Monday, May 24, 2010
1932. Making her film debut with the legendary John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement, Connecticut born and bred Katharine Hepburn was set on a path for screen stardom. Within a year of her auspicious Hollywood entrée, she starred in the first of her four Academy Award winning roles (Morning Glory) as well as one of the most recognized and popular films of the decade (Little Women). She was the darling of her home studio, RKO, and her continued success seemed inevitable. But unlike her contemporaries, she refused to play the Tinsel Town game. She abhorred interviews and rebuffed reporters (when asked by one newsperson if she and then husband Ludlow Ogden Smith had any children, her unorthodox reply was: “Two white and three colored”). Her disdain for makeup and wearing of pants and masculine attire was seen as too independent for public taste and she was tagged by some with the moniker “Katharine of Arrogance“. She went back to the stage on her native East coast, for the not very well received The Lake. When she returned to Hollywood, RKO cast her in Alice Adams (1935) for which she received yet another Oscar nomination, but the accolades were short lived.
In 1936, Hepburn made Sylvia Scarlett with Cary Grant and Brian Aherne, in which the non-stereotypical actress played a woman who is disguised as a young man. The RKO oddity cost Kate a big chunk of her reputation and the studio a big chunk of change (The film lost a whopping $363,000 in Depression-era dollars). Her period costume dramas of the mid-30’s, including Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels (both 1936) and Quality Street (1937), were flops as well, the latter two losing almost a quarter of a million dollars each at the box office. The public was staying away from Hepburn pictures in droves.
There seemed to be a ray of hope with the modest success of Stage Door (1937). The film paired the haughty Hepburn with Ginger Rogers, who, commercially, was a much more popular star and lucrative commodity for the studio. As Hepburn’s status at RKO plummeted, Rogers’ simultaneous skyrocketed. Still, the sparkling and intelligent comedy based on the Edna Ferber - George S. Kauffman hit play, didn’t hit the mark RKO execs had aimed for, bringing in only $81,000 in profits.
Desperate for a Hepburn hit and with fingers crossed, the studio cast her in a comedy, based on the humble financial success of Stage Door. Again paired with Cary Grant, who had just made a comic breakthrough of his own with The Awful Truth, the actress starred in Bringing Up Baby, the story of a man, a woman and a leopard named Baby. As inane as it sounded, that was the stuff of screwball comedies in the 1930’s. In retrospect, Bringing Up Baby is considered by some, one of the premiere classic comedies of its time (an opinion not personally shared by this blogger, but that is for another post), but in 1938 it was a box office disaster, losing $365,000, and when RKO slated Hepburn’s next film to be the standard programmer Mother Carey’s Chickens, the actress saw the writing on the wall. She bought out her contract for just over $200,000 and left the studio, with whom she had become synonymous.
Then the final blow was dealt. On May 3, 1938, a full page ad appeared in The Hollywood Reporter from the Independent Theater Owners of America lambasting studios and producers for promoting stars “whose public appeal is negligible ~ receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations”. Along with Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Kay Francis and Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn made this list. The statement went on to label those mentioned as “box office poison”. On that very day, RKO made the public announcement that it had parted ways with Kate Hepburn.
In the heart of the “box office poison” fiasco, two significant career factors occurred. The first film released since the Reporter ad, Holiday (1938), paired her yet again with Cary Grant. It had been made before she left RKO, on loan-out to Columbia, where Grant had seen his enormous success with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. Disappointment again hit home, as Holiday, although liked by critics, sank with the masses. The public was just tired of Katharine Hepburn. Then there was talk of the actress as a strong contender for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the upcoming filmization of Margaret Mitchell’s hugely popular novel Gone With The Wind. Supposedly, Hepburn offered herself as a last minute replacement should the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, not have the part cast in time, but according to one of Selznick’s infamous memos, Kate’s box office standing and lack of sufficient sex appeal did little for the advancement of her cause. Says Selznick: “…because I think Hepburn has two strikes against her ~ first, the unquestionable and very wide-spread intense public dislike of her at the moment, and second, the fact that she is yet to demonstrate that she possesses the sex qualities which are probably the most important of all the many requisites of Scarlett….”
Heading back east, the frustrated actress spent the summer of 1938 in Connecticut with her family. Later that year, playwright Philip Barry approached Hepburn with a play he’d written with her in mind. It was called The Philadelphia Story and it was tailor-made for the cool actress. Retaining the film rights to the play (via her paramour Howard Hughes), she made a huge comeback in Hollywood in 1940 when MGM bought the rights to The Philadelphia Story (along with Miss Hepburn’s services, thank you). She remained a major star for the rest of her life, but she was never to forget her time as “box office poison” either.