Katharine Hepburn and the Perils of Historiography

The following post is a re-working of a paper written for a Masters class at New York University.  The original work was a historiographical analysis of The Philadelphia Story, the 1940 film directed by George Cukor, based on the play by Phillip Barry.  As I culled through publicity stills, newspaper articles, and internet forums for any mention of The Philadelphia Story I soon discovered that the history of the film is largely constructed around the personal narrative of its female star, Katharine Hepburn.  In particular, the film is situated historically as Hepburn’s comeback from a supposed string of box-office failures.  The rhetoric of her return to stardom is present in newspaper articles at the time of the film’s release, and continues in contemporary film histories, biographies, and DVD reviews. My research, however, found that this narrative arc has rather dubious beginnings, and ultimately, illustrates the inherent problems of historicization.

The historical arc begins in 1938, the year Hepburn is seen onscreen with Cary Grant in both Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks) and Holiday (dir. George Cukor).  Though both films will eventually be considered classics–the former as an exemplar of screwball comedy, and the latter an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy–they are poorly received by both critics and audiences. This same year the Independent Film Journal and other trade papers publish a now infamous letter written by Harry Brandt on behalf of the National Theatre Distributors of America.  Brandt’s letter provides a list of actors and actresses he considers “box-office poison,” and Hepburn tops the list (which also included the likes of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.) Historians and biographers alike are quick to slice this juicy insult from Brandt’s letter and use it to structure Hepburn’s life story as a monomyth.  They do not provide context for this quote, however, and thus mislead readers.

In his letter Brandt actually praises the listed actors “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box-office draw is nil,” and criticizes instead the studios writing their paychecks. He implores: Wake up Hollywood producers! Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars – whose public appeal is negligible – receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations.” The large salaries of stars like Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, the letter suggests, force studios “to put these box office deterrents in expensive pictures in the hope that some return on the investment might be had.”   Studios are paying large sums to sign stars to multiple-picture contracts; if a star’s film didn’t appeal to audiences it could mean a big financial hit for individual theater owners, whose high purchase prices help the studios recoup losses.  He likely finds the cost of studio films prohibitive, especially since films at this time often are sold to exhibitors in bundles; as an independent theater owner Brandt is paying top dollar for bundles that included films with expensive stars in “prestige” films that presumably bring less returns than a standard Western or comedy.

It’s hard to say what real effect–if any–Brandt’s letter has on the film business or the stars he criticized.  The rest of the year proves hard for Hepburn, who terminates her contract with RKO after they offer her a role in Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Hepburn trades acting in front of the camera for acting on the stage, joining forces with playwright Phillip Barry to star in his new play “The Philadelphia Story”.  The pair know each other from their work together on Hepburn’s hit Holiday.  She purchases the rights to “The Philadelphia Story”, reportedly to ensure her place in any potential film adaptations.  Despite the “box-office poison” label of the previous year, the promise of a Hepburn stage production is met rather enthusiastically by the press.  On March 28, 1939, “The Philadelphia Story” opens at the Shubert Theatre in New York City.  The play is so successful that it tours until Hepburn leaves to work on the film adaptation (reports suggest that Hepburn receives offers from studios within days of the play’s opening.)  She sells the rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a guaranteed starring role, as well as her choice of director and costars.  For “box-office poison,” Hepburn is certainly receiving the star treatment.

The Philadelphia Story is immediately branded Hepburn’s comeback to screen stardom.  In fact, it is considered this even before the films’ successful theatrical run; while The Philadelphia Story is still in production a feature in The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Hepburn is “Back in Hollywood making [the play] into a picture, with a supporting cast which includes Cary Grant, James Stewart, and some others who are not ordinarily put into pictures thought likely to be ‘poison at the box office.'”  Another article–this one a full-page feature in Ed Sullivan’s “Chicago Daily Tribune” column, refers to her as “The Girl Who Proved Studios Wrong” before the film is even shot.

The Philadelphia Story is released on Christmas Day 1940.  It breaks box office records with successful runs throughout the United States, including a record six week run at Radio City Music Hall.  In fact, the screenings cease only because Radio City is “faced with a schedule of ten films awaiting exhibition.”  The Philadelphia Story is also a critical darling, with one reviewer calling Hepburn’s turn as Tracy Lord “her champion achievement.”  Costar James Stewart and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart go on to earn Academy Awards for their efforts, while Hepburn, costar Ruth Hussey, director Cukor, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz also receive nominations.

While reviews of Hepburn’s performance are largely positive, they are also rife with the rhetoric of previous failures, comebacks, and returns to glory. An article that appears in The Washington Post provides a stunning example: “Stigmatized only a few short months ago by a premature oracle of the celluloids as one of the stars who was ‘poison at the boxoffice,’ Miss Hepburn arises now in all her might to confound her critics.”  This article highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the comeback plot line–it implies an active wilfulness on the part of Hepburn to disprove Brandt’s statement.  Interviews with Hepburn indicate, however, that she doesn’t believe in Brandt’s assessment: “I truly believed that everybody still adored me, that it was nothing but bad material that had made me ‘box-office poison.'”  Fascinatingly, only six days after the release of the film, The New York Times announces that Mr. ‘Box-Office Poison’ Brandt himself has “issued a statement recanting the charge and paid tribute to her performance” in the film.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether Brandt’s opinion truly mattered to audiences and critics of the time, or if it simply made for a good headline in the newspaper.  Regardless, the presence of the retraction in a reputable paper like The New York Times indicates that the term was still a part of the American media landscape almost two years after the original publication of Brandt’s letter.  Despite Brandt’s retraction, the infamous list remains a vital (if somewhat dubious) part of the Hepburn legend.  Contemporary reviews of The Philadelphia Story, film retrospectives, and Hepburn biographies alike continue to situate the “box-office poison” label as the hurdle for Hepburn-as-heroine to overcome, as if starring in a successful film is both a redemptive act and a purposeful attempt to “prove studios wrong.”

Unfortunately, today’s historians and biographers have followed the lead of Hepburn’s journalist contemporaries who stripped Brandt’s letter of its context and allowed (if not encouraged) the stigma of his list to become part of Hepburn’s legacy.  It is an indelible part of her story, while it is hardly mentioned in the biographies of the other stars listed.  For better or for worse, The Philadelphia Story will “always be remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s exclusive property–the story that brought her from ‘Box-Office Poison’ to her current status as one of the Foremost Stars of ALL-TIME.”

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