reading you talking about the moth gown which is GLORIOUS.

I don't like to use this word but two films into her career this sets the roots for Kate being "fierce" she does a fair amount of excellent glowering and sort of just commands you even if the movie is ho-hum and the performance itself is not completely ideal. But, I'll take my Kate how I can get it. (Oh my god, her accent, it's so weird. But I think early Hepburn love is exactly why weird accents have never bothered me as I got older.)

Also, "but she’s not the kind of enchanting you leave your wife for", uh tell that Spencer!

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

The outfit conjures up images of the evil queen in Snow White. I wonder if this was any basis for the eventual Disney design?

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

I approached this with high hopes it being a Hepburn film that I had sought for many years and since it was directed by Dorothy Arzner but I found it underwhelming. For so short a film the pacing was slow and the story dull. Clive was not an actor who should have been entrusted to carry a film he didn't have what it takes.

As for Kate I think of this as a rare costume picture for her in the sense that what she wore, the girl flyer gear (as she referred to herself in the film) and that amazing moth gown, made more of an impression than she did. I wouldn't say this is the worst of her early films, that would be Spitfire, but it's close to it.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

according to imdb the silver moth is the name of cynthia's plane

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

The gift of being unique, I say.

Men and women all over the world have been copying and pasting and mostly failing miserably in the process, but she was born with IT.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

OH MY GAWD WHAT IS THAT MOTH GOWN? AMAZING. This is why you have to watch old movies. No movie today would ever do something that awesome, that totally batshit bonkers weird without having to have like six people WTFing in the corner and three scenes reassuring the audience that it was weird on purpose. No. 1933, you drop Katherine Hepburn in a crazy ass moth gown and just dare the audience not to accept it. Magic.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

"character who falls madly in love with Sir Christopher Strong, a British man with a moustache and a wife (poor Billie Burke again)"

I love that sentence as much as I love the moth gown.

However, in response to:
"Once she hits MGM she definitely hits her stride, but sadly that is seven years, twelve movies (and for us, twelve very long weeks) away."

Whaa? Those twelve weeks will include Little Women (the only good version - book or movie), Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, Stage Door and the Single Greatest Comedy Ever Made. They sound like a fabulous twelve weeks to me!

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

The still of her in the plane is so awesome, but talk about old Hollywood Glamour--the Silver Moth! The only modern ladies who could wear that outfit well would be Kidman, Blanchett, and Theron.

I'm with Goran--lots of good stuff in the next few weeks.

Thanks for doing this!

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

"Who needs chemistry with your co-star when you’ve got chemistry on your own?"

I feel like this could be the mission statement for Hepburn's entire career - except, of course, for Spencer Tracy.

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Pam: Really? I look at that outfit and I see Tilda Swinton before I see any other modern film actress. Maybe early Madonna or Lady Gaga if we turn our eyes away from people strictly known for the cinema. Definitely too weird a look for Kidman, probably too weird for Blanchett (Blanchett is more "looks normal, acts weird" than anything else) and possibly a bit beyond even Theron's bounds (yeah, her look in the Aeon Flux movie is normal compared to that).

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia--of course, Tilda! But I was thinking of the others wearing it in a MOVIE, not on the Red Carpet.

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

With regards to the moth costume, her character says that she is getting dressed for a fancy dress (aka costume) party/ball. Arzner or the costume designer must have chosen that costume to show that her character is like a moth drawn to a flame (danger). I am surprised you didn't mention the bracelet scene.

February 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcosJ

for me, the most memorable moment in this film is a sex scene in which we only ever see hepburn's hand with the bracelet around her wrist. this was quite provocative, even for pre-code times and conveyed, so well and subtly, exactly what she and her lover were up to-without showing a thing.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteralguien

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