By the time Judge Ian Visser is 100 years old, films will be miniaturized into nutritious pill form. Mmmmm...that's tasty noir!
Katharine Hepburn at 100.
Commemorating the 100th birthday of four-time Academy Award-winner Katharine Hepburn, Warner Bros. has released a collection of six of her lesser-known films. No mere re-packaging, the set represents the first time any of these films have been made available on DVD. Has Warner Bros. done justice to the legacy of Ms. Hepburn, or is this merely a quick cash-in?
Facts of the Case
Six films are included in the Katharine Hepburn Collection:
Morning Glory: Eva Lovelace (Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond) arrives in the offices of stage promoter Lewis Easton (Adolphe Menjou, Paths of Glory) full of desire and determination, but also with a newcomer's naiveté and ignorance. Eva desperately wants to become an actress but faces steep odds in a business that has seen many girls come and go. Through a mix of willpower and good luck Eva may eventually make it to the top. Will it be the life as she has always dreamed of, or will success be tempered with a bitter dose of reality?
Sylvia Scarlett: Sylvia is a young girl living in Marseilles, France. Following the sudden death of her mother, Sylvia is forced to flee to England with her gambler father (Edmund Gwenn, Of Human Bondage) who has defaulted on his debts. The catch? Sylvia has to disguise herself as a young boy to evade their pursuers. En route, the pair makes the acquaintance of one Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant, To Catch a Thief), who persuades the father and "son" to join him on the grift, conning folks out of their money. After a drunken binge the trio decides to hit the road as a touring show company, eventually meeting a handsome artist (Brian Aherne, Skylark). Sylvia is attracted to the young man but must decide if she will reveal her true identity to him.
Without Love: Pat Jamieson (Spencer Tracy, Judgment at Nuremberg) is desperate to find a place in Washington to continue his research on an oxygen mask for fighter pilots. Unable to find lodging or work space, he agrees to a loveless marriage with Jamie Rowan (Katharine Hepburn, Rooster Cogburn), a patriotic woman with a large country house and a friendly disposition. Jaime admires the work of the scientist and soon joins Pat as his assistant. As their work progresses, so does a mutual interest and affection. However, each has a former paramour who re-enters the picture, and it will require some delicate maneuverings to unite the couple in love as well as law.
Dragon Seed: The most disappointing effort in the set, Dragon Seed requires something of an open-mind to endure. Hepburn and her co-stars are Chinese farmers who find their lives and livelihood threatened during the war with Japan, and each member of the family must determine how they will react to and survive to the vicious invasion. While notable for a narration by Lionel Barrymore (Key Largo), the film will likely startle some viewers with its portrayal of Asian roles by Caucasian actors. It is a largely dreary and depressing film and will probably be the least accessible of the set for casual viewers.
Undercurrent: Remember in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion when it turned out that the mysterious Cary Grant wasn't really trying to kill his wife after all? Well, if only Ann Hamilton (Katharine Hepburn, Little Women) could be so lucky. Unfortunately for her, no-good hubby Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor, The Last Hunt) really is trying to bump her off. The only noir picture Hepburn acted in, Undercurrent is a chilling film that holds the viewer in its clutches for almost the entire run-time. The appearance of Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear) cast against type as the murderous man's brother only adds to the star power of this film, making it the best effort of the collection.
The Corn is Green: A pleasant surprise for this collection, The Corn is Green was shot in 1979 and represents a rare television appearance for Hepburn. The film features Hepburn as Lilly Moffat, a Welsh village spinster who discovers that a local ruffian (Ian Saynor, Screamtime) just might have the makings of a university student. It is simple story that your mom or grandmother will probably enjoy, coupled with a somewhat pat ending. It is the sole color film in the collection and is also the only film from this period of Hepburn's career included in the set.
If the Katharine Hepburn Collection can be summarized in one blurb, it's this: great acting, largely mediocre films. The majority of these films were shot during the studio era, when actors, directors, and writers banged out films in rapid succession to maintain a steady flow of product. Although there were often stand-out efforts during this period, the majority of the films produced were designed more as commercial efforts than art. The result of this situation is a collection of Hepburn films from the 1930s and 1940s that are more likely to be endured than enjoyed at times. None of the assembled films would strike even a casual fan as any of Hepburn's finest, to the point that the set almost feels like a collection of also-rans. While these are still entertaining and often interesting efforts (most notably Undercurrent and Morning Glory), it's unlikely many of these films would have endured the test of time without Hepburn as a selling point.
As such, one is required to overlook many shortcomings in the features in order to take advantage of Hepburn's focused (and often ferocious) performances. Even when faced with the most ridiculous of conceits (as in Sylvia Scarlett where it is never made apparent exactly why she must dress as a boy after reaching England), Hepburn uniformly provides performances that are equal parts boldness and nuance. It's not a stretch to say that there isn't a single bad performance in this set, only a decision to be made as to which is better than another. Even when faced with the limitations imposed by the writing or story, Hepburn manages to find a way to break free of the constraints and endow her character with the means to be understood and empathized with.
All the films in the Katharine Hepburn Collection have undergone some form of restoration, and the results are excellent. Sylvia Scarlett and Dragon Seed are standouts in this regard, with only an occasional blemish distracting from a fantastic visual experience. Morning Glory fares a little worse; although the black levels and contrast are very good, the image is still marred with specks, dirt, and other damage. It isn't overly distracting, however, and the disparity between the "good" and "great" images will be apparent only if viewing them in succession. Only the 1979 television film The Corn is Green suffers significant grain and softness, but this is largely the result of the original broadcast limitations. Audio is also the recipient of an excellent update. All six films have mono audio tracks that exceed expectations, with few traces of the hissing, scratching, or muffling that tend to accompany older films. Sylvia Scarlett is so good in this regard that it is almost impossible to believe that the film is more than seventy years old.
Special features are largely a disappointing bunch. With the exception of The Corn is Green, each DVD includes a short live action film and a vintage cartoon. The live action films run between 9 and 20 minutes each and feature topics such as Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West and Purity Squad, which warns about the perils of evil. The cartoons are usually shorter (around 5 minutes each) but are likely to be of little interest to adult viewers. In addition, Without Love, Dragon Seed, and Undercurrent are each presented with their original theatrical trailers and are of varying quality. The Corn is GreenGreen has no extra features. Each film includes French and English subtitles, with a Portuguese option for The Corn is Green.
The packaging on the Katharine Hepburn Collection is worth some applause. The graphics and text are sleek and attractive, with a plastic slipcover that encloses the package and helps protect the cardboard case. The six DVDs are housed in a nice set of foldout trays, each tray holding two overlapping disks. The artwork and design are excellent, and each film gets a full chapter list to aid in navigation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as film fans can appreciate finally having these films on DVD, the result feels like a collection of outcasts because of the treatment by Warner Bros. Contrast the bare-bones nature of the Katharine Hepburn Collection with the release of the features-laden The Philadelphia Story, and you can see the disparity. While it's true that The Philadelphia Story is an acknowledged classic in Hepburn's repertoire, how does Warner Bros. expect viewers to appreciate these lesser-known films without sufficient background or context? Considering Morning Glory was Hepburn's first Oscar win and the contents of the set span decades of her career, it would have served fans and viewers better if the set was to include more than a smattering of unrelated material and three measly trailers.
Is the Katharine Hepburn Collection a worthy buy for film fans? If one is intent on acquiring as many of Hepburn's efforts on DVD as possible, the answer is undoubtedly "yes," as the films have been restored with care. However, casual fans of the actress should consider this collection as a rental first in order to test their appreciation of these well-meaning but lesser-known films.
Not guilty. Ms. Hepburn is fully acquitted for her fine work, although Warner Bros. is wrist-slapped for the lack of appropriate supplemental materials.
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Scales of Justice, Morning Glory
Perp Profile, Morning Glory
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Morning Glory
• "Bosko's Mechanical Man" cartoon
Scales of Justice, Sylvia Scarlett
Perp Profile, Sylvia Scarlett
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Sylvia Scarlett
• "Alias St. Nick" cartoon
Scales of Justice, Dragon Seed
Perp Profile, Dragon Seed
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dragon Seed
• "Happy Go Nutty" cartoon
Scales of Justice, Without Love
Perp Profile, Without Love
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Without Love
• "Swing Shift Cinderella" cartoon
Scales of Justice, Undercurrent
Perp Profile, Undercurrent
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Undercurrent
• "Lonesome Lenny" cartoon
Scales of Justice, The Corn Is Green
Perp Profile, The Corn Is Green
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Corn Is Green
Review content copyright © 2007 Ian Visser; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.