DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection

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    Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection
    Morning Glory (1933)/Sylvia Scarlett (1935)/Dragon Seed (1944)/Without Love (1944)/Undercurrent (1946)/The Corn is Green (1979)

    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 1933-1979

    Rated: Unrated

    Film Length: Various

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3 & 1.78:1

    Subtitles: Various

    Release Date: May 29, 2007
    I'm Little Bo Peep. I've lost my sheep, really I have. I can't find them anywhere, really, I can't. I think so, don't you? I do. They were such lovely sheep, really they were.
    - Caricature of Katharine Hepburn from 1938 "Merrie Melodies" cartoon "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood"

    The Films

    Morning Glory(1933 - RKO - 74 minutes)

    Directed By: Lowell Sherman

    Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., C. Aubrey Smith, Mary Vernon

    "Morning Glory" was the film for which Katharine Hepburn was awarded her first Academy Award nomination and win as best actress. She plays Eva Lovelace, a naive but ambitious young actress trying to break into the New York theater world. The film is episodic in nature, checking in with Eva's progress at three distinct points with montages and retrospective discussions filling in the blanks for the months in between. In the first sequence, she arrives at the office of successful Broadway producer Louis Easton (Menjou). Outside his office door, Eva talks to whomever will listen about her ambitions and principles, ingratiating herself to aging actor R.H. Hedges (Smith) to the point that she recruits him as both her acting coach and first friend in New York. Behind Louis' door, he is conspiring with writer Joseph Sheridan on their next two productions while simultaneously attempting to placate the ego of Diva starlet Rita Vernon (Duncan). When necessity sends them outside the office, they are amused by the persistent, precocious, and naive Eva, but continually tell her that they have nothing available. The next major episodes occur months later after a chance meeting in a diner leads to R.H. bringing a down on her luck Eva as his guest to a party at Louis' home to celebrate the success of their latest Broadway opening. The final episode takes place backstage on the opening night of their next Broadway show. Over the course of these episode, Eva learns some hard lessons when she gives herself too freely to one man and earns the sympathy and support of others.

    The film as a whole feels distinctly stage bound with director Sherman and adapter Howard Green doing little to take advantage of the cinematic medium. Almost all of the most interesting parts of the story happen off-camera and are revealed through later conversations. This makes for a frustrating viewing experience since the strength of film as a medium is generally in its ability to show things whereas, with the exception of the montages between episodes, this film could almost be enjoyed as a radio play.

    Katharine Hepburn gives a fine performance in the meaty part of Eva, a role that undoubtedly paralleled her own early experience as a struggling actress in New York. In keeping with the stagey nature of the production, she does occasionally play things a little "big", especially by modern standards. That being said, it is still enjoyable to see her tear into the "Oscar-bait" role which allows her to grow from a naive idealist whose efforts at hustling a job are embarrassingly transparent, to an exploited starving actress, to a more seasoned professional with a hint of shark below the surface. The screenplay even gives her a chance to run through extended excerpts from Hamlet's soliloquy and the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet". Anne Baxter would play a more ruthless and much less sympathetic variation on this character seventeen years later in "All About Eve". If Eve had gone through what Eva goes through in this picture, audiences might have actually rooted for her.


    Sylvia Scarlett (1935 - RKO - 95 minutes)

    Directed By: George Cukor

    Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Brian Aherne, Edmund Gwenn, Dennie Moore, Natalie Paley

    "Sylvia Scarlett" begins with Sylvia (Hepburn) and her father, Henry (Gwenn), in Paris mourning the death of her French mother. Henry offers up further bad news that he has been caught embezzling funds from his employer to pay off gambling debts and must hastily leave the country to avoid the authorities. In order to throw off their pursuers who will be looking for a man traveling with his daughter, Sylvia disguises herself as a boy named "Sylvester". En route to Henry's home country of Britain, Sylvia and Henry fall-in with smuggler and con man Jimmy Monkley. He enlists their help in running a number of scams, but "Sylvester" always seems to be undermining them. After a failed attempt to steal jewels from the employer of Maude (Moore), a maid friendly with Jimmy and fancied by Henry, "Sylvester" convinces the gang to pool their limited resources (mainly Maude's) and make some money as traveling entertainers. When Sylvia begins to fall for Michael Fane, an artist who attended one of their shows and invited the cast to a party, she considers revealing her true identity.

    This first collaboration between Cukor, Hepburn, and Grant, who would subsequently re-team for the more celebrated "Holiday" and "The Philadelphia Story", was a pretty audacious film to pull off at a time when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association Production Code was being very strictly enforced. The subtext of sexual confusion is clearly established without expressly violating any of the code's precepts. One scene involving Maude kissing "Sylvester" and making advances towards "him" in her trailer has an awkward edit that suggests that the censors got involved. There also seems to be a disconnect in establishing the reason a certain character is found flailing in the sea, which could be the result of removing a reference to attempted suicide.

    Hepburn and Grant both seem to relish their roles which are against type. Hepburn's Sylvia is a naive innocent who is playing the part of a blustering tough boy, and she pulls off the layered performance admirably. Cary Grant is a cockney criminal who steals without remorse, be it money, jewels, or another man's girlfriend. The film does something of a disservice to Edmund Gwenn's character, who starts off the film appealingly enough as a charmingly incompetent rogue, but deteriorates in the third act to some kind of raving King Lear type due to his intense suspicions about Maude having dalliances with other men.

    It is possible that audiences at the time thought Hepburn was unconvincing in "boy drag", but with the benefit of hindsight, modern viewers can marvel at how much "Sylvester" looks like David Bowie.

    Dragon Seed (1944 - MGM - 148 minutes)

    Directed By: Harold S. Bucquet, Jack Conway

    Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Akim Tamiroff, Turhan Bey, Hurd Hatfield, J. Carrol Naish, Agnes Moorehead

    Walter Huston plays Ling Tan, the patriarch of a rural Chinese family whose peaceful existence is upended by the Japanese invasion. Katharine Hepburn plays Jade, the wife of Ling's middle son, Lao (Bey). The opening of the film establishes the characters and environment of the farming community and nearby village. The initial thread of the plot concerns the difficulty Lao has connecting with his bride, whose pre-feminist interest in reading and current events is a source of consternation to most of her in-laws. Lao ultimately demonstrates his devotion to Jade through the gift of a book at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, Wu Lien (Tamiroff) a wealthy and well-educated merchant. Looming over the early events and dominating the rest of the film is the approaching Japanese invasion. Once the Japanese forces arrive, the film becomes a study in how each of the family members deals with the occupation and how that affects their relationships. Approaches range from collaboration, to appeasement, to outright insurgency.

    Because I am the type of reviewer who likes to address the elephant in the room right away, I will say up front that from a modern perspective, it is somewhat uncomfortable to watch a movie where every major speaking role is played by an occidental actor playing a Chinese character. The make-up and all-over-the-map speech patterns affected by the cast give it a vibe that feels almost like a Chinese minstrel show. Counterbalancing this to a significant degree is the unusually sympathetic nature of the Chinese characters for a Hollywood production. Characters are multidimensional and represent diverse viewpoints. By the late 1940s, the Chinese in Hollywood would fare nearly as poorly as the Japanese in this film, who are all irredeemably evil parties to atrocity with ugly make-up sometimes including prosthetic buck-teeth.

    If the viewer can adjust to the film's perspective and approach, the story, adapted from a novel by Pearl S. Buck, is a fairly effective family epic that takes perhaps a bit too long to establish its characters, but does so well, with the intensity of the drama picking up almost exactly as the first Japanese bomb falls. Within the world set-up by the film, Katharine Hepburn's completely unconvincing appearance and speech manner, while initially off-putting, actually serve to make her character seem like the inscrutable outsider she is to most of her in-laws. She also develops a nice chemistry with Turhan Bey as her sympathetic husband, although a couple of the scenes where they declare their love for each other are allowed to play on for too long, stopping the movie in its tracks.

    Without Love (1945 - MGM - 111 minutes)

    Directed By: Harold S. Bucquet

    Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Kennan Wynn, Carl Esmond, Patricia Morison

    "Dragon Seed" was started by director Jack Conway, who fell ill during its production. Harold S. Bucquet, whose previous output had consisted mostly of "B-movies" such as the "Dr. Kildare" series, was brought in by MGM to finish this elaborate production. He must have impressed both the studio and lead actress as his next assignment was directing the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy, "Without Love". Unfortunately, he would succumb to illness at the age of 54, before getting the chance to continue his late career resurgence.

    The film kicks off with an elaborate "meet cute" in which scientist Pat Jamieson (Tracy) cons his way into a job as a resident caretaker in the Virginia home of widow Jamie Rowan (Hepburn) by taking advantage of her inebriated cousin, Quentin (Wynn). Jamie is initially put-off by his deception, but when she learns that he is a scientist who plans to use the house for research to aid the war effort, she agrees to give him the job. Jamie, whose father was also a scientist, takes an interest in Pat's research. Since becoming a widow, Jamie has lost all interest in romance. Pat has similarly sworn off love after having his heart broken. Jamie proposes a loveless marriage of convenience that will allow them to cohabitate and focus on the research project, not to mention giving her the nifty new name of Jamie Jamieson. When European businessman Paul Carrell (Esmond) takes a romantic interest In Jamie and Pat's old flame resurfaces, they begin to reassess their feelings about love and marriage. This main plot is counterpointed by a humorous love triangle between Quentin, his shrewish on-again/off-again fiancee, Edwina (Morison), and feisty real estate agent, Kitty (Ball).

    While this film falls a hair short of the best romantic comedy pairings of Hepburn and Tracy such as "Adam's Rib" and "Woman of the Year", that is an awfully high standard too shoot for, and this is a very enjoyable film. Tracy is in particularly fine form, and makes the most of bits of business involving his character's habit of sleepwalking and his interactions with his cute little dog. Hepburn keeps up with his performance as usual, and the screenplay, adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart from a play by Philip Barry infuses their scenes together with plenty of witty banter and dramatic counterpoint.

    The film's primary weakness is the amount of time it spends on the subplot involving Keenan Wynn, Lucille Ball, and Patricia Morison. All three actors are appealing and fun to watch, but their plotline is so divorced from the main story, that one wishes that the filmmakers would have just excised it completely or cast them in a film of their own. The technical problem that Hepburn and Tracy are trying to solve is that of creating a suit allowing pilots to operate at high altitudes. To the filmmakers' credit, they made the science behind it come across a lot more entertaining than in the 1941 Warner Brothers film "Dive Bomber", in which Errol Flynn and Ralph Bellamy try to solve the same problem. Somehow, Flynn and Bellamy never managed to create the sexual tension that Tracy and Hepburn achieved. Chemistry - you either have it or you don't.

    Future star watchers will note that Gloria Grahame has a brief but effective cameo as a weepy cigarette girl.

    Undercurrent (1946 - MGM- 116 minutes)

    Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

    Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Edmund Gwenn

    In "Undercurrent", Katharine Hepburn plays Ann Hamilton, the loving daughter of professor "Dink" Hamilton (Gwenn) who seems destined for a life of cheerful spinsterhood. This all changes when her father is visited by famous and wealthy industrialist Alan Garroway (Taylor). After a whirlwind courtship, they are married, and Ann is introduced to a life of high society to which she adapts with Alan's help. Ann's happiness is gradually troubled as she observes the odd reaction of her husband to any mention of his brother Michael. His refusal to address the subject only fuels her curiosity as she discovers that none of her husband's close associates are willing to speak about Michael. Only a former girlfriend (Meadows - in her film debut) and the caretaker at Michael's former home (Mitchum) seem to be able to discuss him without fear. As she begins to tempt her husband's rage by pressing on the matter behind his back, she also begins to suspect that he is a murderer.

    This change of pace suspense drama from director Vincente Minnelli is very similar in premise to Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" from four years earlier. "Undercurrent" even has an advantage over "Suspicion" in that Robert Taylor's screen persona was flexible enough that the studio might just let him play a murderer, which keeps the audience apprehensively guessing more so than was the case with Cary Grant. Unfortunately, this opportunity is squandered in the film's poorly executed third act. While there is one decent plot twist (given away by most synopses of the film including the two-sentence description on the back of this DVD set - reader beware), the film stumbles by reaching for poignant irony rather than sustained suspense and includes a frustrating deus ex machina plot contrivance of an ending. Minnelli does successfully create a sense of impending dread as Ann pieces together the truth about Michael from sometimes conflicting accounts, but it is not punctuated by enough truly memorable sequences to be considered a strong entry in the suspense genre.

    The film is well-cast. It is particularly fun to see Edmund Gwenn back playing Hepburn's father again eleven years after "Sylvia Scarlett". Taylor walks the tightrope between devoted and dangerous fairly effectively. Robert Mitchum, playing against type as a sensitive soul, manages to make it through a scene where he delivers the "big obvious oceanic metaphor" speech that gives the film its title without embarrassing himself, which is quite a feat. Hepburn gives an appropriately restrained performance as her character progresses from a somewhat dowdy daddy's girl, to a loving Cinderella newlywed, to a suspicious but devoted spouse, and finally, an outright terrified woman. Ann's progression down this path is initially hampered by her "MGM dowdy" appearance not being as plain as the dialog would seem to indicate. Things pick up when she is fully integrated into Alan's world, which is "MGM fabulous"...and nobody does "MGM fabulous" better than Vincente Minnelli.

    The Corn is Green (1979 - Warner Television - 93 minutes)

    Directed By: George Cukor

    Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Ian Saynor, Bill Fraser, Patricia Hayes, Anna Massey, Artro Morris

    Warping ahead 23 years into the future, we have the telefilm "The Corn is Green", which would prove to be the last of the ten collaborations between Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor. Hepburn plays Lilly Moffat, an independent-minded teacher of modest means who arrives in a Welsh mining town in which she has recently inherited a home with the intent of starting a school for the local children, many of whom have been working in the mines since they were twelve. She finds willing assistance from law clerk John Goronwy Jones (Morris) and spoiled but good-natured spinster Miss Ronberry (Massey). She meets initial resistance from the local Squire (Fraser), but eventually prevails on him by appealing to his ego. Among the local students is Morgan Evans, a teenaged orphan whose writing is particularly promising. Over the next three years, Moffat's school grows, and she prepares Morgan for an opportunity to compete for a scholarship at Oxford. Pressures from his peers and burdens from his personal life eventually weigh heavily on Morgan, jeapordizing his opportunity to achieve his academic goals.

    The film, while modest in scope, maintains viewer interest thorough well-drawn characters and authentic Welsh exteriors which provide natural production value. Hepburn conveys the no-nonsense charismatic enthusiasm of Miss Moffat effectively enough to believe that the other characters would want to succeed for her. Bill Fraser, as the idiotic Squire, provides both comic relief and an effective antagonist. Toyah Wilcox, in particular, gives a well-modulated performance as Bessie, the daughter of Miss Moffat's cockney reformed pick-pocket of a servant. She believably conveys how her steady boredom with small-town life eventually leads her into trouble.

    The Video

    The 4:3 black and white transfer for 'Morning Glory" shows evidence of heavy grain filtering. Light speckling and other major and minor signs of film element wear and tear pop up throughout. Contrast looks overall well balanced taking into account occasional film-source-related variability in density in the frame. There are no significant issues with compression or edge ringing

    The 4:3 black and white transfer for "Sylvia Scarlett" renders the impressive cinematography well. There are regular signs of film element wear, but no significant issues relating to the transfer from film to video and subsequent compression.

    The 4:3 black and white transfer for "Dragon Seed" shows signs of light grain filtering, with sharpness/detail looking none the worse for it. The film element has infrequent signs of light visible damage. I noticed a few instances of very light ringing along high contrast edges, and no significant compression artifacts. Shadows are rarely very deep, but it seems to have more to do with how the film was lit and shot than any deficiency in the black level of the transfer.

    The 4:3 black and white transfer for "Without Love" is the worst looking film in the set. Film grain is excessive, making any bright area of the screen appear to be simply crawling with it. Contrast is high, with adjustments in the video domain appearing to improve limited shadow detail while resulting in occasional blooming in bright white areas of the image. The compression occasionally has trouble keeping up with the heavy grain, and very light ringing appears from time to time along high contrast edges. The element used for transfer appears to be the main culprit, and one hopes that a better element surfaces in someone's vault one day.

    The 4:3 black and white transfer for "Undercurrent" seems to have gone through heavy grain filtering. There is little visible film grain, and the resulting image is soft. Contrast and compression are both very good.

    Curiously the telefilm "The Corn is Blue" comes in a color 16:9 enhanced transfer. The compositions all seem to work quite effectively at this ratio, although it was certainly not how the film was originally presented. I do not know whether the film was released theatrically in other markets, but it does appear that matting for theatrical presentation was taken into account when the film was shot. The image is grainy with limited contrast and an overall soft appearance. Compression renders the grain fairly naturally, although focusing on the grain patterns will reveal slight smearing.

    The Audio

    All of the films in the "Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection" come with a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track encoded at a 192kbps bitrate. They also all come with available English and French subtitles. "The Corn is Green" also comes with available Portuguese subtitles.

    The audio for "Morning Glory" shows signs of heavy filtering, limited bandwidth, and pronounced sibilance.

    The audio for "Sylvia Scarlett" is an improvement over "Morning Glory", but still suffers from some harshness, particularly in the dialog. This could very well be an artifact of how it was recorded as most other elements of the sound mix, including the score, sound much better.

    The audio tracks for "Dragon Seed" and "Without Love" both exhibit very low hiss with very light crackling consistent with optical audio tracks. Overall they are excellent presentations.

    The audio for "Undercurrent" has more noticeable noise reduction artifacts than that of "Dragon Seed" and "Without Love", with light crackling and extremely low level hiss.

    The audio track for "The Corn is Green" normally has vastly superior fidelity to any of the other tracks in the collection, but there are a few scenes where dialog exhibits a strange ringing/fringing effect. Whether this is an artifact of the production or a result of overzealous use of audio processing tools, I do not know.

    The Extras

    The only extra on "Morning Glory" is the 1933 Harman-Ising Looney Tune, "Bosko's Mechanical Man". I am not a fan of most of the Bosko shorts, but this one, in which Bosko contends with a robot who has gone berserk, is one of the better ones, with some pretty funny gags. It is in black and white and runs just under seven minutes. Addendum: there is one other extra as pointed out by Mark B below: A 10 minute Technicolor "Pete Smith Specialty" short entitled "Menu" starring comedy legends Una Merkel and Franklin Pangborn. I took the title a bit too literally and thought it was a DVD navigational link.

    Extras for "Sylvia Scarlett" include a short from the "James Fitzpatrick's Traveltalk" series called "Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West". It is in color and runs eight and a half minutes. There is some pretty interesting color footage of LA circa the mid-1930s, which is fun to compare with the city of today for those who are familiar with it. Also included is the Harman-Ising "Happy Harmonies" cartoon "Alias St. Nick" in which a mouse who does not believe in Santa Claus helps to save his family when a cat dressed up as the Jolly Old Elf enters their home on Christmas eve. It is in color and runs just over ten minutes.

    "Dragon Seed" includes a short from the MGM "Romance of Celluloid" series called "20 Years After" that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the studio. It runs just over nine minutes, with the first half being devoted to showing what the studio was up to in 1924, with clips from productions of the time such as the MGM debut feature "The Big Parade". The second half plays like an extended trailer for all of the films due out in 1944, including "Dragon Seed". Also included is the 1944 Tex Avery Screwy Squirrel cartoon "Happy Go Nutty" in which the squirrel in question escapes from the "nuthouse" and is pursued by a dog. This hilarious Technicolor cartoon runs seven minutes and 45 seconds. It features the expected Tex Avery brand of frantically paced hilarity including one of my personal favorite phone gags ("You don't say" "You don't say" You don't say" -- "Who Was it?" -- "He didn't say"). Finally the film's theatrical trailer is included, running just under three minutes.

    "Without Love" includes a 20 minute black and white short from the MGM "Crime Does Not Pay" series called "Purity Squad". It involves federal law enforcement attempts to stop some unscrupulous drug marketers from selling a diabetes medication that is resulting in patient fatalities. Also included is the Tex Avery Technicolor cartoon "Swing Shift Cinderella" in which a wolf switches his attention from Red Riding Hood to Cinderella, but has the tables turned when her fairy godmother takes a shine to him. Typical Tex Avery zaniness follows for seven minutes and 45 seconds. Also included is the film's unremarkable theatrical trailer.

    "Undercurrent" includes a black and white short from the "Theater of Life" series called "Traffic with the Devil". It looks at the subject of cars and traffic from the perspective of real-life California traffic cop Charles Reineke. The first half of this eighteen and a half minute short has a light tone as various driving and parking behaviors are examined and mildly comically presented. The second half pulls the rug out from under the viewer by showing some really unpleasant footage of car accident victims both fatal and otherwise. This is one that I will not be watching again. Far more entertaining is the Technicolor Tex Avery Screwy Squirrel cartoon "Lonesome Lenny", although even this hilarious cartoon has a mildly unpleasant ending, especially from the perspective that it was the last of the four films Avery made with the Screwy Squirrel character. The premise involves Screwy being adopted by a wealthy woman as a pet so he can play with her cat, Lenny, a variation on the "Of Mice and Men Character" of the same name who has a bad habit of crushing his animal playmates. Finally, the disc also includes the film's original theatrical trailer with the retrospectively hilarious plea to audience members to "Please don't tell the terrific ending". Hmm... I may have to return my disc to the store since they apparently neglected to include the terrific ending.

    "The Corn is Green" does not include any extras.

    Packaging

    The discs are packaged in a four-fold digipack with three plastic trays that each hold two overlapping discs. The discs are numbered, but I reviewed them in chronological order, rather than the order indicated on the packaging. The digipack is bound by a plastic slipcase that is clear except for a band of descriptive text in the back and the title text on the front. The digipack panels include stills from the movies and chapter lists. The disc extras are not listed anywhere on the packaging. It is attractive and space efficient, but I am generally not a fan of overlapping discs and not listing extras on packaging or inserts. All of the discs are dual-layered DVD-9s except for "Morning Glory" which is a single layered DVD-5.

    Summary

    The "Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection" is a welcome addition of six previously unavailable on DVD Hepburn films including two of her early RKO features, three from her MGM 1940s heyday, and one telefilm from the autumn of her career. All of the film's have acceptable to very good audio and video quality for their age except for "Without Love", which appears to have been taken from a lower generation source element than the other titles in the collection. The telefilm "The Corn is Green" is curiously presented in a widescreen aspect ratio, but actually looks quite well-framed that way. Extras are minimal, but welcome, consisting primarily of vintage shorts and cartoons along with trailers for "Dragon Seed", "Without Love", and "Undercurrent".

    Regards,
     
  2. Mark B

    Mark B Supporting Actor

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    MORNING GLORY also contains a Technicolor comedy short titled "Menu." I clicked on it, expecting to be sent back to the main menu and the short appeared, much to my surprise.
     
  3. MTanner

    MTanner Auditioning

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    Very interesting and useful review. I will be getting this collection certainly, although I think it's a shame for an anniversary collection there to be no substantive extras (I have no interest in the cartoons, etc.).
     

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