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A Year with Kate: The Iron Petticoat (1956)

Episode 30 of 52:  In which you’d think Katharine Hepburn would have learned to stay away from accents by now.

The 50s were a time of great growth for Kate. The studio system collapsed and stars became more autonomous (Kate had left MGM after Pat & Mike) and Kate used the opportunity to break out of the glamorous-but-dull mold she'd been thrust into. She pursued scripts, directors, and collaborations that electrified her onscreen and off. She toured in Shakespeare, worked with Oscar-nominated directors, and forged a career renaissance even as her contemporaries flailed. Yes, the films she made contained the dreaded "S" word, but if her ladies were single, they were also single-minded and smart. Kate could have been pushed to the side. Instead she found great roles and challenged herself with the opportunities a collapsing system afforded. If her films seem troublesome now, the craftsmanship and artistic growth of this period cannot be denied.

And then there's The Iron Petticoat.

Folks, I sprained my shoulder on Friday and ended up in the emergency room. Despite the pain, I would almost rather go through it again than re-watch The Iron Petticoat. It’s that bad. [More...]

The Iron Petticoat is loosely inspired by Ninotchka, the Oscar-nominated comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Year starring Greta Garbo in one of a handful of movies where she didn’t die at the end. The story is basic: Communist woman comes to Western World and falls in love with an American man. Ninotchka was a great success because it worked on the premise of poking fun at its star’s “sour Swede” image. The film was advertised “Garbo laughs!” and gave Garbo the opportunity to blossom from monotone matron to giggly drunk girl. Audiences were charmed, and Garbo showed some seriously underused comedic chops. Take this scene where she gets drunk for the first time:

Do you remember when Kate was being advertised early on as RKO’s new American Garbo? Certainly there was overlap between the two stars’ images: both were considered androgynously beautiful, aggressive, and haughty. This must have occurred to Ben Hecht when he wrote the script for Kate. In The Iron Petticoat, Kate plays Captain Vinka, a woman who defects because she is angry at the Soviet Union for giving her rightfully earned promotion to a man. Her American suitor is played by Bob Hope, who replaced Cary Grant. (When on earth is Bob Hope an acceptable substitute for Cary Grant? Their styles are completely different.) Hope brought in his own team of writers to give the script that (ahem) authentic Hope charm. Kate heard about it and was furious. Their relationship did not improve from there. Unfortunately, that bled into the film:

Kate and Hope have the chemistry of two positively charged magnets: they repel each other when thrust in close proximity, and only touch unwillingly when pushed together by a greater force than themselves. Independently, both are great comedians, but together their timing is way off. Unfortunately, what little timing they had together is further upset by Kate’s terrible Russian accent. It’s been almost two decades since Kate last tried an accent--to equally abysmal results. Fortunately, I think (hope) this is her last attempt.

One final note before we move on: Just as Ninotchka had poked fun at Garbo’s androgyny, Ben Hecht’s script takes aim at Kate’s boyish figure. At one point, Vinka decides to buy a pretty dress to impress the American. Kate’s been wearing pants and a loose jacket the whole film, swaggering like a man, so when she walks into a lingerie shop she and the owner both are startled. The shop owner, on seeing her lack of “assets,” shows her their latest invention, a blow up bra:

She turns it down, but her body does take on an unusually hourglass shape in the next scene. This is the first time Kate’s androgyny has been lampooned as a negative. The mid 1950’s were the time of Monroe, Taylor, and Mansfield. Postwar America had a thing for what Marjorie Rosen dubbed “mammary madness.” Kate’s skinnier frame was decidedly out of fashion. Fortunately, her acting talent was only getting stronger.

We got through The Iron Petticoat! To celebrate, please enjoy this picture of Kate with a Koala, taken during her Australian tour of Measure for Measure.

Previous Week: Summertime (1955) - In which David Lean's beautiful romantic classic gives Katharine Hepburn an eye infection and me a headache

Next Week: The Rainmaker (1956) - In which Katharine Hepburn lets her hair down and rolls in the hay with Burt Lancaster

Tuesday 8/12: Hit Me With Your Best Shot crossover -Suddenly, Last Summer

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Reader Comments (24)

God this movie!!!! It took me years to finally see it and when I did I was horrified. I thought nothing could be more awful than Spitfire or Hepburn be worse but I was wrong on both counts. Apparently there was some sort of litigation that kept it out of public view for decades, too bad it was resolved.

I'm not a Bob Hope fan, I respect his tireless work for the armed forces but I don't get his humor, so I never thought I'd see a film where he is better than Katharine Hepburn! But he is here. Probably because "his people" worked to make the script play to his strengths.

I have issues with The Rainmaker but it will be a total pleasure after this turkey.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

That sounds awful.

No, i'm not talking about the film but your sprained shoulder. GET WELL SOON.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks, Nathaniel. I've got a sling, a bottle of painkillers, and a doctor on speed dial. The next few days should be... interesting.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Painkillers and margaritas, isn't that the only way to get through this movie? :-) I have to admit I've never seen this one, BUT I always thought it was in black and white and that would make it even grimmer than it is. I can tell from the one clip above that I would spend the whole time looking at the midcentury costumes and furnishings, and I suppose there are worse ways to watch it.

The thing of it is, I actually get the inspiration behind this. Kate & Cary in a sort of The Moscow Story could have actually worked I think. And oh the opportunity to have seen them work together again almost 20 years later. Oh well.

Do I dare venture to search for images of a post-makeover Comrade Kate?

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Okay, so yes I looked for photos of a post makeover Kate and saw photos of her in a black bustier and miniskirt sort of lingerie combo thing with a weird ponytail on her head. Did that actually happen? And yet they still seemed to keep her flyaway almost graying hair. Bizarre.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Yeah, that actually happened. She eventually puts on an interesting(?) dress over the miniskirt but I was legitimately terrified that was going to be it.

I miss Adrian dressing her. Bring back the shoulder pads!

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I've never seen this one...but if the clip is any indication, I haven't missed anything. I've never been a huge fan of Bob Hope, but he was just unbearable in this one...and Kate was really not a whole lot better.

It's interesting that the Ninotchka story should have been popular again in the mid-Fifties. Don't forget that Cole Porter's musical "Silk Stockings," which was based on the play from which Ninotchka was taken, hit Broadway in 1955, with the film version following in 1957.

Get well soon, Anne Marie! I've really enjoyed your series.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Eh, it's not a good movie by any means, but I've seen worse. What's weird about it , is that it comes at a time when the studios didn't have the same grip as they used to have on their stars, so you can't say the studio forced her to do it. ( as, for example, Bette Davis has said about a lot of her stinkers - see Beyond The Forrest ).
Even weirder, I had a hard time to find it - saw it by chance on TCM. I guess now there is a DVD out there, but it wasn't for a long time.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

That poster is TERRIFYING. That's all I have to contribute to this conversation.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I am hopeful that Kate signed on to this when Cary was involved, and then couldn't get out of it when Bob and his "improvements" came along? Anne Marie do you know? It at least sounds like this was not the cast and script to which Kate attached herself in the beginning.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Ben Hecht wrote it for Kate and Grant was originally attached to the film. Then Grant was replaced by Hope, who "fixed" it with his own writers. Hecht was furious and demanded that his name be removed (it wasn't), but Kate soldiered on through the film. I haven't found a specific timeline, but I get the impression it all happened fairly quickly, within a few months. Kate wasn't one to walk out on a film that was already in the works.

July 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Nat, could you once and for all prohibit Anne Marie from mentioning Garbo? She's disqualified herself and needs to be restricted to talking about movie stars whose movies she's actually seen.

In fact, out of the ten films I've seen with Greta, she only dies in two of them (Anna Karenina and Camille). Three if we count Mata Hari which - as I'd remembered correctly - does indeed end with her walk to the execution.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy, I apologize for angering you again. I actually have seen a fair number of Garbo's films -- 9 or 10, including some of her great silents. I love Garbo, and would have happily done A Year With Garbo if more of her films could be found on DVD. It was an off the cuff remark about her perceived status as the queen of tragedy, and was not meant to be taken seriously. I hope one joke about one star doesn't disqualify me from talking about the rest of them.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, you should have learned the first time that the problem with this so-called "off the cuff remark" is that some readers believe what remains a factual error. By now the running gag is getting tiresome.

Certainly Greta deserves her status as a Queen of Tragedy, but this doesn't necessarily mean Queen of Movie Deaths as well. Garbo is nowhere near the league of people like Willem Dafoe, Sean Bean or even Bruce Willis who constantly die on screen. But since they're all male, i.e. Kings of Movie Deaths, one could at most ask who might be the Queen of Movie Deaths. It's not Great, but who is it? Hm, right now I can only think of Shelley Winters as a female star who dies conspicuously often.

As for A Year With Garbo, well, based on what I've seen I've got to agree with the critical consensus that very few of Greta's films are truly remarkable although I do think that enough of them are at least good. One way or the other, I do think that Kate has the more interesting, varied and impressive filmography and I sincerely hope that we can escape A Year With Garbo. Not because of Greta herself but because of (some of) her movies.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Oops, Great Greta seems to have confused me in the second paragraph.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy -- i'm never prohibiting Anne Marie from talking about anything because I love her posts but nice try. ;) "a handful" is obviously not intended to be a factual statement. If you wanted factual you would number them.

Anne Marie -- what this post accomplished for me is i'm dying to see NINOTCHKA again all of a sudden.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

""a handful" is obviously not intended to be a factual statement."

Hardly "obviously", since...

"If you wanted factual you would number them."

...we've had that before.

One way or the other, I do think that A Year With Kate could only benefit from finally giving up Great Greta and her movie deaths.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Oh good gods no, not The Rainmaker. Five attempts later and I still haven't been able to sit through that Burt Lancaster dreck.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

I'd never heard of this movie until last week, and it sounds like I'm going to forget its existence by next week (without watching it, of course).

Comic Con with a sprained shoulder? Yikes.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I saw this a short while back on TCM and was appalled at how bad Kate was in it. She's been in below-average films before, but there was usually something redeeming at least in her performance. No such luck here. Well and truly awful.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Good grief. But is it worse than Quality Street?

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn-Soooo much worse than Quality Street.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I tried watching this disaster on TCM - everything is wrong with this project from script, to theme music - not too mention the waste of stars- I doubt that even Gary Grant would have save it.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

It's nice to read a reference to Marjorie Rosen's book "Popcorn Venus," an outstanding, thoroughly-documented chronicle of women in film. I wish Ms. Rosen updated it!

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

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