Late one night, many years ago (around 1993), I caught On Golden Pond on TV when nothing else was on. I had no plans to watch it, but ended up sucked into the family story of 3 generations trying to resolve longstanding issues and conflicts before it’s too late. But one scene in particular started a new, sometimes obsessive, interest I still have to this day. Katharine Hepburn, as Ethel Thayer, spotted her husband and daughter’s step-son stranded in the cold water clinging to rocks after a boat accident. Without hesitation, she leapt from her boat and swam to assist the stranded man and boy. Who was this older woman saving the men!? Of course, I knew of Katharine Hepburn but I hadn’t seen any of her other movies and didn’t know anything about her. I dug through mum’s book collection and pulled out Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me. The combination of watching On Golden Pond and reading Me started me on a new path of discovery. Katharine Hepburn became my favourite actress (she still is) and created an interest in the golden age of Hollywood that has also stayed with me. It led me to learn about and become a fan of other glamourous actresses of the era, like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, and their movies. But none more than Kate Hepburn. Daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, she was a strong, independent, classy, confident, outspoken, pants-wearing woman who refused to let her gender stop her from doing anything.
Katharine Hepburn produced a huge catalogue of film work. Some of it is completely awesome, some is terrible and the rest hovers in the middle. But her screen presence and brilliant performances make them all worth watching. So, on what would have been her 110th birthday, let’s look back at some of my very favourite Hepburn movies. For me, these films demonstrate the qualities that made her the movie star and the woman she was – courage, humour, self respect, self awareness, tenacity and confidence. Are these films of their time? They sure are, but we could do with more women like Katharine Hepburn right now.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant
Director: Howard Hawks
Katharine is spunky, endearing, silly and hilarious in Bringing Up Baby. This movie is an absolute delight. Nearly 80 years since its release it remains witty and hilarious. Hepburn plays Susan, an heiress making life difficult for an uptight zoology professor, David (Cary Grant), while he tries to complete a dinosaur project at his museum. A flop when it was released, this is a crazy and fun early entry in the Screwball Comedy genre. Susan has a leopard (Baby), David’s boring fiancé is Miss Swallow, and David, dressed in a woman’s nightgown after a series of hilarious hijinks, screams “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” An absolute classic.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Dabney Coleman
Director: Mark Rydell
Kate took home her final (4th) Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Ethel Thayer. Ethel and her cranky husband (Henry Fonda) visit their holiday house on Golden Pond for what could be the last time. Their daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), arrives with her new fiancé and his son, Billy. Chelsea and her father have a difficult relationship and his new bond with Billy brings up old wounds and insecurities. A story about aging, family and forgiveness, this movie produced amazing performances from the 3 leads and proved age is no barrier to winning an Oscar. Henry Fonda also won for this film, his 1st Best Actor Academy Award.
Stage Door (1937)
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball
Director: Gregory LaCava
I’m pretty sure I know this movie word for word. I never get bored with the shenanigans of the aspiring Broadway actresses boarding at the Footlights Club. Witty, funny, fast-paced dialogue between haughty newcomer Terry Randall (Hepburn) and her nemesis Jean (Ginger Rogers) still shines today. Some of it is a bit melodramatic (cue the conclusion to the Kay storyline) but this movie is just good fun with a brilliant cast. “The calla lillies are in bloom again”.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
Director: George Cukor
It would be difficult to find a film Hepburn shines in more than this one. It was based on a play, of the same name, written for her by her friend Phillip Barry. She starred in the play to revitalise her career after a series of film flops, it was a smash hit and she acquired the rights to the film. Socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is set to marry George Kittredge, a rather straight-laced boring man who idolises Tracy. Undercover magazine reporters Mike (James Stewart) and Liz turn up to cover the wedding. Tracy’s ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) also crashes the wedding for his own reasons. Romance blossoms between Tracy and Mike, until she starts to accept some home truths.
The African Queen (1951)
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart
Director: John Huston
This much-loved Hepburn and Bogart collaboration set during the beginning of World War 1 was destined to be a classic, with the legendary lead stars and director filming on location in Africa. Hepburn plays a British Christian missionary, Rose, and Bogart is Charlie, a drunk with a river boat. When the Germans raid the village, Rose and Charlie escape on his boat, The African Queen. Along the way, they battle the conditions and each other.
Woman of the Year (1942). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy. Director: George Cukor
Adam’s Rib (1949). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy. Director: George Cukor
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Ross. Director: Stanley Kramer
Desk Set (1957). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy. Director: Walter Lang
Little Women (1933). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett. Director: George Cukor
Holiday (1938). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Director: George Cukor
What are your favourite Katharine Hepburn movies?