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