A Woman Rebels
Right off the bat, A Woman Rebels (1936) establishes that it will concern itself with issues of feminine independence - specifically of a woman who will defy society and its conventional rules in order to take possession of her own life. In Victorian England, Katharine Hepburn and her sister (Elizabeth Allan) live with their stern father (Donald Crisp), who tries to make them believe that women are inferior to men and that they should therefore behave accordingly. "It's nonsense!" replies Hepburn, who is promptly sent to her room. As the years pass, Hepburn remains defiant, even after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock thanks to Van Heflin. Her also-pregnant, married sister is now living in Italy, and after Hepburn goes there for a visit, tragic plot complications enable her to return home with her own daughter who she is able to pass her off as her niece.
Now a single mother, Hepburn becomes a feminist newspaper publisher and writes articles about women in society. Through all the years, Hepburn also refuses to marry the man she loves, Herbert Marshall, because she knows that if the truth about her daughter ever surfaced, it could ruin his career. An even bigger reason, however, is that marrying him would prevent her from "accomplishing her feminist goals," as Jeanine Basinger has written in her book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 (Knopf, 1993).
Basinger makes a case for Hepburn's character as a hero who stands up against society: "She has been decisive, brave, and independent all through the film, including the moment when she had to face single pregnancy alone. She qualifies as a strong hero, taking life on her own terms and fighting for the things she believes in whether society agrees with her or not."
For whatever reason, audiences of the day were not interested in A Woman Rebels. The picture lost over $200,000 for RKO and was Hepburn's third flop in a row, following Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Mary of Scotland (1936). Hepburn was now "box office poison" and would not shed that label for a few more years.
Making their screen debuts here are Van Heflin and Doris Dudley. Hepburn had seen them on Broadway in a play called End of Summer, thought they'd be perfect for this film, and successfully lobbied RKO to hire them. Heflin, of course, went on to a sterling movie career, but Dudley appeared in only three more pictures and is today forgotten.
A few years after A Woman Rebels, Heflin appeared in the cast of the Broadway stage version of The Philadelphia Story, playing the reporter to Hepburn's Tracy Lord. Hepburn controlled the film rights to that play but did not keep Heflin on board for the 1940 movie; instead she went with major star power in the form of James Stewart, who won an Oscar® in the role. Just two years later, however, Heflin would win his own Oscar®, for Johnny Eager (1942).
In fact, A Woman Rebels is full of future Oscar® winners and nominees:
Screenwriter Anthony Veiller, who along with Ernest Vajda adapted this film from Netta Syrett's novel Portrait of a Rebel, would later be nominated for writing Stage Door (1937) and The Killers (1946). Other credits for Veiller include State of the Union (1948) and The Night of the Iguana (1964), while Vajda is best known for his five masterful collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch, such as The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and The Merry Widow (1934).
Lucile Watson, who plays Hepburn and Allan's ever-faithful servant, later scored an Oscar® nomination as Bette Davis' mother in Watch on the Rhine (1943). Donald Crisp, meanwhile, won for How Green Was My Valley (1941), and costume designer Walter Plunkett scored ten nominations throughout his career, winning for An American in Paris (1951). Plunkett's costumes in A Woman Rebels have been praised for their particular accuracy to the time periods depicted. Hepburn wears 22 different costumes covering a 25-year span in the late 19th century.
Finally, Katharine Hepburn herself had already won an Oscar® for Morning Glory (1933) and would go on to be nominated 12 times in all for Best Actress throughout her career, which is still the world record. She won the award four times.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Mark Sandrich
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Ernest Vajda, Netta Syrett (novel)
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Film Editing: Jane Loring
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Pamela Thistlewaite), Herbert Marshall (Thomas Lane), Elizabeth Allan (Flora Anne Thistlewaite), Donald Crisp (Judge Thistlewaite), Doris Dudley (Young Flora), David Manners (Lieutenant Alan Freeland).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold