Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn 01This brief look into the life of one of our greatest actresses was written in association with the Biography television program and it has the feel of that breezy show as it reduces a great life into a few cogent points, concentrating instead on the mention of her films and stage appearances.

Hepburn was certainly an enigmatic personality.

Although her birth date remains in doubt to this day, it is reckoned that she was born in either May or November of 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to Dr. Tom Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing firm and Corning Glass Works).  Her father was a very strong conservative figure, who encouraged his children to take risks, but it was almost impossible to gain his good graces.  Her mother was rather liberal and was involved in the women’s rights movement in America from the earliest stages.  Kate grew up torn in two directions.

Her family had a history of suicides and biographer Holland hints that it may have been due to heredity, although the rigid, emotionless aspects of her father certainly hints at rebellion against convention.

Her older brother Tommy committed suicide while on a trip to New York with Kate, but the whole family glossed over it, almost as if it didn’t happen.  Kate’s family believed that you should never dwell on the past, but always look ahead to the future.  Planning and working were the things that you got you through life and that partly accounts for her optimistic views, healthy lifestyle, and prodigious work right up until her death in 1996.

Katharine Hepburn 02Much is made of her relationships, specifically with director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy.  Likening each of these men to father figures, the book ponders whether her lifelong obsession with pleasing her father didn’t spill over into her love life.  Both men were married and yet each carried on a 30 year love affair with Kate.  Tracy, it is stated, was the love of her life, but he would not divorce his wife because of his strict Catholic background.  He comes off very badly in this biography, as a bully who ruined Katharine’s career by insisting that she be at his beck and call.  When he went on drinking binges for days at a time, she would wait outside his door and tend to his needs.  Apparently, he did not live with his wife, but spent many years living in a Los Angeles hotel before retiring to guest house on George Cukor’s estate.

Many people may not realize that Katharine Hepburn had an extensive state career and was a failure at stage acting for many years because she always appeared to be so manic.  In middle and late years, she began to act Shakespeare, touring and playing a variety of roles, relaxing in her celebrity and doing very well.  She was a big hit in the Broadway musical Coco, even though she couldn’t sing.

During her career, she won four Academy Awards for Best Actress, even though critics constantly complained that she only played herself.  That is not unusual at all, even now, when most film actors don’t really act.  Since the early days of silent film, audiences have flocked to the theater to see the personalities, not to see them disappear into their characters.  Spencer Tracy did not even want to have any make-up applied at all.  But even though these celebrity actors play themselves, they are still able to carve out excellent performances from the force of their character and Hepburn did that in a great many of her films.

Katharine Hepburn 03She remained a health nut, swimming in icy Long Island Channel into her 80’s, cooking her own food, and staying true to herself.

Her films will certainly remain as classics long into the future.


 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford.  Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America.

 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.

 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.

Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford. Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America. For Ford, making such a film was a mea culpa for his entire career of westerns that depicted Native Americans as savages to be killed and driven off their land. Although I certainly approve of its historic context, it is definitely a movie with a lot of flaws.Cheyenne Autumn

The story concerns the remnants of the Cheyenne tribe who were relocated to Oklahoma from their native Montana. Ford, of course, relocates them to Monument Valley so he can capitalize on the scenery (almost every Ford western was shot in Monument Valley, which is part of the Navajo Nation). By 1878, most of the tribe had been decimated by starvation and small pox, so that the mighty group had been reduced to around 300 people, mostly women and children. Rather than watch the rest of the tribe die, they set off to return home, a trek of over 1,5000 miles, some on horse, but most on foot, and dogged by the U.S. Army most of the way.

The story is told from the perspective of Captain Thomas Archer, played mostly with restraint by Richard Widmark. He narrates the story, but Ford keeps his voice-overs spare, only filling what little detail is required for the story. There are times when he–and others in the cast–over-act and you know you’re watching a Hollywood movie. In point of fact, you always know you are watching a Hollywood movie. All of the extras are Navajo and they all speak in their native language rather than Cheyenne. And all of the Indian leaders are played by Anglo or Hispanic actors in make-up. Vying to replace the dying chief are Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) and Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban). Off to the side, Red Shirt (Sal Mineo) is attempting to steal Little Wolf’s second wife and generally making a hot-headed nuisance of himself.

The best performance in the movie is given by Carroll Baker as a Quaker school teacher who joins with the tribe on their journey north so that she can help take care of the children she’s been teaching. Edward G. Robinson is also quite good as the Secretary of the Interior.

The worst performance is given by the venerable Karl Malden as Captain Oscar Wessels, a commander who wears his German descent on his sleeve. Commanding Fort Robinson, where some of the Cheyenne have turned themselves in rather than starve along the road, he claims to have respect for the Indians, but at the same time he locks them up in a cabin without food or heat because they will not follow orders from back east to turn around and return their reservation in Oklahoma (Monument Valley). These conflicting emotions in the Captain lead to a great deal of theatrical histrionics that really take away from the film.

Epic in proportion, it is nearly three hours in length. There is much that should have been cut before the film was released, but at that point in his career, Ford had a little too much clout. The entire sequence with James Stewart as Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy as Doc Holliday, and John Carradine as Major Blair should have been cut, despite the star power. Stewart looks bored, playing Earp as a half-sotted poker addict. The extremely long scene meanders and does nothing but distract from the movie. Plus, there’s at least another 45 minutes that could have been cut elsewhere to improve the film.

On the DVD that I watched, there was also a pretty good special feature. James Stewart narrates a documentary film in which three members of the Cheyenne tribe, presumably in 1964 or 1965, drive along the route of the Cheyenne Trail, retracing the steps of their ancestors in an RV. It gives an interesting perspective on the tribe with nearly a 100 year distance between them and their epic walk.

Although the film has historical importance–and sometimes it’s just fun to watch a hammy old Hollywood western–it really isn’t very good. So, if you’re going to watch it, put aside three hours, make a big bowl of popcorn, and understand what’s coming up on the screen. Have fun!