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Joan Fontaine may have been the only person involved to get a career boost out of the 1937 romantic comedy Quality Street. Although it would eventually win critical favor for its delicate love story and witty humor, the movie was a box office dud on its initial release, hastening the end of Katharine Hepburn's initial run as a screen star.
The film was born out of Hepburn's desperate need for a hit to put her back on top after a string of box office failures, particularly the ahead-of-its time gender-bending comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Although audiences had clearly rejected her in period films like Mary of Scotland and A Woman Rebels (both 1936), and her previous attempt at a James M. Barrie adaptation, The Little Minister (1934), had fared poorly, she insisted that another Barrie play, Quality Street, would re-capture the magic that had helped make her a star in 1933's Little Women. Its tale of a small-town teacher who pretends to be her own niece in order to flirt with and humiliate a former suitor may have appealed to her sense of the theatrical. And it certainly did well by Maude Adams, who starred in its premiere production in 1901, and Marion Davies, who had made a 1927 silent version.
Hepburn asked George Stevens, who had helped her to deliver one of her best performances in Alice Adams (1935), to helm the film. At the time, he was negotiating to direct the film version of Maxwell Anderson's modern tragedy Winterset (1936). Some sources suggest she had him assigned to the film, others that she appealed to their friendship, particularly since she had rescued him from minor films to direct Alice Adams. Either way, he consented to the film but soon regretted it. Not only did he feel himself poorly matched with the whimsical material, but also he felt that Hepburn's entourage made it impossible for him to direct her effectively. Despite his efforts, they encouraged her to deliver what he considered a mannered, overly precious performance.
Stevens and RKO surrounded Hepburn with stage-trained actors. Leading man Franchot Tone had been a member of the prestigious Group Theater in New York before coming to Hollywood. Estelle Winwood was an accomplished comic actress who would not become a regular in films until the '50s and '60s, when she excelled in a series of eccentric character roles, most notably as one of Zero Mostel's amorous investors in The Producers (1968). After a few small film roles in her native England, Quality Street would mark her first major screen appearance. Also returning to the screen was Fay Bainter, who had scored on Broadway, most notably as the star of Dodsworth. After only one film in the early '30s, she returned to the screen to play Hepburn's sympathetic sister. She was one of the few performers to get good notices on the picture's initial release, though her real triumph would come a year later when she won Oscar® nominations for Best Actress in White Banners and Best Support Actress in Jezebel (both 1938), winning for the latter.
For Fontaine, her unbilled role marked the beginning of her brief time at RKO, the studio where she would learn her craft, and her first job under her new professional name. Although she would dismiss the film in later years, saying that Walter Plunkett's costumes were the only good thing about it, at the time she was charmed to be included in Hepburn's picnic lunches on the set. She also was gratified when Hepburn went to studio management and told them to give her more to do, suggesting that they develop her natural talents and build her fan following by starring Fontaine in low-budget films.
Despite the congenial atmosphere on the set, Hepburn suffered a personal setback during filming. She had been dating her agent, Leland Hayward, off and on for years. During filming, however, he married actress Margaret Sullavan, something Hepburn only learned about from a radio broadcast. She spent the rest of the shoot brooding between scenes. Nor was her mood helped when the film opened to mixed reviews and indifferent box office. By that time, she had left Hollywood to try to rebuild her career with a stage version of Jane Eyre that never made it to Broadway. She also tried to forget her disappointment over Hayward's marriage by entering a relationship with eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes. It would take a stage and screen hit with The Philadelphia Story (filmed in 1940) to get her career back on track.
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Mortimer Offner, Allan Scott
Based on the play by James M. Barrie
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Hobe Erwin
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Phoebe Throssel), Franchot Tone (Dr. Valentine Brown), Fay Bainter (Susan Throssel), Eric Blore (Recruiting Sergeant), Cora Witherspoon (Patty the Maid), Estelle Winwood (Mary Willoughby), Bonita Granville (Isabella), Joan Fontaine (Charlotte Parratt).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller