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Katharine Hepburn had made a dazzling film debut as John Barrymore's daughter in A Bill of Divorcement (1932). There had never been anyone like her before in movies, and critics and audiences didn't quite know what to make of her angular looks and aristocratic speech, her confident and somewhat mannered acting. She was odd, but she was also strikingly original. Autocratic producer David Selznick personally disliked Hepburn. He was annoyed by her independence and constant challenging of his authority, but he knew a star when he saw one, and he wasted no time in signing her to a long-term contract at RKO. For Hepburn's second film and first starring role, Selznick had chosen Three Came Unarmed, the story of a girl raised in the jungle who comes to civilization. But that project fell through, and instead, Hepburn starred in Christopher Strong (1933).
Christopher Strong, played by Colin Clive, is a middle-aged nobleman and politician, happily married with a grown daughter. Hepburn is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a dedicated aviatrix so consumed by flying that she has no time for romance. The two fall in love, and their affair threatens Strong's marriage and career. To direct, Selznick chose one of Hollywood's few women directors, Dorothy Arzner. Playwright Zoe Akins was selected to adapt Gilbert Frankau's novel. Most people thought that the character of Cynthia was based on Amelia Earhart, but Arzner said she was based on British aviatrix Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. (In the novel, the character was actually a race car driver.) Actual newsreel footage of parades and famous flights added veracity to the film version of Christopher Strong.
The combination of three strong-willed women did not always proceed smoothly. In fact, Arzner at one point threatened to quit the film unless Hepburn stopped interfering with her direction. Arzner stayed, and publicly, she and Hepburn expressed mutual respect, if no great warmth. In her autobiography, Hepburn says that Arzner "was very good....She wore pants. So did I. We had a good time working together." In the film, Cynthia's mannish wardrobe was similar to Arzner's. For Zoe Akins, Hepburn had little use. She found Akins pretentious and nouveau riche, and thought her script for Christopher Strong was not very good. Nevertheless, one of Akins' plays would be the basis for Hepburn's next film, Morning Glory (1933), which would win her the first of four Best Actress Oscars.
Colin Clive, who played the title character, is best known for playing the doctor in Frankenstein (1931). Most critics thought Clive was stodgy in Christopher Strong, and had no chemistry with the vibrant young Hepburn, that he was unlikely to inspire the kind of passion the script suggested. About Hepburn's performance, the critics were as divided as they had been about A Bill of Divorcement. She was so unlike any conventional ingenue that they couldn't agree whether she was beautiful or gawky, brilliant or artificial. But more and more, they were coming to the same conclusion as the New York American's Regina Crewe: "that troubled, masque-like face, the high, strident, raucous rasping voice, the straight, broad-shouldered boyish figure -- perhaps they may grate upon you, but they compel attention, and they fascinate an audience. She is a distinct, definite, positive personality -- the first since Garbo." Whatever the shortcomings of Christopher Strong, it still proved conclusively that Katharine Hepburn could carry a film. And the role helped develop the strong, independent feminist screen image that reflected Hepburn's own.
Producer: David O. Selznick, Pandro S. Berman
Director: Dorothy Arzner
Screenplay: Zoe Akins, based on the novel by Gilbert Frankau
Editor: Arthur Roberts
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Costume Design: Howard Greer
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Cynthia Darrington), Colin Clive (Christopher Strong), Billie Burke (Elaine), Helen Chandler (Monica), Ralph Forbes (Harry Rawlinson), Jack LaRue (Carlo).
BW-78m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri