Eight Favorites from Kate the Great


A fierce and brilliant woman, Katharine Hepburn was a thorough original. She turned Hollywood upside down with her unapologetic attitude, her eccentric personality, and her closet full of pants. It’s safe to say that the filmmaking industry hasn’t been the same since. Any actor would be lucky to have a career such as Hepburn’s, not to mention the honors. Her four Academy Award wins are still the record for any performer. The longevity of her work is astounding. Over the course of 60-plus years, she did 44 feature films, 8 television movies, and appeared on the stage in every decade between the 1920s and the 1980s, amassing 33 plays.

From the biggest gestures to the most subtle, Hepburn revealed an intrinsic authenticity and a distinctive style. She wasn’t simply a personality — she was an honest-to-goodness actress, and a remarkable one at that. She practically gave off sparks whenever she entered a scene, and it’s a struggle to keep your eyes off of her regardless of who else is on the screen with her.

Below you'll find eight of my very favorite Kate films in no particular order.


Bringing Up Baby (1938)

You don’t know the meaning of the word “wild” until you’ve seen a screwball comedy, specifically Bringing Up Baby, the craziest one of them all. When Cary Grant’s stuffy paleontologist meets Hepburn’s flighty heiress, it’s disaster for Grant but love at first sight for Hepburn. This film has everything: a clueless sheriff, a leopard named Baby, Grant and Hepburn singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to said leopard, pratfalls, a dinosaur bone, a mischievous dog, the excellent direction of Howard Hawks, and so much more. They seriously don’t make ’em like this anymore.


Holiday (1938)

Another 1938 classic from Kate and Cary, Holiday is a romantic dramedy that focuses on such heady themes as class, personal freedom, and unconditional love. It doesn't get bogged down by these big concepts, though, thanks to George Cukor's fine direction, its sharp script, and its exceptional performances, including superb supporting roles from Edward Everett Horton and Lew Ayres. Providing the film with its wounded heart are Hepburn and Grant, whose characters endure disappointment after disappointment before realizing that true happiness lies in following what, and who, you love.

You can read my full review here.


Alice Adams (1935)

Although Hepburn is the epitome of resilience and strength, she wasn’t afraid to show her intense vulnerability. One of the earliest examples of this is Alice Adams. Hepburn plays the eponymous character, a young woman who is painfully aware of her struggling family’s class status. All Alice wants is to be treated with decency and respect, to have some kind of social mobility. Instead, she is ostracized and laughed at — until she catches the eye of wealthy Arthur Russell, played with easy charm by Fred MacMurray. Will Alice find what she is looking for, or will her ambition and desperation get the best of her? Hepburn’s performance is heartbreaking. With each cringeworthy mistake and mortifying moment, you feel yourself aching for Alice, making the film’s ending all the sweeter.


Adam’s Rib (1949)

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made for one of cinema’s finest onscreen pairings. Meanwhile, offscreen, they shared a romance that continues to fascinate to this day, partly because it seemed to contradict Hepburn’s image as the self-sufficient single woman. Here was a woman who had a marvelous career that satisfied her, and one day she stumbled into this improbable relationship that completely threw her head over heels for almost three decades. In all of their films, Hepburn and Tracy’s affection and respect for one another shines through, creating an equality between their characters that elevated even the most trite of material.

Their best film, in my opinion, is Adam’s Rib, a witty comedy about married lawyers Amanda and Adam Bonner who are on opposite sides of an attempted murder case. Nowhere is Hepburn and Tracy’s chemistry more apparent than here, thanks to their characters’ playful and passionate interactions with one another. What also makes this movie noteworthy is Judy Holliday’s scene-stealing defendant and the thought-provoking, hilarious script by spouses Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.


Without Love (1945)

One of Tracy and Hepburn’s least well-known films, Without Love is a gently sweet WWII comedy about a military scientist (Tracy) who enters into a marriage of convenience with a widow (Hepburn). Whereas Tracy has only experienced bad luck with love, Hepburn still cherishes her deceased husband and their wonderful marriage. Both are intent on focusing on Tracy’s important work for the war effort, but they slowly discover that there is more to their relationship than they realized. Second leads Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn add to the fun with their lively banter and cute romance, making Without Love sparkle all the more.


Desk Set (1957)

Desk Set is notable for a lot of things — it was Kate and Spence’s first color film together, their first CinemaScope film, and their first film away from MGM; it focuses on computers taking over the workplace, foreshadowing today’s landscape; it’s directed by Walter Lang, the king of colorful, breezy pictures; the script was written by Nora’s parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron; and it features Joan Blondell! That last tidbit is important because in my book, Blondell is a queen and seeing her pal around with Hepburn makes you wish they had made at least twenty films together.

Research librarian Bunny Watson is one of Hepburn’s most delightful roles. The film’s best scene is arguably when Tracy’s oddball engineer Richard Sumner asks Bunny a series of challenging questions during a lackluster lunch in cold, windy weather. It’s a scenario that is meant to throw Bunny off her game as Richard tries to assess her capabilities, but to his surprise, she aces the test with flying colors. It’s an indelible moment that beautifully demonstrates what made Tracy and Hepburn such an iconic twosome.

You can read my full review here.


Stage Door (1937)

A snappy comedy-drama with a mostly female cast, Stage Door is simply divine. It tells the story of a group of aspiring actresses who live in the same New York boardinghouse as they vie for fame and fortune — or at least a decent meal. The list of actresses in this film is jaw-dropping: Ann Miller (adorable), Lucille Ball (sassy perfection), Eve Arden (magnificent), Gail Patrick (pure insolence), Andrea Leeds (so shattering)… All of these women are fantastic, but what brings this movie to another level is Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Separately, they’re terrific. Together, they’re electric. Filled with razor-sharp one-liners, poignant tragedy, and splendid performances, Stage Door is a tremendous film and a testament to the power of female friendship.


The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Without a doubt, this is the quintessential Katharine Hepburn film. Socialite Tracy Lord was one of her finest creations, partly because it was written expressly for her by playwright Philip Barry. Tracy is a complex creature. Her impossible high standards have made her tough and unforgiving, yet there is still a warm and caring woman underneath, a woman who is searching for love and acceptance herself.

On the eve of her wedding to prim and proper George (John Howard), Tracy’s world is forever changed when her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) strolls back into her life, bringing reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) with him. What ensues is a complicated love quadrangle, fueled by champagne, moonlit dancing, and a lot of bittersweet romantic history.

I can’t even begin to tell you just how good this movie is. In addition to George Cukor’s great direction and Donald Ogden Stewart’s Oscar-winning screenplay, The Philadelphia Story boasts masterful performances from Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart, who won his sole competitive Oscar for this film.


Bonus: The Dick Cavett Show

In 1973, the unthinkable happened: Katharine Hepburn, one of the most elusive stars alive, agreed to be interviewed by Dick Cavett. What followed was classic Kate as she showed up for rehearsal and then decided they should just tape the interview right then and there. She was bossy, clever, funny, insightful, and self-deprecating. She rearranged Cavett’s set. Amazingly, she stayed for two hours instead of the requisite one. And all throughout it, Cavett looks like he can’t believe his luck. You can watch the interview, in two parts, here and here.

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This is my contribution to the Second Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by myself and Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. You can check out many more marvelous tributes to this incredible duo here!

Comments

  1. You have accomplished something I believed impossible; you have convinced me to give Without Love another try after 20 years.

    I don't know how a list of Kate faves would shake out for me, but I know I would have to make room for Long Day's Journey Into Night and Summertime. Who knows what else would come to mind and I would have to keep starting over and over again. I don't know how you managed it, but you managed it wonderfully.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, wow! I hope you enjoy revisiting it. I know for me it took more than one viewing to appreciate it.

      I haven't seen Long Day's Journey into Night yet, but that's probably because I keep waiting for it to pop up on TCM and it's not something they play often. Summertime is one I need to see again. I saw it once and liked it well enough, but I also remember doing chores around the house while it was on, so I definitely didn't give it the attention it deserves.

      Thanks, Paddy!

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  2. Regarding DESK SET I too am a fan of JOAN BLONDELL. I also like GIG YOUNG who is in the movie.

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  3. I am the one who mentioned JOAN BLONDELL and GIG YOUNG. I forgot to put my handle-Classic TV Fan

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    1. Joan Blondell is the best. I like Gig Young a lot, too, although I often don't like the characters he played. Both of them are terrific in Desk Set.

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  4. Many of these are not only my favorite Hepburn films but my favorite films period. Although she was in a few stinkers, Hepburn always brought her A-game to every role she played. I love her unique blend of onscreen strength and vulnerability.

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    1. Agreed! A lot of these films are my absolute favorites, too, and a big reason is Kate. She's definitely my favorite actress for a reason (well, a million reasons).

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  5. I love Bringing Up Baby!!! It is so great. I saw one Hepburn and Tracy movie once, and I liked it but didn't know what it was. But, I think that it was Desk Set!

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    1. Bringing Up Baby is just wonderful. It's so unlike any other film. Desk Set is a lot of fun as well. Both films are actually great showcases for what a fine comedienne Kate was.

      Thanks for reading!

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  6. Wonderful list Michaela! I must admit, I still have to see Alice Adams and Without Love!

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    1. Thanks, Virginie! I think you'd really enjoy those two. They're such charming films.

      And I haven't forgotten to read your contribution to the blogathon! I've just gotten sidetracked with a million other things, but I'll head over there right now and check it out.

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  7. Marvelous list! Like you, I also can't put Kate's films in order of preference, because there are so many so good. And I also wish she and Joan Blondell had made more films together!
    Thanks for co-hosting this fun event!
    Kisses!

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    1. Thanks, Lê! Who knew Joan and Kate would make such a great pair? Their scenes in Desk Set are just too perfect.

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  8. When I first heard of Katharine Hepburn, I looked her up because I thought she and Audrey Hepburn were related somehow. That is a common misconception and is not the case! LOL She seems like a great actress though.

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    1. She is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent. And I thought the same thing when I first discovered them. Hepburn just seemed like too unique a name for it to be a coincidence, haha.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete

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