Katharine Hepburn was a remarkable actress, surviving as a star attraction well into maturity in an industry that usually tosses actresses away in their thirties or relegates them to minor supporting roles as they grow older. Hepburn, 1907-2003, continued as a dominant force (with her ups and downs) from the early 1930s well into the 1990s, the Academy nominated her for a dozen Oscars, and the American Film Institute named her the number-one female star of all time. When finally she was not making movies anymore, she was writing her memoirs and playing the real-life role of grande dame of Hollywood.
In honor of Ms. Hepburn's 100th anniversary, Warner Bros. have collected together a half dozen of her films in a six-disc box set. They are far from the best films of her career--most of the best ones the studios already made available separately on disc--but they do represent a well-rounded picture of her work. Let me mention briefly what's in the set, based on my past and more-recent experience with them, and then I'll discuss one of the movies in more detail.
Taking them chronologically, the first up is "Morning Glory" from 1933, directed by Lowell Sherman and co-starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Adolphe Menjou, Mary Duncan, and C. Aubrey Smith. This was only Hepburn's third film, yet she won an Oscar for Best Actress. Hepburn plays a young actress just breaking into show business (art imitates life), her rather acerbic personalty the main attraction. Otherwise, she undergos the usual troubles and tribulations we might expect. Despite the Oscar, her performance seems dated, as does the production. 74 minutes.
Next up is "Sylvia Scarlett," 1935, which I'll comment on below.
After that is "Dragon Seed," 1944, directed by Jack Conway and co-starring Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Akim Tamiroff, Turhan Bey, Hurd Hatfield, J. Carrol Naish, Agnes Moorehead, Henry Travers, an all-star cast. This is one of the bigger films in the set, an adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck story of the Japanese invasion of a small Chinese community. It was an attempt to follow up on the success of the movie version of Ms. Buck's "The Good Earth," but it doesn't come off with anything near the drama. Conforming to old Hollywood tradition, the film uses non-Asian Hollywood stars to portray most of the Chinese in the picture. Not convincing. 148 minutes.
The 1945 comedy "Without Love" finds Hepburn once again teamed up with her longtime friend and lifelong love, Spencer Tracy. Like most of Hepburn and Tracy's movies together, this one is light and amusing, with an emphasis on the light. Very light, but still fun. Harold S. Bucquet directed and Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Carl Esmond, and Patricia Morrison co-star. 110 minutes.
The usually reliable Vincente Minnelli directed Hepburn in "Undercurrent," 1946, a typical film noir of the period (although nobody called them "noirs" at the time) in which Hepburn's character begins to have suspicions about her new husband. Also typical of such movies, the plot doesn't always make a lot of sense. It co-stars Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Edmund Gwenn, Marjorie Main, and Jayne Meadows. 116 minutes.
The final movie in the set is "The Corn Is Green," a 1978 TV production, and the only film in the set that WB present in widescreen and color. It marked the final collaboration between Hepburn and director George Cukor, and it co-stars Ian Saynor, Bill Fraser, Patricia Hayes, and Anna Massey. If you remember the classic, 1945 Bette Davis film, you'll get the idea. The greatest advantage of this remake, aside from Hepburn's performance, is the location shooting in Wales, which greatly adds to the film's beauty and authenticity. Along with the set's Hepburn-Tracy film, this one is the best of the lot. 93 minutes.
Now, let's go back and look a little closer at "Sylvia Scarlett." Directed by George Cukor ("Dinner at Eight," "The Philadelphia Story," "Born Yesterday," "A Star Is Born" "My Fair Lady"), it is truly an oddball farce that I find most notable for two reasons: (1) its being the first of four pairings of Hepburn and Cary Grant; and (2) its casting of Hepburn as a young woman masquerading as a young man. As a film, though, it's one of the strangest concoctions you'll run into: a hokey, exaggerated, old-time, sometimes surreal comedic melodrama, played for the broadest possible laughs. Indeed, the film's primary appeal today may be as pure camp.
Hepburn plays the title role, Sylvia Scarlett, whose father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn) is a crook, an embezzler who needs to get out of the country, France, quickly. They head for England, where in order not to draw any unnecessary attention, Sylvia poses as a boy. For the life of me, I could not see the point of the disguise, nor could I understand how anybody would mistake the young Hepburn for a male. It's a plot gimmick you have to accept in order for the film to work, but it's frankly a dumb contrivance.
So, Sylvia cuts her hair, calls herself Sylvester, and as a girl-and-a-boy gets herself into all the dilemmas we would anticipate such an arrangement might entail. Then, the father and daughter meet another crook, the con-man Jimmy Monkley (Grant), and the three of them go merrily about the countryside fleecing people. Along the way, Sylvia finds a dashing bohemian-type artist, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), and she falls in love with him. But he thinks she's a boy. Why doesn't Sylvia fall in love with Grant, who also thinks she's a boy? Maybe that would have been too obvious. Besides, in 1935 Grant wasn't quite the star he would become in just another few years. At the beginning of the picture, Hepburn gets her name in big letters above the title, while Grant's name is in smaller letters beneath the title, a clear sign of whose picture it is.
Besides, not having Hepburn fall for Grant is a blessing. It means that Grant can be a scoundrel throughout the film, without his having to make a last-minute turn of heart. And a scoundrel he is. Although Hepburn seems to be playing a caricature or parody of herself, Grant plays a wonderfully corrupt, happy-go-lucky, Cockney confidence man who would as soon sell his mother as behave himself. It's one of Grant's best roles as he stays true to the character from beginning to end.
But here's the thing: Cukor seems to egg his actors on to perform in the most overinflated manner possible, and with the exception of Grant, all of them appear a bit nuts. The whole film is more than a little silly and slapsticky, and the gender-bending carryings-on and the sexual innuendoes make it risqué for its day. But surely Cukor was putting us all on. Why else would he encourage his actors to engage in such obviously cornball, overblown histrionics? Is it possible he was testing the limits of Hollywood's sexual, bisexual, and gay limits by teasing everyone, including the audience and cast?
In any case, "Sylvia Scarlett" (even the name is suggestive) is an interesting if ultimately fruitless collaboration of two of the screen's biggest legends. They would do much better (to put it mildly) when they teamed up in 1938 and 1940 for "Bringing Up Baby," "Holiday," and "The Philadelphia Story."
As usual, Warner Bros. did an excellent job refurbishing the 1.37:1 full-frame, Academy ratio, black-and-white print for "Sylvia Scarlett," and it represents the quality of the other transfers as well. The contrasts are sometimes a tad pale, but mostly they stand out well, as does the definition, which is as good as that of many modern motion pictures. More important, you won't find a line, a scratch, or an age mark in sight.
The disc delivers up its sound via Dolby Digital in a standard 1.0 monaural common to the era. There is not much to say about it except that its midrange is clear and clean, and backgrounds are silent. It is, in fact, a fine mono track.
All of the discs in the set except "The Corn Is Green" include vintage short subjects, classic cartoons, and in some cases theatrical trailers. For "Sylvia Scarlett," we get MGM's "Fitzpatrick TravelTalk" short, "Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West," eight minutes, 1935, in a faded Technicolor; the MGM "Happy Harmonies" cartoon "Alias St. Nick," ten minutes, also from 1935 and in excellent Technicolor; and twenty-six scene selections. Like the other titles in the collection, "Sylvia Scarlett" includes English as the only language and English and French subtitles. Some of the other discs also include French subtitles.
The six discs come packaged in a foldout, cardboard-and-plastic, digipack-type container, further enclosed in a clear-plastic outer slipcover. The foldout sleeves have movie information and chapter headings conveniently printed on them.
I wish there had been at least one great film in this set, which, after all, celebrates Katharine Hepburn's 100th anniversary. But it is not to be. Instead, the set treats us to six of her lesser efforts, which I fear only the dedicated Hepburn fan will want to own. Still, there are plenty of dedicated Hepburn fans out there, so I'm sure the collection will not go wanting. My film ratings are composite scores for all six films in the collection.