Oscar History

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A Year with Kate: Song Of Love (1947)

Episode 24 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn shows off her talented fingers.

I have the strangest sense of deja vu.  Kate’s stuck in another melodrama about a young artist in love with a tortured composer. The composer is played by another foreign leading man. And I’ve created another set of box office graphs to answer KHep career questions through science. It’s like we never left RKO! I know you have a lot of questions--one being ”are you really going to start calling her KHep?” (Answer: Yes.) But first, let’s talk about the movie.

Song of Love is the highly inaccurate but very sweet story of Clara Wieck Schumann, a piano prodigy who marries tortured genius Robert Schumann (Paul Heinreid). Clara Wieck Schumann really was a piano prodigy, and she really did marry Robert Schumann and pop out babies like a human Pez dispenser. However, basically everything else about the movie is Hollywood fiction, including a second almost-romance with Brahms, played charmingly by Robert Walker (who’d just finished charmingly playing Kate’s son in The Sea of Grass. Accidental incest is awkward). It’s a pity the film glosses over her story, because Clara Wieck was actually incredible.

Channeling her inner Clara, Kate successfully learned to play piano for the role. (The music is dubbed.) When not tickling the ivories, Kate spends a lot of time looking very pretty sitting next to Paul Heinreid, or crying by him, or kissing him. Honestly, Katharine Hepburn and Paul Heinreid have about as much chemistry together as do my rug and my lamp; they look very nice next to each other and they spruce the place up, but barring any faulty wiring, I don’t expect a fire. 

 Still, the music is good and the acting is sweet. Plus, after three movies of men scowling at Kate it’s a relief to watch a guy smile at her again, even if (century-and-a-half-old spoiler alert) it’s before he goes insane and dies in an asylum. Enough about the movie, though. Let’s get to the real drama: the box office.


Statistics from The Eddie Mannix Ledger. Click to Embiggen

Last time we did this, I was trying to figure out the truth behind the Box Office Poison myth. (Verdict: “Poison” is such a harsh word.) This time it was more for idle curiosity. Verdict: what a difference a decade makes!

Observation #1: It pays to have a major studio like MGM backing you. Bigger budgets, wider releases, and more money. Even Kate's worst-grossing film at MGM (that’d be Song of Love) still grossed only a few hundred thousand less than her best film at RKO (that’d be Little Women).

Observation #2: Like or hate Spencer Tracy (most of you seem to hate him), he had a significant effect on Kate's earning potential. I don’t think it’s an accident that he’s Kate’s costar in 4 of her 5 top grossers.

Observation #3: These numbers are good, but not great. KHep would never be a huge draw at the box office, but she’s still earning enough for MGM to keep renewing her contract. Overall, it reminds me of Meryl Streep in the late 90s: a couple of years from something really incredible, but still with enough star power to command strong billing.

Hepburn stated numerous times that she started out wanting to be famous and only decided to learn how to act later. With that in mind, the 1940s look like the peak of Kate The Star.  She found a niche with the Slapstick Battle of the Sexes, and dabbled in other genres in between comedies. Nothing too tough, nothing too interesting. However, at the end of the 1940s, Kate would begin seriously working on her craft, and her next steps would take her from KHep the Star to Katharine Hepburn the Legend.

What are your observations about the graph?

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher StrongMorning GloryLittle WomenSpitfireThe Little Minister, Break of HeartsAlice Adams, Sylvia ScarlettMary of ScotlandA Woman RebelsQuality StreetStage DoorBringing Up BabyHoliday,The Philadelphia StoryWoman of the YearKeeper Of The FlameStage Door Canteen,Dragon SeedWithout LoveUndercurrent, The Sea Of Grass 

Next Week: State of the Union (1948) - In which Kate confronts Angela Lansbury onscreen and the Blacklist offscreen and manages to beat both.

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Reader Comments (10)

Film by film, based on domestic:

Philadelphia Story: Success
Woman of the Year: Success
Keeper of the Flame: Success
Dragon Seed: Flop
Without Love: Success
Undercurrent: Success
The Sea of Grass: Success
Song of Love: Flop
State of the Union: Success
Adam's Rib: Success

Mostly successes, and her worst grosser relative to the budget (Dragon Seed) would, internationally, be just a flop (gross more than the budget but less than double the budget), not a bomb (doesn't even reach the budget).

June 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Well the music is absolutely wonderful and glorious but beyond that brother is there a lot wrong with this twaddle.

Oh what a script! Filled with hoary old chestnuts like "It's music that the angels will sing" and odd scenes such as the one where we're suppose to say "Hey look great composers were just plain folks like you and me! Afraid to kill a chicken!" or the truly bizarre scene, probably the only one in 40's cinema-I wonder how they got it past the censors?, where Kate rushes through her piano performance to run off stage ripping the hideous cabbage rose she has on her dress off along the way to breast feed her screaming baby!!

Unimaginatively photographed for the most part there is an interestingly shot scene between Hepburn and Robert Walker. When he confesses his love for her they are filmed with their backs to the camera for the entirety of the scene relying on their body language to convey the emotions being played out. Beyond that Kate obviously worked hard studying the proper fingering for the performance pieces, she actually does appear to be playing not just banging away at the keys.

However all the design departments seems to be having an off day. Sydney Guilaroff puts that hideous top knot on Kate's head, it's similar to her style when she was older but tighter and resembles a bird's nest that's been plopped on her head, at this stage it only serves to age her. Then there's poor Paul Henreid's curly perm which makes him look ridiculous. An actor of limited range he's does okay in his role but like you said Anne Marie he and Hepburn share little chemistry. Seemingly a theme in this rough patch of cinematic 40's offerings. She shares little connection with Robert Walker either, though it was weird having him playing her potential love interest here and her son in Sea of Grass.

It not just hair though, every department makes horrible design choices. Kate seems to suffer the most at Walter Plunkett's hands with an assist from the usually reliable Irene; the scarf wrapped around her bun in the courtroom scene is laughable, her wedding dress seemingly made out of grandma's eyelet tablecloth is hideous, most of her period dresses swamp her and don't seem to fit properly, rare for a Metro film, and on and on. While studio films often had an artificial look Edwin Willis's work looks more obviously like sets than usual, particularly the exterior of the Schumann's house. With the script's weaknesses it makes the whole picture even more ponderous.

The film improves towards the end but those enormous liberties with the Schumann's actual story! The fact that Clara was the main breadwinner of the family something not only never mentioned but directly contradicted by some of the dialogue. Not unusual for the period but what's the point of a biography if you almost completely change the story? Aside from the music the film is fluff.

Love the chart! Wonder if MGM expected to lose money on Dragon Seed? The old studios use to make films occasionally for the prestige they would bring to the company not expecting to recover their investment. The difference was that those films are usually good or at least respectable, unlike the horrid Dragon Seed. Part of the tanking of Song of Love was apparently in response to Kate speaking out against HUAC, there were protests at theatres showing the film and reportedly at some screenings things were thrown at the screen.

Thank goodness we get to something good next week with State of the Union! I hadn't realized it was so successful. Thanks for the fascinating info Anne Marie.

June 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

KHep, the pez dispenser line and your rug/lamp analogy all made me laugh. This series just gets better and better.

As for the BO, nice to see the expensive DRAGON SEED flopped. Enjoying a Schadenfreude moment for having sat through this twaddle a few years ago as part of my quest for Oscar completeness.

June 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I just wanted to type "twaddle".

June 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHehe

Who hates Spencer Tracy?! One of the screen's greatest, most effortlessly charismatic actors?!

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I do love getting to look at the numbers. It's a great window into the leanings of American taste 70+ years ago... I wish witty slapstick battle of the sexes was a reliable box office draw in this day and age. Where's my 21st century Adam's Rib??

STEVE G: I share in your glee about the flopitude of Dragon Seed. Schadenfreude indeed.

GORAN: I don't exactly hate Spence Tracy, but I've never especially warmed to him beyond considering him a great screen partner for our "KHep." I'll cop to the fact that it could easily because I haven't sought out his best roles. Do you have movie recommendations for a Tracy agnostic?

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

goran-- I feel the same way, but there was some hostility when we changed over from Cary Grant to Spencer Tracy as KHep's leading man. How can you watch those lovebirds cuddle and hate Tracy? I ask you!

In a similar vein, Margaret was trying to come up with a Tracy/Hepburn portmanteau on Twitter (a la "Brangelina" or "Bennifer") and ended up with "Hepcy." I lol'd, but I'm open to other suggestions. (Preferably ones that don't sound like a disease.) Traburn? Kacy?

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Go watch Bad Day at Black Rock or the Last Hurrah for a Spencer Tracy stand alone. And when we get that far in the journey, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is really Tracy's movie, any awards aside.

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Margaret-My favorite Tracy performance aside from his teamings with Kate is in Inherit the Wind. I also thought he was great in Father of the Bride and Leslie19's suggestion of Bad Day at Black Rock is a good one but avoid at all costs Captains Courageous! I cringed through as much as I could bear and had to shut it off, I'll never understand that Oscar win.

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Still playing catch up with the series, I will just add a few points regarding box office and the state of Kate's career at this point. Anne Marie your point #3 is spot on! At this point she is clearly bankable, but can't carry a film on her own.
She is also approaching her big 40th birthday. This is a touch age for every actress. Ingenue, love interest roles are behind her, and ahead are Mom,Spinster, Granny, character, & Gorgon as the roles Hollywood will slot women into. This is an age issue more than anything. As we will see this rocky stretch gives us some films that we may dread.
But hey, at least she was still under contract and working! That's better than the majority of her peers at this point. The Streep comparison is absolutely valid.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

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