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Wednesday
Mar192014

A Year With Kate: Quality Street (1937)

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.

Yes. Hideous. What an incredible transformation. /sarcasm

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.

 

Data from Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951.' Click to Embiggen

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?

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels

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)

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Reader Comments (17)

Hepburn was actually considered box-office poison! She left Hollywood for Broadway (The Philadelphia Story) and then back to the movies with the same vehicle.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Marcos, what I get from looking at the numbers is that Kate's career wasn't quite so dramatic as her "box office poison" label would lead one to believe. Like I said, she definitely got the label "Box Office Poison," but she wasn't poisonous so much as... meh.

Can't wait for The Philadelphia Story, though. It (like the comeback story surrounding it) is one of my favorites.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

yep, box office will determine these dark courses. audiences don't always know what's good for them.

i LOVE the makeover photos. haha. "ugly" girls in movies are always so pretty

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I can't agree about Quality Street being her worst, I'd still have to go with Spitfire. Quality Street is right up there behind it but at least it had Fay Bainter, Estelle Winwood and Cora Witherspoon to soften the blow of how flat it was and Kate's indifferent work in it. In Spitfire everybody pretty much went down with the ship along with her.

What I find surprising from the graph is 1) how much more than Little Women The Little Minister cost and 2) how much money it made. It's incredible that it made so much more than most of her other films of the period including Alice Adams, it's a rotten movie. I'm also surprised that the dreadful Sylvia Scarlett cost just as much. Maybe if Cukor had kept costs down to the budgets of her first few films the picture wouldn't have been such a disaster. I wouldn't have changed the fact that it stank though.

I don't think Holiday factored into her box office poison label. It was a one off that she did at Columbia at Cukor request after she had bought herself out of the RKO contract and before she headed back East.

March 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

The term Box Office Poison came from an article published in Independent Film Journal in 1938. The list also included Greta Garbo, Mae West, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, James Cagney, Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer.

You can find the whole list on Wikipedia.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

Anne Marie it's amazing how you've managed to make her duds as much fun to read about as her classics. Loving this series.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I'm with Anne Marie. While Kate's box office wasn't boffo, Alice Adams and Bringing Up Baby are the only films on that graph that failed to recoup their budgets. She wasn't that poisonous.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

goran -- seconded. love the series even without having seen a lot of these movies.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

RobMiles - I've actually got a partial transcript of the "Box Office Poison" ad. There seems to have been a small stir caused by it, as there are a flurry of articles after the ad where stars were interviewed. My favorite response is from Mae West, who was apparently interviewed in the tub.

Nathaniel and goran - Thank you both. From here on it's going to be so much more fun though!

joel6 - The reason I dislike Quality Street over Spitfire is because it hurts my inner feminist to listen to a woman bemoan her looks at 30. I realize this is a biased view as a 21st century audience, but I couldn't get over how much that ticked me off.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, I get what you're saying and it is ridiculous to modern eyes. But consider that in Sense and Sensibility Elinore Dashwood was looked upon as well on her way to spinsterhood and having lost her bloom at 19, the fact that Hepburn's Phoebe has settled into dowdiness at 30 isn't so surprising given the time period of the film's setting.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 - You're right of course. By the way, is there a Katharine Hepburn movie you haven't seen? I really thought I'd have lost the majority of the Kate completists with the last three movies, but without fail you've been there. I'm impressed!

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, There's only 3 I haven't seen. Grace Quigley, and her first and last A Bill of Divorcement and One Christmas. I could live without the last, although for completeness sake I'll watch it if they ever show it but I've been anxious to see the first for years but TCM nor anywhere else ever seems to run it!!

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6, color me very impressed. I know who to turn to if I succumb to exhaustion at any point.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, Thanks, the funny thing is that while I'm certainly a fan of hers I'm not a huge one in the sense that she's in my top 5 favorite Golden Age actresses. Linda Darnell-my absolute favorite, Ida Lupino, Susan Hayward, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Claire Trevor, Olivia de Havilland and Margaret Sullavan are all performers whose overall work I prefer to hers but when Hepburn's on her game she's great. Also because of her stature hers are the films that available to catch more easily so I take the opportunity when presented.

I am looking forward to Stage Door next week, along with Holiday they are my favorites of her early filmography.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Oh Anne Marie! This is so illuminating, and what you had to do to get us to this point!

I'm immediately struck by the fact that she really was NOT boxoffice poison through these years. I mean, she's not boxoffice, what, candy either, but her movies rarely lost money. Even the "duds" are mostly washouts. I'd say she's more like boxoffice oatmeal, or overboiled lima beans.

Sylvia Scarlett is considered a notorious bomb, but looking back at it, it's only just a money loser. I guess "they" tried putting Kate in pants and look where it got them? Back to the victorian era frippery.

Spitfire made money! And The Little Minister! And Mary of Scotland! Unbelievable looking back on it through 21st Century Eyes. I can even understand why they asked her to make Mother Carey's Chickens, after all Spitfire was a bigger hit than Bringing Up Baby.

About the "old" and "young" photos of Kate that you posted. I can't get over how much the "old" photo of Kate really does sort of look like a version of Kate circa Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. Maybe it's the head tilt? Or the weepy eyes? Both things that were part of Kate by that time (possibly to hide her physical tremor?). And the "young and beautiful" Kate looks like someone you would never want to hang out with at a party. So calculated.

It's been years since I've watched this movie and I can honestly say I remember virtually nothing about it except that it was bad and a complete waste of everyone's talents. How could Kate have been considered anything but a "good for you" actress when her movies were so unenjoyable?

Well Stage Door is one of my very favorites so I'd love to see it again. Just not sure how to pull that off since I don't have any of that fancy internet/netflix stuff out here in Spitfireland. :-)

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

joel6 - that is the strangest list of favourite actresses I've ever seen. This is a good thing.

March 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

QUALITY STREET is sort of a silly movie, but I don't find it objectionable. It's biggest fault, I think, is that it's really forgettable but while watching it's fine even enjoyable at times. Kate, like the brief Joan appearance and Fay are enjoyable but nothing to write home about. I might even call it "fun".

(And after the ahead of its time SYLVIA SCARLETT it's not hard to see why she agreed to the easiness of QUALITY STREET.)

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

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