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« Threads: "Know your place. Accept your place. Be a shoe" | Main | Scream coming to TV »
Wednesday
Oct292014

A Year with Kate: The Corn is Green (1978)

 Episode 44 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn bids farewell to her lifelong friend and director, George Cukor.

Who’s up for another catfight? Way back near the beginning of this series, I manufactured a rivalry between young Kate Hepburn and Miss Bette Davis, both sporting ear-splitting accents in two movies from 1934. This time, I don’t have to fake a competition. Katharine Hepburn’s 1979 TV movie happens to be a remake of a 1945 Bette Davis film.

The Corn Is Green (based on the play by by Emlyn Williams) is the story of Miss Moffat, who gets off her tuffet to teach the Welsh miners to read. The role of a strong-willed woman who changes the lives of her impoverished pupils would be catnip for either of our great actresses, so it’s no surprise that Bette and Kate both played Miss Moffat 34 years apart. What is surprising is how different Bette and Kate’s performances are, because the two films they star in are polar opposites in mood and moral. Just how often do you get to compare your favorite actresses on a scene-by-scene basis like this?

The Eyes vs The Cheekbones after the jump.

The 1945 version of The Corn Is Green is peak Classic Hollywood romance. For her turn as Miss Moffat, Bette Davis re-teamed with her Now, Voyager director Irving Rapper, and his turn-of-the-century Welsh village looks like a picture postcard sent from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Welsh miners with coal-blackened faces sing in lazy harmony as they tramp over rolling hills. Cinematographer Sol Polito ignores weather patterns to bathe scenes in cheerful sunshine, illuminating some truly beautiful black and white sets. You’d be excused for thinking that being a coal miner in Wales looks like a cheerful pastime.

Against this idyllic backdrop, Davis’s Miss Moffat stands out like a sore thumb. This Miss Moffat is an iron-spined woman who rarely smiles, never cries, and refuses to suffer fools. She arrives in town like a military general, immediately defeating (or at least confounding) her competition. Bette’s wry wit, flashing eyes, and slowly revealed warmth turn Miss Moffat from grammar school stereotype to fully realized character. The role screams Oscar bait, but Bette was not nominated (though her supporting actors were). Here’s Miss Moffat's introduction, a few minutes into the film:

By contrast, the 1979 version of The Corn Is Green strives for realism in setting and tone. Kate reunited with George Cukor, who made a very un-Cukor-like film which uses spare camera work and location shooting to focus on the cruelty of coalmining. A wordless introduction finds Miss Moffat bicycling through the green hills of Wales before she happens on a coalmine. After watching in horror as young boys are crammed onto an elevator leading into the mineshaft, Miss Moffat turns towards her new home and purpose. It’s a heavy-handed way to begin, but the secene casts a lingering shadow over Miss Moffat's attempts to better her students' lives.

In a film that starts darkly, Kate’s Miss Moffat is a sunbeam. Katharine Hepburn brings her considerable charisma to the role, playing Miss Moffat as a bright, busy, beaming woman who never hears the word “no,” even when it’s spoken directly to her. It’s not a particularly layered performance, but the film needs her desperately, and Kate shoulders the burden with charm. Here she is, charming most--but not all--of her new neighbors:

Whether they knew it or not at the time, The Corn Is Green would be Kate and George’s last collaboration. Cukor started Hepburn’s career in 1932, fostered her friendship and directed her in ten films total--although surprisingly, none of their movies won either of them an Oscar. In her autobiography, Kate praised George Cukor for being an “actor’s director” and her great friend. Cukor would pass away in 1983, just four years after The Corn is Green, and two years after Katharine Hepburn made Oscars history.


So, you be the judge. BETTE vs KATE, who wins? If you didn't like this one, what’s your favorite Hepburn/Cukor movie?

 

Previous Week: Olly Olly Oxen Free (1978) - In which Katharine Hepburn proves she's not afraid of heights or bad scripts. 

Next Week: On Golden Pond (1981) - In which Katharine Hepburn makes Oscars history by asserting that old people are interesting. (Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime)

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Reader Comments (23)

I've never heard of a remake where two people play the same character so hugely disparate in age before! It's an interesting comparison... I follow George Cukor most anywhere. I should see this!

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Great idea to make it a comparison between the two acting titans Anne Marie. I'm going to go on a bit about this one, I love it so much!

Absolutely Kate is the winner of this particular face-off. This is one of her films that I return to the most frequently. So much to love about the film. A vast improvement over the Bette Davis version, which was fine in its way but was missing a spark which is present here. The supporting cast is filled perfectly in every role, I've always been puzzled by the accolades for the supporting players in the Davis version who I found forgettable. It would be hard to choose who gives the most enjoyable supporting performance in Kate's version though, I find Patricia Hayes's sassy Mrs. Watty endlessly amusing but I could praise each and every actor and actress. A special word though for Ian Saynor who plays the all important part of Morgan Evans, he turns in an excellent piece of work in his debut performance. It looks like he's had a solid career in England but it seems he would have had a bigger career based on this.

Then there is the breathtaking scenery of Wales which adds such authenticity to the film along with Cukor exemplary direction opening the film up in natural ways but still keeping the intimate feeling of the piece. The pacing is excellent as well, never racing through scenes but not lingering over details either.

That's all great but this is a latter day showcase for Kate and it's a perfect meeting of actress and part. Whereas Davis was too young for the role and seem strangely affected, Hepburn although 72 at the time of filming seems a good decade and a half younger, thanks to general good health and costuming that hides the more obvious effects of age, and is quite believable as a woman of a certain age who has decided to fulfill her dream. The shaking which became more pronounced as the years progressed at this point is apparent but she can still control it enough that it doesn't intrude on her characterization. The determined, fiercely intelligent, slightly spiky schoolmistress fits Kate's established persona like a glove, something that she and Cukor were surely aware of when selecting the project.

I think this is Kate's last truly great performance, I'm not a big fan of On Golden Pond. The role affords her the opportunity to display almost the entire spectrum of emotions and she shows she's still up to the challenge. She was nominated for an Emmy for this and ironically lost the award to Bette Davis who won for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter.

As far as my favorite of their films together it's a toss-up between this and Holiday.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I don't think these films are anyone's best work. However I generally prefer Bette Davis. Hepburn can be such a bore.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Oh Joel6,

How it pains me to disagree with you. I can’t remember the last time I did. This is Kate being the legendary Kate, the Kate of the Dick Cavett interviews, the Kate of Stories of Me, Indomitable Kate, not Miss Moffatt. We do all love this Kate. This is the Kate the role model, the great feminist before her time; the Kate that swings over cliffs; and take bullets at her feet. But it has always felt to me a little too precious, a little too New Englandy optimistic. Though both are New Englanders, I prefer the less flamboyant grit of Miss Davis. Maybe it is also the black and white, instead of the lovely green hills of Wales. IThis Miss Moffatt just a little heavy handed for me.
I will admit my prejudice on this one, and it could be because the 1945 film feels like the sequel to How Green was My Valley. I have to vote for Miss Davis.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

I find the Hepburn/Cukor version much more watchable than the Bette Davis version. The production values are much better and with all respect to Bette Davis, I also prefer the greater charm and warmth that Hepburn brings to the part.
I fully agree with Joel6 that this is the last truly great performance that Kate Hepburn gives. I find that On the Golden Pond is too sugary, and the physical decline in Hepburn's abilities is too noticiable. It's a great turn for her and a lovely swan song for the partnership of Cukor/Hepburn.
Sometimes a remake can be better than the original and this is one of those times.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Leslie19,

I'm glad we've agree mostly but I don't think any two movie lovers taste would ever jibe on every film. That's one of the great things about this series, the respectful differences of opinion on the films.

I don't hate the Bette version it just feels very studio and confined to me and Davis's work quite studied. I enjoyed it but it doesn't have the vibrancy of Kate's. At this point I suppose it's true that Kate is Kate is Kate but I think her indomitability is also a key characteristic of Miss Moffatt who after all set out from a comfortable life determined to bring education to those who had none.

Bette actually took another crack at the material in 1974 in a musicalized stage version entitled Miss Moffatt which moved the story to the American South and laid a big egg, never making it to Broadway.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6
Wait til next week

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Ohhhhh, I am dreading next week. Kate's shameless theft of Marsha Mason's Oscar is something I still haven't recovered from.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Cukor's movie is probably superior but since this is my favorite "Bette Davis" (don't ask), I prefer her performance to Miss Hepburn's. Bette was very much criticized for it when compared to the incomparable! Ethel Barrymore who did it on Broadway. But to me, it is perfection.

And to me, Kate gave a performance a bit too buffoonish – a Kate that only her super fans would super love (as only BD's fans love her in «Beyond the Forest»: ME!). I don't think Miss Hepburn ever gave a bad performance but I file this among her misguided ones; although probably closer than Bette's to Miss Barrymore's and the author's conception. (Full disclosure: I like KH very very much as an actress; I detest–to be melodramatic–her persona.)

Speaking of rivalries, I've always thought that her lack or recognition for this movie started Bette's hatred of Joan Crawford who won the Oscar that year for a movie she "rejected."

One last thought about our "greatest screen actresses" (sorry, Barbara!): I always find KH too egotistic (no wonder her autobiography's title: ME!) which is, by the way, what I like most about her. One doesn't (I don't) remember any other performance from this movie while the other is full of memorable old-fashioned acting. Maybe it was just the studio system, but Bette supported her cast when she liked them. (And got throat problems when she wanted out of a play). Of course, that at least two actors won Oscars opposite Kate belies my proposition by I stand by it.

Probably full of mistakes and typos (as well as parentheses). Bear with me.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCapita

joel6 & Leslie19 - I didn't know Kate lost the Emmy to Bette Davis this year. Makes this rivalry even better! I like this performance of Davis's, because I'm always excited when she's able to channel her inherent intensity to deliver quiet-but-strong performances. On the other hand, I will watch Kate cheerfully steamroller over problems all day every day. I'm at a loss about which is "better," and I'm the one who posed the question!

brookesboy & Lady Edith - I have been dreading On Golden Pond since the beginning of the series because I know it's a controversial win. Judging from the comments, it looks as though the storm is already brewing.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie--yep, a BIG storm brewing...

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Et tu, Pam?

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

The Loons Norman, The Looooooons.

I haven't seen either of these two. This series always makes me feel like i be slacking.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Team Bette, definitely.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

And 1935. Dangerous over Alice Adams. Even though, Bette thought Kate was better. Sometimes I tend to agree. Strangers. That was a great performance. Maybe they can remake it with La Blanchett reprising her role as Gena Rowlands. And I don't mean doing Gena Rowland's role but Gena Rowlands as she did last year. But who can do Bette?

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCapita

Capita

That's an intriguing idea for a remake of Strangers. It's certainly would provide an acting showcase for the two leads. As to who could play Bette's part to Blanchett's Gena I would says Susan Sarandon would be ideal. The ages are right and Susan even resembles Bette after a fashion.

Bette's performance was great but that year the category was loaded with outstanding work. Besides Bette and Kate Carol Burnett for Friendly Fire, Mary Tyler Moore for First, You Cry and Olivia Cole for Backstairs at the White House were all in the running. Not a weak link in the lot.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Joel6

Susan was my only choice. But dared not write it. And yes, I've always noticed the resemblance. The thyroidal eyes?

1979. That was a good year. But the right (and best) woman won.

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCapita

Ah. Mr. Outlaw..... I feel vindicated Can't wait to have your thoughts next week

October 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

I guess the difference is that Davis' version played out like as 40ish melodrama, while Hepburn's, a heartwarming comedy. Both are effective in their different approaches, but Kate looks more age appropriate for the part and the cinematography & set look more authentic.

IMO, The Corn is Green was not Kate's last great performance (that will be The Lion in Winter!), it was her last truly good performance.

October 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Sidenote: Cukor & Hepburn partnership started in 1932, not 1934 w her debut: A Bill of Divorcement...lol

October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Claran - You're right! I guess I had '34 on the brain. Fixed!

October 31, 2014 | Registered CommenterAnne Marie

I prefer Bette's version. A much more solid all around. performance than Hepburn's flighty over the top performance.

November 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterD Fleck

Leslie19, I am not looking forward to the 1981Best Actress Brawl (featuring at least two performances that I wouldn't have even nominated)...

November 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

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