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Entries in Old Hollywood (89)

Wednesday
Nov192014

A Year with Kate: Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986)

Episode 47 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn stars in a geriatric version of The Way We Were.

Mrs. Delafield wants to die. The TV movie opens on an ambulance rushing the society widow to the hospital after an unnamed relapse. Obscured by a breathing apparatus and various medical paraphernalia, Mrs. Delafield lies comatose as her children begin to mourn and divvy up her estate. Her neighbor waxes elegiac on the imminent elegancy of her death. Then, a handsome doctor puts a hand on her shoulder and--miracle of miracles! Mrs. Delafield opens her eyes! And then, out of nowhere, it becomes a marriage comedy.

After last week’s morbid misfire of a movie, the opening of Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry feels a little like purposeful trolling. Grace Quigley extolled the virtues of death for the elderly with an ailing Hepburn at its center, but Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry celebrates the life they still have yet to live. Our Own Kate as Mrs. Delafield makes her actual entrance 15 minutes after the morbid opening, and what a difference two years makes! Kate is bubbling and happy and in full health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t breathe a tiny sigh of relief. She’s okay! Sure, she can’t carry wood anymore, like she did in On Golden Pond, but that doesn’t matter. She’s too busy carrying the movie.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry is about life, or rather the difficulty of having a life when your children start to treat you like a child. Mrs. Delafield falls in love with Dr. Silas (Harold Gould), the doctor whose touch revived her in the prologue. Unfortunately, Dr. Silas is Jewish, and Mrs. Delafield is the kind of rich, blue-blooded WASP whose name ends up on symphony programs and university lecture halls. Her kids, in a shocking bit of anti-semitism for 1986, don’t want her marrying a Jew. His kids don’t want a goy stepmother. Both are called irresponsible when all they are is in love. What are a pair of star-crossed septuagenarians to do?

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Wednesday
Nov122014

A Year with Kate: Grace Quigley (1984)

 Episode 46 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn makes a comedy about suicide with Nick Nolte because she's a living legend and she can do whatever she wants.

The truth about a career that spans seven decades, is that for the majority of that career, you'll be what’s traditionally thought of as “old.” Hollywood does not like “old.” The magnificent part of watching Katharine Hepburn age has been watching her flip old age (and Hollywood) the bird. True, her head wobbles, her hair is gray, and her voice is reedy. Still, she leaps after hot air balloons, bicycles, hauls wood, and even wins Academy Awards at an age far past what would traditionally be considered “her prime.” For the past few years, Kate has looked old, sounded old, and even talked about being old, but the stubbornly energetic woman has never felt old. Which is why Grace Quigley is more than a little scary.

Grace Quigley (originally titled The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley) is meant to be a black comedy about assisted suicide. Think Arsenic and Old Lace by way of Harold and Maude. Nick Nolte stars as a neurotic hitman with the misfortune of meeting Mrs. Quigley (our own Kate), an octogenarian who blackmails him into starting a business with her: killing people who want to be killed. Homicidal hilarity ensues, or would, except it isn't very funny. Despite a striptease set to Tchaikovsky, a hearse chase, and several attempts at witty banter, the movie vacillates between morbidity and dullness. The problem is threefold: 1) director Anthony Harvey (who’d beautifully directed Kate in The Lion in Winter and The Glass Menagerie) lacks the light touch needed for black comedy. 2) Nick Nolte’s character is about as good at killing people as he is at delivering one-liners (which is to say not good at all). Most importantly, 3) For the first time onscreen, Katharine Hepburn looks so frail that it is uncomfortably easy to believe she wants to die.

Kate's brush with death and life affirmations after the jump.

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Wednesday
Oct292014

A Year with Kate: The Corn is Green (1978)

 Episode 44 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn bids farewell to her lifelong friend and director, George Cukor.

Who’s up for another catfight? Way back near the beginning of this series, I manufactured a rivalry between young Kate Hepburn and Miss Bette Davis, both sporting ear-splitting accents in two movies from 1934. This time, I don’t have to fake a competition. Katharine Hepburn’s 1979 TV movie happens to be a remake of a 1945 Bette Davis film.

The Corn Is Green (based on the play by by Emlyn Williams) is the story of Miss Moffat, who gets off her tuffet to teach the Welsh miners to read. The role of a strong-willed woman who changes the lives of her impoverished pupils would be catnip for either of our great actresses, so it’s no surprise that Bette and Kate both played Miss Moffat 34 years apart. What is surprising is how different Bette and Kate’s performances are, because the two films they star in are polar opposites in mood and moral. Just how often do you get to compare your favorite actresses on a scene-by-scene basis like this?

The Eyes vs The Cheekbones after the jump.

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Wednesday
Oct222014

A Year with Kate: Olly Olly Oxen Free (1978)

Episode 43 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn proves she's not afraid of heights or bad scripts.

Look, I’ll be honest with you. There is exactly one reason to see this movie. It happens around the last third of the film. No, it’s not another moth gown. (Remember the moth gown? I miss the moth gown.) Instead, it’s the sight of a sexagenarian, award-winning, legendary actress dangling from a hot air balloon over a cliff. I’m in my 20s, and I wouldn’t do that without at least a net and a shot of whiskey first. Anyway, if you want to know what it looks like, I’ve made a gif that you can skip to at the end of the post. I suggest you stick around for the rest of this article, though, because we have some strange stuff to address (and also some puns).

Really, of all the yet-untried genres Kate could have landed in during the later part of her career, we should have seen a children’s movie coming. Olly, Olly, Oxen Free (aka The Great Balloon Adventure) is a self-consciously sweet flick about a child named Albie with his head in the clouds (sorry) who recruits his friend and his dog to rebuild his grandfather’s hot air balloon. While looking for spare parts in a whimsical junkyard (junkyards in children's movies are required to be whimsical by genre law), Albie and Company meet the grouchy Miss Pudd, our own Kate. Fortunately for the boys, Miss Pudd’s threats turn out to be nothing but hot air (sorry), and she quickly becomes their confidante and benefactor.

Olly, Olly, Oxen Free is part of that genre of children’s fantasy (like Pete’s Dragon, The Goonies, or even Bridge to Terabithia) that sees the world of a child as a vanishing, secret thing. While the “scrappy kids in a magical world” trope is common enough, this inflated (sorry) level of preciousness seems unique to the 1970s. The movie’s tone is almost mournful. The only adults who understand these boys--Miss Pudd and Albie’s grandfather--are insane or dead. The rest are either absent or rude.

"Did I ever tell you about the time Howard Hughes landed a plane on a beach just to meet me?"

More balloon jokes and an impressive stunt after the jump.

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Wednesday
Oct082014

A Year with Kate: Love Among The Ruins (1975)

Episode 41 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn does a TV movie with Laurence Olivier and George Cukor, which might have been disappointing if it wasn't so good.

Whew! What a nice change of pace this breezy little comedy is after so many dramas. Don't get me wrong, I love Great Actresses performing Great Roles in Great Films, but sometimes you just want to curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and laugh with your friend Katie, y'know? It's been 2 months since our last comedy (or less, depending on whether you laugh as hard as I do during The Lion in Winter), and I for one was cautiously excited to see Kate return to comedic form in Love Among The Ruins.

I say "cautiously excited" because even though so many of you pointed out how good this movie is, its existence a TV movie (albeit an Emmy Award-winning one) depressed me. The fact that three giants of the Studio Era - George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Laurence Olivier - were forced to make their triumphant reunion on the small screen, when only a decade before they had commanded CinemaScope and roadshow releases, proved to me once and for all that by 1975, Old Hollywood was dead. And while I by no means begrudge the birth of New Hollywood and the waves of startling creativity that came from the auteurs of 70s counter culture, I nonetheless mourn the way we did (do?) treat our aging giants. So it was with bittersweet feelings that I turned on the television.

Kate delivering some quality sass to dumbstruck Olivier

It turns out that there is such thing as worrying too much.

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Wednesday
Oct012014

A Year with Kate: The Glass Menagerie (1973)

Episode 40 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn takes to TV to show that Laurette Taylor can eat her heart out.

Apparently Kate adapted to TV quickly. Mere months after her first two part television interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Katharine Hepburn returned to the small screen, this time to act. Director Anthony Harvey (last teamed with Kate directing The Lion in Winter) did away with the more fantastical elements of the play in order to get a more "natural" feel, relying on strong acting rather than stagecraft. Nonetheless, The Glass Menagerie remains a touching work of nostalgia and regret that comments in unexpected ways on its legendary lead actress’s life.

When The Glass Menagerie premiered in 1944, Laurette Taylor’s performance as Southern matriarch Amanda Wingfield effectively revolutionized American theatrical acting. In her second foray into Williams’ world, Katharine Hepburn steps out of Taylor’s long shadow. Hepburn's Amanda is not a dreamer, but a fighter. (The biggest shock: Katharine Hepburn, she of the infamous Bryn Mawr brogue, nearly conquers a Southern accent.) Kate plays the most Yankee Southern Belle; she speaks quickly and she demands rather than cajoles. As Kate plays her, Amanda uses her frequent escapes into memory as anecdotal proof that her current suffering is undeserved.

Trivia, nostalgia, and a good reason never to clean out your closet after the jump.

Another explosive family dinner courtesy of Tennessee Williams.

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Wednesday
Sep172014

A Year with Kate: The Trojan Women (1971)

Episode 38 of 52:  In which even Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave cannot save a 3,000 year old stinker.

As a budding theater and film student, my freshman year of college I landed in Intro to Set Design. The professor, a thespian in the grand academic style garbed oversized scarves and an air of intellectual enlightenment, explained to us that our final project would be a rules-free design for The Trojan Women by Euripides. “After all,” she said with a weary sigh, “you can’t make it any worse.”

Low praise for high art, but her reasoning was sound. Though The Trojan Women is subversive and surprisingly modern in theme, the play seriously lacks structure. (The year Euripides offered The Trojan Women at the Dionysia theater festival, he placed second out of two.) Beginning immediately after the downfall of Troy, The Trojan Women laments the enslavement, rape, and murder of the women of the captured city. Unfortunately, Euripides fails to tie his diatribe to a plot until late in the play, resulting in a funereal dirge. Like Euripides’s tragedy, Michael Cacoyannis’s 1971 film adaptation is full to brimming with good ideas that ultimately fail to coalesce into something great.

One of these actresses steals the movie after the jump...

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