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Wednesday
May282014

A Year with Kate: Undercurrent (1946)

Episode 22 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.

In which Katharine Hepburn’s terrible fashion sense almost kills her.

I'll admit my bias up front: this movie is a sore spot for me. For probably understandable reasons, I'm not big on movies about tomboys named Ann who are accused of being frumpy. Undercurrent is a noir-esque melodrama directed by Vincente Minnelli, a director best known for the Technicolor musicals starring his sometime wife Judy Garland and/or Gene Kelly. Minnelli did spread out in genre on occasion, with great films The Bad And The Beautiful and not-so-great films, like Undercurrent. Our heroine in Undercurrent is a plain woman named Ann (Kate) who is unexpectedly wooed by a tall dark and handsome scientist (Robert Taylor). After a whirlwind romance ending in marriage, Ann begins searching into her husband’s troubled past. She uncovers an empty house, a paranoid ex-lover, and a brother (Robert Mitchum) who should dead--and who may end up being her soul mate.

But before Ann is drawn into the mystery, she spends the first act of the movie stomping around her father's laboratory wearing this:

HIDEOUS. I know. I can almost hear the fashion bloggers crying for justice and tearing at their vintage blouses in despair. Honestly, it's not a terrible look. It's very Kate. Really the only things I take issue with are the socks with sandals (fortunately spared in this publicity photo), but that's because it’s an Embarrassing Dad-level fashion faux pas. (That's Marjorie Main with her, by the way, in a criminally small role.) Anyway, while this ensemble is not the worst thing Kate’s worn, it is nonetheless a Big Problem, or so the film tells us. It isn't until Kate, as Ann, gets swept into the mysterious, glamorous life of her husband that she is shamed into dressing the part of a worldly, wealthy wife and a beautiful MGM star.

While I watched Undercurrent, I couldn’t help thinking that this felt a heck of a lot like Hitchcock's 1940 film Rebecca. There’s a mousy wife uncovering mysteries in her husband’s past, some suspicious servants, the shadow of a husband’s dead relative, a makeover, and a hero who vacillates between reticence and insane bouts of expository monologuing. However, there’s no Mrs. Danvers. More to the point: Katharine Hepburn is no Joan Fontaine. While usually I think we're all grateful for that, here it's a problem.

Undercurrent again highlights a major failing in Katharine Hepburn’s acting up to this point in her career. She has, with notable exceptions, a great deal of trouble appearing vulnerable onscreen. Joan Fontaine, helped in large part by her chemistry with Laurence Olivier, made Mrs. de Winter a timid woman who takes risks and searches for the truth only to avoid losing her husband. As Ann, Hepburn is supposed to have a similar motivation for looking for her husband’s brother. However, Hepburn doesn’t have good chemistry with either Robert Taylor or Robert Mitchum, and thus never establishes motivation for Ann outside of obstinate curiosity. Curiosity alone is not enough to match the high melodramatic tone the film is going for. Ultimately Kate seems too restrained for the high drama of noir.

But what to do with her? By the late 1940's, Kate wasn't playing an ingénue or a “glamor girl” heroine anymore. Undercurrent foreshadowed a new facet of Katharine Hepburn's image that would define her work in the early 50s: Kate the Old Maid. Though it was a character type she'd played once or twice for RKO (remember Quality Street?), under MGM Kate had always been desirable. If she was unconventional, with her slacks and her swagger and her fierce independence, that only made her more desirable. She was, in so many ways, the perfect early 40’s woman. But the 50’s are looming, and with them comes a new feminine ideal. But before that happens, Kate’s going to get hitched a few more times onscreen. Maybe the next movie marriage will turn out better.

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, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame, Stage Door Canteen, Dragon Seed, and Without Love.

Next Week: The Sea of Grass (1946) - In which Tracy and Hepburn make a Western because why not? (Available on Amazon.)

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Reader Comments (16)

Oh wow, I really want to see this now. I don't think I've actually ever finished it, but the two Roberts make it sound at least nice to look at it, even if it is sort of limp.

And yes, I was thinking that she is all wrong for Mrs. De Winter, she should be playing Rebecca!

This is a mild thriller and I agree Kate is miscast in the lead. She wasn't the type to play the damsel in distress, indeed Joan Fontaine, Margaret Sullavan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, or original choice Laraine Day would have all been more logically cast. Actually Laraine was so mad at being promised this and then bypassed, after making the Lana Turner light military flick Keep Your Powder Dry as a condition to being cast in the lead she demanded and was granted her MGM release. This movie hardly seems worth all that fuss but it did free her up to give one of her better performances in The Locket at RKO with Robert Mitchum once he returned there from making Undercurrent on loan out.

Speaking of Mitchum, he's so thin in this!, he and Bob Taylor do look like they could be brothers but that's about the end of the story making a great deal of sense. When your film toplines Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum and Robert Taylor and Taylor gives the best performance something is wrong. He handles the suave heel with the dangerous edge very well. This was romantic leading man Taylor's first film after his war service, an odd choice to have him play a madman. As you say Anne Marie, Minnelli was a master of musicals but always more variable with straight drama, The Cobweb is a shambles but The Courtship of Eddie's Father a joy, and while he doesn't totally blow this his pacing is far too glacial to make it compelling.

The glaring mismatch of Hepburn and Mitchum is huge problem that the film never overcomes. The two clashed off screen, with her dressing him down and he not giving a damn what she thought. They share zero chemistry on screen, you can actually sense their mutual distaste for each other in the their scenes together. It's a major flaw, a much bigger issue than her lack of rapport with Taylor, since he's supposed to be her dream man.

So with all this stuff and nonsense my eye drifted and here are some stray observations I noticed around the main action.

How chic Jayne Meadows was-She and Hepburn do share a passing resemblance. So good detail work.

Once Taylor remakes her in his image, although except for that dreadful dress she wears at the big cocktail party her pre-Taylor fashion is pretty timeless, Kate has some very sharp outfits but then she's stuck in something that looks like a bathrobe which wouldn't be a problem but she's wearing it in a lobby and a couple of her hats appear to be molting!

They loved their busy wallpaper back in the 40's.

And finally: Hey look the neighbor lady is Mrs. McGillicuddy, Lucy's mom!

An okay movie but a minor film for all.

Give me strength for the turgid Sea of Grass next week!

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

@joel6: "When your film toplines Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum and Robert Taylor and Taylor gives the best performance something is wrong."

I laughed out loud at that one.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Until several paragraphs into this write-up I'd completely forgotten I've seen this film!

I remember Hepburn was a tad awkward in it. But I think I may have enjoyed the film a bit more than most vacuous star vehicles.

May 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Rummy the dog was the only watchable thing about this movie.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

I caught this a couple of months ago on TCM and I kinda dug it. It's enjoyable in that totally predictable, 40s-50s melodrama kind of way. I agree that Kate was miscast, though. The only chemistry between her and Mitchum was on his part and frankly I have trouble imagining it would be difficult to reciprocate that... but then, Spencer Tracy never did anything for me so clearly Kate and I have very different taste in men.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I seem to remember hearing that this was a big deal for Taylor because he was the "villain" so to speak in this and he was such a hero in his movies before the war. I liked it well enough but it's one of those films that you can't help thinking would have been so much better with a different cast.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

Poor Robert Taylor. None of us seem to like him very much in this. I have to admit, I don't even like him in his good movies. Does anybody in the comments have anything nice to say about Mr. Taylor?

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Sure, Robert Taylor was stunning in his early years, particularly without the mustache (to my eyes). I remember liking him in Camille where he was sort of a blank slate for Camille to obsess over (like The Story of Adele H. or Fosca in Passion).

Plus he had good taste in women, having been married to Barbara Stanwyck for at least a decade (and to bring it all around to the other earlier actress appreciation post).

@AnneMarie - I've only seen him in Camille but I did think he was gorgeous. Does that count as something nice even if it's not regarding this specific movie?

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I actually like Robert Taylor although I think he usually has the unfortunate role of never being the most memorable part of any movie I've seen him in.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

Let's just say Robert Taylor is serviceable and nice to look at. Sort of the Aaron Taylor-Johnson of his day maybe?

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

"nice to look at" being an understatement ;)

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@Anne Marie-As far as Robert Taylor goes I've never thought much of him as an actor but I've seen a few good performances from him.

In the Greer Garson/Joan Crawford meller When Ladies Meet he is quite sprightly giving an engagingly light comic performance amongst all the heavy dramatics.

He was good as the tough trail boss leading the all female wagon train in Westward the Women. Also appropriately gladiatorial in Quo Vadis?

Waterloo Bridge is the performance he felt was his best and also his stated favorite of his films. Vivien Leigh acts rings around him but he felt inspired by her ability, this was also her favorite of her films. I don't know if I'd agree it was his best but he is better than usual.

He was almost painfully beautiful when he was young but he didn't seem able to let it go when he aged and ended up looking like Count Dracula by the time of his passing with that boot black hair and widow's peak.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

@Dave - I didn't realize he was married to Barbara! He did have good taste. The same apparently couldn't be said for her.

@Hannahlilly - Ha! That is the perfect comparison.

@joel6 - I just hate Quo Vadis so much. I've never been a fan of Sword And Sandals epics. I'll add When Ladies Meet and Waterloo Bridge to my Robert Taylor Must See list, but I can't promise I'll get around to 'em any time soon.

That being said, I agree with everyone that he was very pretty to look at. Especially 1930s Robert Taylor. Almost as pretty as Tyrone Power.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

My favorite Robert Taylor movie is Yank at Oxford, he was so much better as the boy ingenue and the sappiness of the tale fits him. It does seems he made a career off the reflected light of great actresses. My favorite of those was Ivanhoe, typical costume epic for him with Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca and a great technicolor choice based on her eyes.

May 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

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