Katharine Hepburn, the subject of a two-week retrospective beginning today at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, began to impress and puzzle the moviegoing world in 1932, when she made her film debut in “A Bill of Divorcement,” inheriting the role played on Broadway by Katharine Cornell.
David O. Selznick, who recruited the 25-year-old Miss Hepburn when he was supervising production at RKO in 1932, evoked the initial surrender in one of his famous memos. “We needed new stars at RKO,” he recounted. “The world knows that startling Hepburn face now, but when she first appeared on the lot there was consternation. ‘Ye gods, that horse face!’ they cried. When the first rushes were shown, the gloom around the studio was so heavy you could cut it with a knife. Not until the preview was the staff convinced we had a great screen personality.”
Hollywood was sufficiently bedazzled to vote Miss Hepburn an early Academy Award as best actress in 1933 for “Morning Glory,” in which she played a self-infatuated ingenue named Eve Lovelace, eager to be all things to all people in pursuit of a theater career. The actress acknowledged that this bundle of incandescent affectations was influenced to a considerable extent by the stage presence of Ruth Gordon, who was destined to become a friend and invaluable collaborator. Miss Gordon and husband Garson Kanin wrote two of the best co-starring vehicles for Miss Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike.”
Mr. Kanin also favored posterity with an anecdote about the first meeting of Miss Hepburn and Mr. Tracy at MGM, before they co-starred in “Woman of the Year.” In the memoir “Tracy and Hepburn,” the original Kanin account begins, “She looked Spencer over, tip to toe, as though she were considering buying him. Then she smiled her friendliest smile and said, ‘You’re rather short, aren’t you?’”
The rejoinder came not from the shortish Mr. Tracy, but from a third party, the film’s producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz: “Don’t worry, honey. He’ll cut you down to size.”
There’s no denying that Miss Hepburn paved the way for a cinematic comeuppance. “Woman of the Year” seems to have been reformulated so that the arrogance of her character would be punished in no uncertain terms. In fact, the punishment is so laborious and implausible — a slapstick demonstration of incompetence in the kitchen — that it almost ruins a wonderful movie.
It wasn’t the first time Miss Hepburn paid an outrageous price for make-believe snobbery. Indeed, the domestic purgatory reserved for “Woman of the Year” has never made much sense to me because it already had been demonstrated — in “Little Women,” “Alice Adams,” “Stage Door,” “Holiday,” “The Philadelphia Story” and even “Bringing Up Baby” — that she could appear perfectly housebroken without being compelled to fumble over a hot stove.
The AFI series has 15 titles, including a pair of special cases from the early 1970s: Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” filmed as part of the American Film Theatre subscription series, and “Love Among the Ruins,” a TV movie that united an elderly Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier under George Cukor’s direction.
Also scheduled: three showings of “The African Queen” and “Bringing Up Baby,” the greatest middle-aged love story ever filmed and one of the greatest screwball comedies, respectively.
With its three auditoriums, the AFI Silver enjoys enviable flexibility. The deaths of Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn each resulted in prompt retrospectives that might have been difficult to arrange for a single auditorium at the Kennedy Center. There’s a lot to be said for a repertory format that can keep several programs running simultaneously and still respond to the unexpected.