Kate at 100: No one else like her

Times Staff Writer

KATHARINE Hepburn, who would have turned 100 this year, was undoubtedly the most lauded American actress of the last century, winning a still-unprecedented four best actress Oscars over a 50-year span.

When the Bryn Mawr graduate made the leap from the stage to movies with 1932’s “A Bill of Divorcement,” audiences -- and Hollywood for that matter -- were impressed. But they still didn’t know what to make of her. Hepburn didn’t look like any of the actresses populating cinema at the time. Delicately boned with porcelain complexion and a Yankee accent, Hepburn was beautiful, brainy and fiercely independent -- a breed apart from such brassy blond sexpots as Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers, the reigning queens of Hollywood.

The ‘30s proved to be a difficult decade for Hepburn. There were early successes including a 1934 best actress Oscar win for “Morning Glory” and a triumph in 1935’s “Alice Adams.” But for the most part, her studio, RKO, didn’t know what to do with her. So Hepburn left Hollywood to make a triumphant return to Broadway in 1939’s “The Philadelphia Story.” And she revived her sagging film career when then-beau Howard Hughes bought her the film rights to the play. She was back on the screen -- and to the delight of audiences, she never looked back.


Now Warner Home Video is celebrating her centenary with “The Katharine Hepburn Collection,” which arrives Tuesday. It’s a mixed bag of Hepburn vehicles, but even bad Hepburn is worth watching.

The strongest title is 1933’s “Morning Glory,” which was Hepburn’s third film. She’s luminous as Eva Lovelace, a stage-struck small-town girl who floats like an ethereal butterfly and talks like a breathless chatterbox. Eva comes to New York to conquer Broadway, but it nearly conquers her. Along the way, she is befriended by an elderly British actor (C. Aubrey Smith), is done wrong by a lecherous producer (Adolphe Menjou) with whom she has a one-night stand, and meets a sensitive young playwright (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who believes in her talent.

“Sylvia Scarlett,” which was released in early 1936, was the film that led to Hepburn being labeled box-office poison. Critics and audiences loathed it, but over the decades it has gained in reputation, especially for its fresh look at sexual identities and Hepburn’s delightfully adroit performance.

Directed by George Cukor, “Sylvia Scarlett” finds Hepburn playing a young woman living in Marseilles, France, who, in order to help her debt-ridden pop (Edmund Gwenn) escape his numerous creditors, cuts off her long hair and disguises herself as a boy. Now known as Sylvester, she/he and her father set sail to begin a new life in England. Through a series of circumstances, Sylvia and her father team up with a Cockney confidence man (Cary Grant) to first fleece the rich and then become traveling entertainers. Critics praised Grant’s wacky comedic turn, but Time magazine declared that Hepburn looked better as “a boy than as a woman.”

Though “Dragon Seed” was a big hit in 1944, it’s excruciating to watch now because Hepburn, along with Walter Huston and Agnes Moorehead among others, are forced to wear outrageous Chinese makeup. Hepburn plays a farmer’s wife who leads her villagers against the invading Japanese in the late 1930s in this lavish adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel. Poor Hepburn is saddled with trite dialogue and looks more like a “Star Trek” Vulcan than a Chinese peasant.

Hepburn and Spencer Tracy teamed for the first time in the classic 1942 romantic comedy “Woman of the Year.” The collection features their 1945 romantic comedy “Without Love,” which was based on the Philip Barry play. It’s far from their best collaboration, but the two exude such palpable chemistry and crackerjack comedic timing that the film -- about a widow who enters into a marriage of convenience with an inventor -- is pretty irresistible.


However, it’s difficult watching the strong-willed Hepburn as a crybaby victim in “Undercurrent,” a misguided 1946 thriller directed by the usually reliable Vincente Minnelli. Hepburn plays the unsophisticated, sheltered daughter of a chemistry professor who falls in love and marries a handsome industrialist (Robert Taylor). But there are some chinks in her husband’s armor, mostly revolving around his frightening temper and his contemptuous feelings for his younger brother (Robert Mitchum), who had disappeared after allegedly stealing from the company.

The set concludes with 1979’s “The Corn Is Green,” one of the many TV movies Hepburn made during the last 20 years of her career. The well-crafted adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ drama marked the 10th collaboration between the actress, who received an Emmy nomination for her endearing turn, and director Cukor. Set in a turn-of-the-last-century Welsh mining town, the inspiring drama revolves around a feisty spinster schoolteacher (Hepburn) who discovers one of her pupils (Ian Saynor) may be a genius.