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Wednesday
Feb052014

A Year With Kate: The Little Minister (1934)

Episode 6 of 52 wherein Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order.

In which Katharine Hepburn has a little Scotsman in her.

Who’s up for a catfight? The Little Minister is seriously lacking in drama or conflict, so I decided to invent some of my own. 1934 was a low point for Kate, but a certain blonde fury came roaring to the top that year, one Miss Bette Davis.

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I’m a big fan of finding parallels between my favorite actresses, and so I’d like to take a look at the two period pieces these great dames did in 1934. First Bette in Of Human Bondage, the story of a disabled painter who falls in love with a Cockney waitress. Next Kate in The Little Minister, the story of a dull pastor who falls in love with a Scottish gypsy. It’s the Celt vs the Cockney, both played by New England gals. Whose accent was worse?

It hardly seems a fair fight, since Bette earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. (And by “earned” I mean “bullied Academy members into writing her onto the ballot.” Score one for Bette.) Still, I can’t help feeling like she got the nomination in spite of the accent. It’s a Cockney so cartoonish even Dick Van Dyke would be ashamed. Listen if you dare.

(I’d like to point out that I’m using Bette’s least iconic scene because we’re judging accents, not performances. If you’d like to see a star born, watch her tell off Leslie Howard here.)

Next, poor Kate. When she was good, she was very good. But when she was bad, she was usually trying an accent. The Scottish brogue itself isn’t terrible; it’s just inconsistent. To borrow a quote from Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical show, it comes and goes “like weather or bloat.”  Watch as Hepburn’s native Kate-isms bleed through:

This rivalry I’m pushing isn’t entirely manufactured. As top dog at RKO, Kate would have passed on Of Human Bondage before Bette was loaned out from Warner Bros. (I am really, really glad that Kate never tried a Cockney accent.) Bette was in Kate’s turf, and she stole Kate’s director, John Cromwell. Cromwell had directed Kate in Spitfire to no acclaim, but when Of Human Bondage premiered, suddenly Bette was a Great Actress and Cromwell her Great Director. That had to sting. I can’t find any quotes by Hepburn about Davis, and certainly Bette was too busy with her legendary feud with Joan Crawford to ever say much about Kate, but sometimes silence speaks volumes.

So, you be the judge. BETTE vs KATE: who loses? Any other terrible accents you’d like to share?

Previous WeeksA Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire

Next Week: Break of Hearts (1935): In which we ignore a bad movie for some great costumes.

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Reader Comments (26)

Hot damn, young Bette Davis was glamorous! That said, though, that is one cringe-inducing attempt at Cockney.

And ooooof, worst screen accents? I feel like I can't but mention Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but really the whole thing was such a gross racist disaster the accent isn't even the number-one worst thing about it.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

ooh, i have one: Nick Nolte's Italian in "Lorenzo's Oil"

but on another note it's so fun that you found a way to mix in Bette Davis

February 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Aahahahaha I just YouTube'd Nolte in Lorenzo's Oil and you're so right, that is a truly special kind of bad.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

As a side note, I've always loved Bette's delivery of the line, "It's me lungs" to Howard's enquiry about her health condition. Aside from that, how do you judge an authentic Cockney accent? It's always seemed a bit cartoonish to me no matter who uses it.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Bette Davis did not bully anyone into writing her name on the ballot. After the shock that she had not been officially nominated by the Academy there was public outcry over the omission - joined by the likes of Norma Shearer. Due to the response Howard Estabrook, the president of the Academy at the time, allowed that "any voter ... may write on the ballot his or her personal choice for the winners," making it the only time in Academy history that a person not nominated was eligible to win. Afterwords it was announced that Davis came in third in the voting. This lead to two major changes: firstly, the nomination process was expanded to all eligible members of the Academy and not just a select committee and secondly, the voting results where henceforth kept secret.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterskoc211

I cannot imagine a modern actress doing what Bette Davis did in 1934 when it came to her 'star is born' performance. I think it'd be quite funny if an actress pull a 'write in ballot' stunt.

Although I love both Katharine Hepburn, I prefer Bette Davis due to the consistencies of her screen performances. I'm not much of a fan this film, but Bette Davis sure does know how to sell a performance, especially one as annoying as her character here.

However consistent Davis is, Katharine Hepburn is marvelous at comedy (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, etc etc etc) and I can't wait until you reach her classic comedies.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKent

While it's surely a step up from Spitfire, what wouldn't be?, The Little Minister was underwhelming, John Beal was a dull block of wood against Kate and even though I didn't see it that long ago I really don't remember much about it.

Except her borderline awful accent, I'd say she came out the worse in comparison with Davis. Bette was committed to that portrayal and from what I've read hired an English housekeeper to study her accent and tried to approximate it, Kate's sounds strictly acting class Scottish.

Hepburn was the one actress of her generation that Bette respected so there won't be much that Bette said against her. The year she won her consolation Oscar for Dangerous she said she thought Kate deserved it for Alice Adams. Then she also wanted to make The Whales of August with Hepburn and never let Lillian Gish forget it!

I couldn't find a clip but Joan Crawford, Robert Young and Franchot Tone are supposed to be British born in Today We Live and all miss the boat linguistically. Franchot talks in that plumy way he always did and Bob Young doesn't even attempt it but Joan, poor Joan gives it the old college try and comes across with something that when it's there at all is completely unconvincing. It's not worth seeking out, the film is a thundering bore even with all of those actors plus Gary Cooper.

Neither Eleanor Parker's nor Kim Novak's accent in the Of Human Bondage remakes are that convincing either.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I've always thought Davis is more deserving of 4 Oscars than Kate....

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

"Make me feel good!"

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I adore this series. Even when I haven't seen the film, you manage to share something that makes me laugh out loud.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Whatever that accent Tom Hanks was doing in " Cloud Atlas", it wasn't working. And even within the trailer for "Captain Phillips",his attempts to land a Boston one were painful. Still,there are some so-so actors who seem to have an ear for accents and do them well.. But there have also been some otherwise terrific ones who simply couldn't do accents to save their lives. Think Spencer Tracy in "Captains Courageous"(Portuguese) and Barbara Stanwyck in "Union Pacific"(Irish). And I'd certainly rank those two among the great film actors. By the way, I liked both both Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak in their respective attempts at Mildred. Each, I'd say, cooked up a closer approximation to a Cockney sound than Davis. But, admittedly, accent-wise, Davis set the bar pretty low.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKen

As a person of Cockney stock, I don't think Bette's accent is that bad. It's a bit over the top theatrical for sure, but the way she says the actual words is pretty accurate.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

PS. Dick Van Dyke's accent is worse.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

Ah, the eyes versus the cheekbones. Whatta battle!

Actually I find both of these films to be pretty terrible (ducks from Bette Davis fans). A lot of these 30s films have been justly forgotten, and if they didn't star these ultimate divas you wouldn't even be able to find them.

I'm certain I've seen Little Minister and I vaguely recall a movie with Kate being a superdull classical pianist, that must be coming up. I prefer to hang on to the good to great 30s Kate movies (Stage Door, Holiday, Baby, etc.).

I would like to correct, or add to, a comment someone made upthread. I think they actually kept the "write in ballot" around for another year or two. And in fact, I think that Mr. Crosby (father of David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash et al) actually won for Cinematography on a write in ballot. That was for Midsummer Night's Dream and I think that was in 35, no?

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

skoc211, I meant "bullied" as a compliment. Yes, it was a write-in ballot. And Bette campaigned like *hell* to make sure she'd get written in. I don't begrudge her the nomination at all. In fact, I commend her for it!

RobMiles, thank you for the perspective! Unfortunately, all I know of Cockney accents I learned from TV and movies, which are clearly not the best representations.

Dave, the movie you're thinking of is next week, Break of Hearts. It is super dull.

Glad everyone's enjoying this Bette vs Kate. Any other actresses we'd like to pit against Kate as the series goes on? I'm always up for a good diva-off.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Not that it matters for much, but Davis is never credited for this write in nomination. She was also a great admirer of Kate, feeling she should have won the Oscar for 'Alice Adams' over her performance in 'Dangerous'. The only time I know of Kate speaking of Bette was in her interview with Dick Cavett, when she agreed with his view that she was a great actress.
When you come to Stage Door you have Ginger vs Kate. Apparently there was a discussion over billing with Kate winning that battle, and the impression over the years seemed to be that the two never got along..

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe (uk)

What Mark said. I like Kate, but Davis is one of the greatest ever.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Mark and Brookesboy -- i'd agree (though i've seen less of Hepburn's work and Davis made way more movies so maybe it's not a fair point. Anne Marie and I discussed "a Year with Bette" but she made way too many movies. it'd be impossible. I think her number is up in the 80s somewhere (not counting television) and Anne Marie is counting tv films i believe to round out Hepburn to 52.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathan, wow, I knew she really racked em up, but I had no idea it was that many! Warners really cranked em out!

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Ooh Ginger v. Kate is delicious since Kate lost the Oscar for Philadelphia Story to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Yeah, I'm including TV movies. Hepburn just really didn't do a lot.

brookesboy, I'm going to ignore that insinuation that Bette is better than Kate. However, I will say that the reason Davis has so many bloody films is because she was a bit player for so long. It was 20 odd movies until Of Human Bondage. PLUS when she got older she was willing to be in anything just to work. That racks the number up higher as well. She plays Bruce Dern's mother in an episode of Gunsmoke, for goodness sakes. (That wouldn't be included in Nathaniel's list, but it gives you an idea.)

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Hi Anne Marie, Bette also did an episode of Wagon Train, God bless her! She was not good with money, and she was willing to do many things beneath her for a check. Most of this was due to the fact that she wanted to give her daughter BD a sweet lifestyle, and said daughter turned out to be a brat (ala Mildred Pierce).No offensive, but appearing in Gunsmoke in no way reflects poorly on Ms. Davis' formidable skills as an actress. I'm sure that is one of the series' best episodes ever!

In the early years, her high tally is also attributable to the fact that she worked her ass off. That is also something to be admired. Not that that was all her own decision. Jack Warner was a taskmaster. Warners was operated much like an assembly line, yet it still managed to turn out a string of classics.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy, you and I are in agreement in all things early-and-late-Bette related. I haven't seen that particular episode of Gunsmoke, but since it had Dern and Davis it had to be pretty good. It was just the first TV episode I could remember her being in off the top of my head.

I will conclude thusly: at least Bette Davis didn't do Trog.

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Lol! Thanks, Anne Marie, for making my day with that last line. Great!

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

It's amazing that Davis and Hepburn were contemporaries. To me their careers complement each other brilliantly; there's never been an "either/or" for me with those two. Pauline Kael, who grew up wathcing them, wrote in 1968: ".... Bette Davis [and] Katharine Hepburn... The two great heroines of American talkies, the two who dared to play smart women (who had to), the two most specifically modern of women stars--the tough, emabattled Davis and the headstrong, noble Hepburn.... Other actresses could be weak and helpless, but Davis and Hepburn had too much vitality...."

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDavidG

There won't be many bad remarks from Davis re Hepburn. Davis had loads of respect for Hepburn. Her accent may be odd to modern ears but back in 34 most Americans had only heard 'theatrical' cockney accents on the stage or early British talkies.
Davis hired an ex-pat 'cockney' speaking maid to help learn the accent. Most of the cast were British so I doubt they'd have let her get away with a less than passable accent. Also Davis has always said Mildred has airs and graces about herself (hence Philip/ Lesley Howard's initial
amusement and fascination with Mildred). Also as written by Maugham,
Mildred had ideas above her station and so tried to sound posher than she was, something Davis always referred to in interviews about the film. So, in all, I think her stab at 'posh' cockney is pretty good for 1934

amusement & fascination with her) & so Maugham as writt

March 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterM MCKENNA

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