It’s no surprise that one of Katharine Hepburn’s earliest films was Christopher Strong (1933), directed by virtually the only female filmmaker working in mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner. Nor is it a surprise that Hepburn plays a headstrong, independent-minded aviatrix who dreams of setting world flying records and proudly announces that she’s never been in love—not much time to flirt with men when you’re 5,000 feet in the air and all that. In hindsight, the role almost seems like a collection of Hepburn clichés, especially when she starts speechifying to her lover about never putting restrictions on her ambition. While the film has its strengths, Hepburn’s performance, surprisingly, isn’t one of them, and one can almost begin to see how, around this time, she famously got branded “box-office poison.” She reduces her character to a collection of disconnected mannerisms, and her chemistry with Colin Clive, playing the married man with whom she falls in love, is nil. (Clive is as much to blame for this as Hepburn is. Many gay actors are able to make love convincingly to opposite-sex partners on screen; Clive wasn’t one of them.) Meanwhile in the background, Billie Burke (better known to most film fans as Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch) titters and smiles and nearly goes mad with jealousy as she watches her heretofore-faithful husband become smitten by another woman.
While I’m hesitant to chalk this up to any kind of “feminine touch” on Arzner’s part, mainly because doing so feels somewhat too easy, the film is noteworthy for its interesting triangulation of female characters. Just at the moment when society matron Lady Elaine (Burke) fears she’s losing her husband to the much-younger Cynthia (Hepburn)—who has also befriended Monica, her gadabout daughter—Monica sails in to announce, much to her mother’s horror, that she’s just gotten engaged to her own married lover, who has finally decided to divorce his wife. Later, Monica and her fiancé hypocritically turn on Cynthia when they discover her together with Monica’s father. “You both must have very short memories,” says Cynthia. “At least I didn’t take Harry away from an angel, a woman who he’d always loved,” Monica replies; “We never made people think we were too good for this world. Our cards were always on the table.” And we’re then treated to baffling exchange between Cynthia and Elaine, having now accepted her daughter’s marriage, in which the wife thanks her husband’s mistress for her influence over her daughter—though it’s somewhat unclear how sincere her thanks really are. In short, the film is almost completely driven by interactions between these three women whose relationships to one another are never easy. There are no disposable or cheap female characters in Arzner’s film: all of them are complexly motivated and deeply humane, even if the female actors playing them occasionally falter.