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The Little Minister
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The Little Minister

Katharine Hepburn scored her second flop in a row with The Little Minister (1934), a drama about a Scottish noblewoman who masquerades as a gypsy and steals the heart of the new minister in the village. Though it contributed to her being labeled "box office poison" a few years later, the picture didn't lose as much money as legend has suggested and it helped cement Kate's rebellious image, becoming a valuable part of the Hepburn legend.

Following four well-received films, including her Oscar®-winning Morning Glory (1933) and the box-office smash Little Women (1933), Hepburn had scored her first big failure playing an Ozarks faith healer in Spitfire (1934). After a critically panned Broadway flop in The Lake (the play that prompted Dorothy Parker to quip, "Let's all go down to the Alvin Theatre to see Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B") and an aborted attempt to star in a summer theatre tryout of Dark Victory (Tallulah Bankhead would take the play to Broadway, where it died quicker than its terminally ill heroine), Hepburn was desperate for a success. She was considering a return to Broadway in a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but RKO head Pandro S. Berman was more interested in shoring up her faltering box office. Among the projects under consideration were a film version of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan (for which Hepburn shot test footage in color), a biography of novelist George Sand and a screen adaptation of John Galsworthy's six-volume The Forsyte Saga. When none of these panned out RKO bought the rights to James M. Barrie's novel and play The Little Minister.

Barrie had adapted his 1891 novel to the stage in 1897, and it had scored on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., it became a hit in the hands of Maude Adams, a stage actress famous for starring in such Barrie plays as What Every Woman Knows and Peter Pan. She revived the play twice more over the years, then Ruth Chatterton returned to Broadway for a 1934 revival. The story had already been filmed five times since 1913, which may have prompted Hepburn to reject it at first (May Beatty, who starred in a 1915 version, played the maid in Hepburn's remake). RKO then offered the film to Margaret Sullavan. When Hepburn heard that Sullavan, whom she considered a rival, was eager to play the role, she changed her mind despite warnings from her agent Leland Hayward whom she was dating at the time (he would marry Margaret Sullavan in 1936).

Among the writers RKO assigned to The Little Minister were Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, the team who had helped turn Little Women into a movie classic. Whether it was their fault or that of the other three writers credited with the script, they decided to improve on Barrie by pitching the film more toward drama than his trademarked whimsical comedy. Then for comic relief they created scenes for comedian Andy Clyde. Both moves were soundly criticized in reviews.

In their efforts to make lightning strike twice, the studio's executives approved a high for the day budget of $650,000 for the film. As a result, the company did location shooting in California's Sherwood Forest and Laurel Canyon and the crowd scenes were shot on a grand scale. Things got a little out of control during the filming of the townspeople's attempt to drive out a minister (John Beal) who has fallen in love with Hepburn's gypsy. One of the extras accidentally stabbed Beal in the eye, almost causing him to lose his vision permanently.

The lavishness paid off in one way; the Scottish village built for the film on the RKO back lot was used in several other films, most notably the Laurel and Hardy comedy Bonnie Scotland (1935). But the film was so expensive that it failed to make back its cost, losing $9,000. Anxious to recover Hepburn's box-office status, the studio pushed her into one failure after another.

Hepburn's reviews were surprisingly good, even from reviewers who lamented the changes to Barrie's original. But the New York Sun's Eileen Creelman sounded a dissenting note that would come to haunt Hepburn in later films, calling her more of a personality than an actress: "Miss Hepburn, gauntly handsome and spirited, makes no attempt to become that elusive, charming creature, a Barrie heroine. She is just Miss Hepburn, arch, vivid, varying little, adored by a vast public. Wistfulness is not a Hepburn characteristic" (in Homer Dickens, The Films of Katharine Hepburn). Yet The Little Minister also contributed to the Hepburn legend. Her role as a champion of the working poor gave audiences their first glimpse of Hepburn the feisty liberal, a role she would play throughout her career. At the time, the studio tried to keep her support of progressive politicians out of the press such as her strong endorsement of Upton Sinclair, whose run for California governor threw Hollywood's more conservative businessmen into a panic. In later years she would make no bones about her support for liberal politicians and causes. Where other stars suffered at the box office for being too politically outspoken, however, Hepburn's politics just reinforced her image as a rebel, out to conquer Hollywood and the world on her own terms.

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Richard Wallace
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, Mortimer Offner, Jack Wagner
Based on the novel and play by James M. Barrie
Cinematography: Henry Gerrard
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Babbie), John Beal (Gavin), Alan Hale (Rob Dow), Donald Crisp (Dr. McQueen), Lumsden Hare (Thammas), Andy Clyde (Wearyworld), Beryl Mercer (Margaret), Dorothy Stickney (Jean), Frank Conroy (Lord Rintoul), Reginald Denny (Capt. Halliwell).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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