If you asked me to choose my favourite film actress of all time, it would be something of a toss-up between Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Both had long and distinguished careers and both survived sticky patches when their star had faded. With Davis this came late in the day concurrent with the demise of the studio system, but with Hepburn it was early on. After winning an Oscar for her third role in "Morning Glory" (1933) and her magnificent turn in that year's "Little Women", she fell from favour and her films were deemed 'box office poison' until the success of "Philadelphia Story" (1941). This is despite the fact that some of her most charming and memorable films were actually made during this period: "Alice Adams", "Sylvia Scarlett", and "Bringing up Baby" to name but a few.
It is hard to remember that this esteemed actress who died at the ripe old age of 96, who appeared in pictures through her eighties, and whose fame remains, both through her many memorable roles and her fascinating relationship with Spencer Tracy, was so unpopular in Hollywood in the late 1930s that she decamped to Broadway for several years. Two of her films from that period which I watched recently may explain this strange dichotomy:
The Little Minister (1934): This story was something of a warhorse when the film was made since it is based on a 1891 novel from J.M. Barrie which was originally made into a stage play in 1897. In it Hepburn plays an aristocratic lady who frolics through the Scottish countryside in gypsy garb upsetting the locals. The new minister John Beal who has arrived with his overly mothering mother, Beryl Mercer, is soon enraptured of her charms to the chagrin of the local community. Despite an appealing turn from Hepburn and a lovely Max Steiner score, the twee plot and tender sentimentality would probably also alienate moviegoers today. It is therefore not difficult to understand why Depression-era audiences found it a slight, over-extended, and uninvolving folly. However for a viewer like yours truly, the high production values and the contribution of the supporting cast, including Alan Hale, Donald Crisp, and many more familiar faces, adds to the pleasure of a role where Hepburn is playfully enjoying herself.
A Woman Rebels (1936): This early feminist tract would almost certainly not have gone down terribly well with film audiences when it was released, but it is typical of the many emancipated roles that Hepburn embraced during this period, ones which seem brave and meaningful some seventy-odd years on. In this film, set in the Victorian era, Hepburn and her sister are at the mercy of their widowed martinet father, another fine turn from Donald Crisp. While her younger sister is happy with an arranged marriage, the willful Hepburn embarks on a mad fling with young nobleman Van Heflin (in his debut film role), ending up pregnant and alone when it turns out that he is already married. Through various plot contrivances, her sister dies of grief after her husband's death, and Hepburn ends up supposedly raising 'their' child to avoid society's shame. She also pushes ahead in the workplace, taking jobs not suitable for a lady, and ends up as the fiery author of popular feminist manifestos. As her daughter reaches adulthood, circumstances contrive for past sins to raise their ugly head, but with the support of her faithful suitor, the ever-debonair Herbert Marshall, Hepburn triumphs in adversity. This is not quite as easy a film to warm to as the make-believe-gypsy extravaganza, but Hepburn never gives less than a feisty and believable performance.
Hepburn was not quite the Meryl Streep of her day, but the comparison has some merit. Although not Oscar-nominated quite as often as La Streep, she did actually win four Oscars -- three of which were late in her career (so there is still time for Meryl). Thinking back on her filmography, Hepburn too was tempted by a range of 'funny' accents, but her generally aristocratic bearing and sense of fun always managed to shine through. Box Office poison be damned!