Alice Adams 1935 Directed by George Stevens. Adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington. Twenty-eight year-old Katharine Hepburn plays Alice, who does everything she can not to reflect that her family is struggling financially. Desperation manifests as social climbing. Her father is a bitter, depressed invalid convinced he’s been robbed of a glue formula by his now rich, former partner. Alice’s brother Walter is an inveterate gambler; her mother despairingly holds it together.
Invited to a party by a rich acquaintance, Alice meets and charms wealthy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). The young patrician gently courts her. She invites him to what turns out to be a disastrous dinner. Lies fly and the family puts on airs, but brutal truths are revealed in the course of the evening. When Adams’ ex-partner shows up with an accusation, everything hits the fan. Alice rescues the situation. You can see what Hepburn will become in this delicate portrayal.
Bringing Up Baby 1936 Directed by Howard Hawks. A screwball comedy written specifically for Hepburn. Cary Grant plays absent-minded paleontologist, David Huxley, preoccupied with acquiring the last bone to a dinosaur skeleton which will bring a sizable donation to his museum and approval of a controlling fiancé. (Scenes with the skeleton are wonderful.) Hepburn plays Susan Vance, a frivolous, entitled heiress. The two meet cute; he’s irritated, she’s attracted.
When Susan’s brother sends her a pet leopard, thinking David is a zoologist, she convinces him to help transport the animal to her country house, then tries to keep him there. A circus leopard gets loose confusing potential capture; David’s missing brontosaurus bone is delivered, but stolen by Susan’s dog; the two are caught in a seemingly compromising situation by the potential donor, also Susan’s aunt…of course. It all comes out right in the end. Light and sophisticated.
The Philadelphia Story 1940 Directed by George Cukor. Based on the Broadway play by Philip Barry that was eventually turned into the musical film, High Society, also recommended. Main line Philadelphia heiress, Tracy Lord (Hepburn), is a spoiled, judgmental young woman. Divorced from yacht designer, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because he didn’t live up to her standards, she’s on the verge of marrying upstanding businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard). Media is banned from the estate. Nonetheless, reporter and photographer, Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), are smuggled in under false pretenses and threat of blackmail.
Dexter, welcomed by the rest of the family, tells Tracy she’s making a terrible mistake. Also invited, much to the incipient bride’s chagrin, is the potential reason for blackmail. Mr. Lord, having had an affair is forgiven by his wife, but not his daughter. Both George and Macaulay want to keep Tracy on a pedestal, but after a drunken night of less than perfect behavior, she realizes her true soulmate. Of course. Shimmering, upscale dialogue.
Woman of The Year 1942 Directed by George Stevens. Eventually made into the Broadway musical “Woman of The Year” by John Kander and Fred Ebb. One of nine appealing films made by Tracy and Hepburn, four of them romantic comedies: Desk Set, Pat and Mike, Adam’s Rib are, if formulaic, also great fun.
International newswoman Tess Harding, aka Woman of the Year, is all work all the time. When she declares that baseball should be abolished during the war, sportswriter Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) angrily comes to its defense. Both work for the fictional New York Chronicle whose editor will not stand for public feuding. Called into his office, attraction is immediate and, to both, surprising.
Tess is cultured, multilingual; Sam is a singularly knowledgeable, rough cut gem. After awkward courting, they marry. While he plans a partnership, she continues as if nothing has changed, leaving her new husband in the dust. Tess’s treatment of an adopted son further amplifies priorities, provoking Sam to leave.
It takes the wedding of her father and aunt (a long suspended love) to bring her around. Though reconciliation finds Tess in the kitchen, she decides to change her name to “Tess Harding Craig” and ostensibly continues to work.
The African Queen 1951 adapted from the novel by CS Forester. Directed by Sam Houston. World War I. Ruth Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother are evangelistic British missionaries in Africa. When local fighting begins, they refuse to leave. Samuel Sayer is beaten, falls ill and dies. Ruth’s last hope of escape is by means of Charlie Allnut’s mail boat, a small steamer called The African Queen. (Humphry Bogart – Academy Award for Best Actor)
Ruth and Charlie are oil and water. Charlie drinks and swears, taking discomfort for granted, speaking only when he must. Ruth, armored in stultifying, English apparel, is stiff and preachy, eventually tossing Charlie’s liquor (his mother’s milk) overboard.
Further downriver, he mentions a German boat whose presence prevents the British from attacking. Despite objections, Ruth resolves to make their small craft into a torpedo and attack. By the time they reach the ship, the journey in itself a miracle, they’ve bonded. An unexpected ending is suspenseful and splendid.
The Lion in Winter 1968 Directed by Anthony Harvey, written by James Goldman, based on his Broadway play. Marvelous cast. Christmas 1183. Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) allows his otherwise imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to come home for the holiday. (Hepburn – Best Actress Academy Award tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl.) Dialogue is whip smart and well aimed. The relationship acts as vertebrae.
Also present is Henry’s very young mistress, her patron, King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton’s debut) and Henry’s competitive sons. Anthony Hopkins (film debut in a major role) as the future Richard the Lionheart, is Eleanor’s choice for future king, while Henry’s is John (Nigel Terry). Neither thinks middle son Geoffrey is up to it. (John Castle.)
All three young men have plans to dispose of siblings and take the throne. Allegiances, which include King Phillip, are mercurial. Henry plays the boys off against one another part as gleeful diversion, part as a test, finally satisfied with none of them. Constant threat of muder ends with impasse.