The Man Who Discovered Katharine Hepburn

PostToday was the hottest day of the year so far in New York City, but I’m suddenly feeling nostalgic for the holidays – not for the cold weather, but for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s epic, fifty-film George Cukor series.

From December 13 through January 7, the Film Society presented every film Cukor directed, from THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (1930) through RICH AND FAMOUS (1981). All except one were screened on celluloid, including two TV movies the director made late in his career: LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (1975) and THE CORN IS GREEN (1979), both with longtime collaborator Katharine Hepburn. In a creative partnership that lasted nearly half a century, Cukor and Hepburn made some of the legendary actress’ most enduring films, including HOLIDAY (1938) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) with Cary Grant and ADAM’S RIB (1949) and PAT AND MIKE (1953) with Spencer Tracy.

Cukor“He discovered Katharine Hepburn,” filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich said of Cukor, before a screening of ADAM’S RIB at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on December 14. “She came to read for him for a picture called A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) and he said she wasn’t terribly good. She was strange; nobody had ever seen anything quite like her.”

But Cukor, a New York native who made the transition from Broadway directing to Hollywood when the movies started to talk, saw something unique in the 25-year-old stage actress from Connecticut.

“At one point she had to put a glass down, but there was no table nearby, so she had to put it on the floor. (Cukor) said she did it with her whole body,” Bogdanovich reported. “And this little gesture, the way she put the glass down, convinced him to give her the part.”

GrantAfter DIVORCEMENT, Cukor again cast Hepburn in LITTLE WOMEN (1933) and SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), both adapted from popular novels. The latter was the first of four big screen team-ups with Hepburn and Grant – all but one (Howard Hawks’ BRINGING UP BABY) directed by Cukor. Hepburn plays the eponymous SYLVIA, a grifter’s daughter who disguises herself as a boy to evade the authorities. Grant is Jimmy Mokely, a Cockney con-man.

“(Cukor) was the first one to give Cary Grant a shot at being a real character in SYLVIA SCARLETT,” Bogdanovich said. “He was known as a ‘woman’s director’ because he directed women so well, but he also directed men very well. He really knew how to talk to actors. Every Cukor film boasts wonderful performances.”

Annex - Grant, Cary (Holiday)_04For me, Hepburn and Grant delivered two of the most deeply felt performances Cukor ever brought to the screen in HOLIDAY, the second screen adaptation of Philip Barry’s 1928 stage play. (Barry also wrote the play upon which THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was based.) In HOLIDAY, Hepburn is rebellious debutante Linda Seton, with Grant as Johnny Case, the free-thinking dreamer who has fallen for her snooty sister Julia (Doris Nolan). Edward Everett Horton plays Nick, Johnny’s friend and accomplice, in both the 1930 original and Cukor’s remake, and Lew Ayres is a standout as Ned, Linda and Julia’s drunken brother. While THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is better known, and beloved by everyone who appreciates classic movies (myself included), I prefer the extraordinary emotional realism of HOLIDAY. And I’m apparently in good company.

“(HOLIDAY is) my favorite Cukor film and probably one of my five favorite films of all time,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful romantic comedies ever made. It will make you feel like you’re walking on air.”

In addition to their working relationship, Cukor shared a friendship with Hepburn and her on- and off-screen partner Spencer Tracy, who as Bogdanovich put it, “lived together, mainly in George Cukor’s guesthouse.”

adams rib 1“Hepburn and Tracy made nine pictures together. The two that they made with Cukor, ADAM’S RIB and PAT AND MIKE, are the two best ones in their career,” he added.

Both films are battle-of-the sexes comedies co-written by the husband and wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and both were recognized with Academy Award nominations. Kanin and Gordon were also nominated for Cukor’s A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), which won Ronald Coleman an Oscar for Best Actor.

“(Kanin and Gordon) deal with male and female relations in a very interesting way,” Bogdanovich said. “ADAM’S RIB is one of the most eloquent examples of the plea for equality between men and women, the fact that they’re different, but the same, in terms of value.”

More than sixty years later, ADAM’S RIB feels contemporary in its portrayal of a married prosecutor (Tracy) and defense attorney (Hepburn) who lock horns over a wronged woman (Judy Holliday) accused of trying to stop her husband’s cheating with a gun. And there’s some prescient social satire in the film’s climax.

“The way it ends, you think, ‘Well this was made in 1949. Certainly, within a few years everything will be okay.’” Bogdanovich said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”

GreenHepburn spent more than a quarter of a century in a romantic relationship with Tracy, while Tracy (a Catholic) was married to someone else. Cukor, who was known to be gay, had a thriving directorial career that continued until a year before his death in 1983. The fact that all three were allowed to live their lives in privacy in Hollywood is practically unfathomable, especially in today’s gossip-obsessed media landscape.

“The press didn’t write about it, nobody touched it. I was discussing that with George (near the end of his life) and he said, ‘Well, things have changed, haven’t they?’” Bogdanovich lamented. “It was a better time, I think. Certainly it was an easier time to be a celebrity.”

SYLVIA SCARLETT and THE CORN IS GREEN are available to watch instantly on Warner Archive Instant subscription video-on-demand service. You can sign up for a free two-week trial here. Special thanks to Margaret Perry for inviting me to contribute to The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. You can find links to all of the contributions at her website. You can read my coverage of Candice Bergen’s appearance at the Film Society of Lincoln Center screening of Cukor’s final film, RICH AND FAMOUS (1981), here

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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15 Responses to The Man Who Discovered Katharine Hepburn

  1. I like what he says about Hepburn and Tracy being different but having the same value. Very true. I also love HOLIDAY – it always lights a fire under my butt whenever I feel I’ve stopped dreaming. Cukor is really one of the best directors, because he lets the actors and characters build the story. Wonderful. Thanks for writing a post for the blogathon, Will!

  2. Lola says:

    YES! I am in full agreement that “Holiday” is one of the best performances of Hepburn… and Grant. I believe they pushed each other right to the line of romantic comedy and into a emotional depictation of women’s individualism before those ideas were being glossed over with laughter in a dark theatre. Their physical comedy in tandem, the acrobatic scene must have seemed like kismet for Cukor. And in that gorgeous black gown! Great post of one of my “mentors”. Thanks, Will.

    • willmckinley says:

      Well said, Jackie. I love Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn as a couple, but I don’t like them in BRINGING UP BABY, because I don’t believe them. I find the whole enterprise to be overly contrived. I do like them in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, but I don’t think they’re going to be very happy together in the long run. In HOLIDAY, these two string personalities allow their vulnerabilities to show, and it makes them both extraordinarily attractive.

      Like you, I also like the protofeminism at the core of HOLIDAY. That’s at the core of so many of my favorite Hepburn films, but especially her work with Cukor.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Great post, as always, Will! HOLIDAY is such a wonderful film, and I love the Shakespearean vibe of SYLVIA SCARLETT.

  4. Holiday is the perfect cure for a bad day. Leah

  5. Kelly says:

    Holiday was on last night on GETTV for Mother day

    Going back to Kate career

    I don’t think Hollyweird don’t know what to do with her least they found her film in George Cukor rest was history

  6. girlsdofilm says:

    For me, Cukor’s great strength was his ability to address bigger social issues through comedy and (occasionally) some romance. Sometimes I’m still surprised at how forward-thinking some of the ideas discussed in Adam’s Rib are.

    • willmckinley says:

      Yes, essentially the whole plot of PAT AND MIKE is about the mid-20th Century acceptance of the concept that men fundamentally controlled women in every stage of their lives: parenting, the workplace, and dating/marriage. Even though that script (and ADAM’S RIB) was written by Kanin and Gordon, it still bears the imprint of Cukor (and Hepburn). Thanks for the comment.

  7. Great post! I too prefer Holiday over The Philadelphia Story :)

  8. Wonderful post! Thoroughly enjoyed it, thanks!

  9. Sandro says:

    Fantantic blog. Congrats!!

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