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 Divorcement, Christopher 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.)