Episode 12 of 52 wherein Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order
In which Katharine Hepburn is an old maid at 30 and sometimes I hate Old Hollywood.
It's strangely fitting that the last movie before Kate's string of classics turns out to be the worst film of her RKO career. Yes, I'm including Spitfire. Spitfire was laughably bad. Quality Street is downright insulting. But while groaning through the longest 82 minutes of my life, I did a little research, and I managed to solve the mystery behind the last 11 weeks of (mostly) bad movies. Better yet, I solved it with science. But first a little exposition.
I've been informed that I occasionally skip over major movie details/actor information/whatnot. Here's a quick summary: Based on a J.M. Barrie play, Quality Street is the story of a spinster teacher who, at 30 years old, finds herself too worn and ugly for her recently-returned beau (Franchot Tone, remember him?). Determined to win his heart, the spinster disguises herself as her prettier, (fictional) younger niece. This only works because by Hollywood Logic, Hepburn's bonnets have the same beauty-dampening power as Rachael Leigh Cook's glasses in She's All That.
For Quality Street, Kate was reunited with her Alice Adams director, George Stevens. Unfortunately, a good director cannot save a bad script. Kate gave the shallow material the lack-of-attention it deserved. But the movie exposed her weaknesses: Kate still couldn't play "girlish" or "demure," and she lacked comic timing. As such, her performance is one note at best, painful at worst.
⬅ Oh, but there is one brief, 30 second long bright spot. One actress, later well-known for playing demure, girlish characters, makes an uncredited screentest. Hey look, it's Joan Fontaine! (Thanks for the tip, Paul Outlaw!)
Fascinating, yes? No. On to the science!
One constant question has been why the hell did Kate keep making these movies? After all, we're one year (and three weeks) from the moment immortalized in the Katharine Hepburn myth: her scathing label of "Box Office Poison." Why so many bad period pieces? What were they thinking? For that answer, I present the one form of science that Hollywood trusts above all else: box office numbers.
First thought: Is anybody else surprised at how successful Bringing Up Baby was? I always thought it was panned, but it grossed over $1 million! Apparently it cost over $1 million as well. Giant dinosaur skeletons are expensive.
Second thought (slightly more on topic): This puts a damper on the myth that Kate skyrocketed to success. Other than a couple of standalones (How the hell did The Little Minister earn that much?), Kate looks to have been a middling box office draw at best. Just to put it in perspective, in the 1930s Ginger Rogers rarely dipped below $1 million, even without her famous dancing partner.
Third thought (actually on topic): This explains all of those awful period films. When your first gigantic hit is Little Women and your second is a J.M. Barrie story, you're going to see a lot of hoop skirts and ruffles in your future.
Although I couldn't find the statistics for Quality Street (or Holiday, or Christopher Strong), I'm betting they were pretty bleak. If anything, this visual representation of her average RKO career makes her subsequent success even more impressive. As for this phase of Kate's career, though, I am glad to be leaving it behind. Overall, it was lacking in... quality. (sorry)
What do you notice from Kate's Box Office graph?
Next Week: Stage Door - In which we've finally made it to the good stuff, so let's celebrate with Katharine Hepburn vs Ginger Rogers in a battle of the stars (special guest appearance by Lucille Ball)