Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Greatest Star: Happy Birthday, Kate

Today is the birthday of my favourite movie related person of all time - the superlative Katharine Hepburn. Words, especially so late at night when I can't think clearly, cannot express how much I adore her). I've fĂȘted her time and time again, so if you've been reading this space for more than a few months you already know that.

A post concerning Hepburn will be forthcoming in the new week, but I could not let her birthday past without something on her, and this is a re-publication of an excerpt from memoir by Garson Kanin I posted two years ago. I feel as if Kate is not as remembered today as much as she ought, but that case can be made for any classic performer. And, some who remember her might forget that even though her star shone for so long she had difficulties in her start with the box-office poison business and whatnot. Stage Door was actually something of a gamble because it was during the time when after her first Oscar for Morning Glory she seemed bound to be forgotten. Clearly, she wasn't.
 Enjoy the read....


In the RKO dressing hairdressing department, during the spring of 1939. I eavesdropped, over a half a wall, on a 6 A. M., over-coffee conversation, involving Lucille Ball, Barbra Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and several unidentifiable voices. Lucille and Ginger were making Stage Door with Kate at the time. Barbara Stanwyck was on The Mad Miss Manton.

There was general studio agreement that Katharine Hepburn was a dazzling actress and a star, but there was some question as to whether she was going to become box office.

The voices said:
“She’s gorgeous. How can she miss?
“Takes more than gorgeous, sugar.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“That’s it. Hits. Listen to her her.”
“So. She’s had hits.”
“Not lately.”
“What do you call ‘lately’?”
“What about Alice Adams?”
“Two years ago.”
“All right.”
“All right if she’d done nothing since, but she’s had strike-outs in the two years. Sylvia Scarlett.”
Break of Hearts.”
“I liked it.”
“But Kokomo didn’t.”
Mary of Scotland. Wasn’t that a hit?”
A Woman Rebels.”
“She should’ve, before she said yes to that turkey.”
Quality Street?”
“They say she picked that one herself. Well, whoever. The people didn’t want it.”
“She’s gonna score in this one, though. Boy, is she ever great.”
“Yeah, but we’re talking about star. The ones people come to see, no matter what. Gable, Tracy, Harlow, Bette. Like that.”
“Maybe Hepburn’s too special.”
“What do you mean?”
“Too, like – well, like high-toned. Not like us.”
I’m high-toned you pisspot!”
The unmistakable voice cut-through voice of Lucille Ball took over.”
“Listen biddies, don’t you worry your pretty little heads – and I do mean little – about Miss Katie. She’ll make it just fine. She knows the combination to the safe. To everybody’s safe. Have you ever noticed something? How every time she gets into a new scene, no matter where, or on the stage, and she’s wearing a new outfit, every son-of-a-bitch on this lot, from every department, finds his way over there – or her way – to stand around and gawk? Why is that? Don’t ask me, but they sure all want to look at her, and see what she doe. I do it myself. And the grips from the other sets and cutters and messengers and readers. The all find their way and stand around taking her in like out-of-town visitors. I notice they don’t do it for any of the rest of us. Only for her. So why is that? Don’t ask me. But I claim anybody who can get a routine like that going for them, without trying even, has to become a big star, and, what’s more, stay a big star. She’s news, that’s all. Hot news. All the time.”

The instinctively sagacious Lucille, who wound up owning that very studio, had recognized it. Call it news, hot news, call it “it,” as Eleanor Glyn did for Clara Bow, or call it, as we do these days, charisma. Katharine Hepburn had it and has it.

Kanin, Garson. Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir. New York: Viking Press Inc, 1971

Lord knows what *it* was, but she certainly had it didn't she? Happy birthday, Kate.


Simon said...

Hepburn?Ball? 'Dolls'? 'Biddies'? My god, this is the 30-iest thing I've ever read!

Runs Like A Gay said...


Luke said...

Leave it to Lucy. No I just wish we could place who it was that seemed to have the superiority complex in that group. I'm thinking Stanwyck.

Runs Like A Gay said...

I'm confused. Have I already posted?

Well, yes but two years ago.

Anyway still a priceless excerpt.

Lucille's right too, whenever Kate was on screen your eyes were drawn towards her in a way few actors make you do.

Margaret Perry said...

Is this real? I mean, it's awesome, but who was eavesdropping and who recorded it, etc? I mean even if it's fiction, it's still true, if you know what I mean. But I just like to know if I'm reading fiction or history, that's all.
Anyway, really awesome post!

Chip Lary said...

I just saw her in Stage Door. Even though I saw Bringing Up Baby it was quite a few years ago and I had forgotten how young she was back in the 30s.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

margaret if garson kanin (writer and director) is to be believed it is true. he's the one who overheard it.

chip i get what you mean, the de facto image of kate in my head is her older self.