Katharine Hepburn's second movie may not be well known, but thanks to Warner Archive it's getting the attention it deserves. Christopher Strong deals less with its titular character than it does with the women in his life, one of whom is Hepburn as a free-spirited, Amelia Earhart-like aviatrix. Director Dorothy Arzner brings her unique perspective to this dramatic tale that looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray. A brand new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, remastered audio, and a few vintage supplements help this disc soar to a lofty plane. Highly Recommended.
The one thing that always sticks in my memory about Christopher Strong is the scene where Katharine Hepburn emerges from her character's bedroom wearing a shimmering, skin-tight, silver gown with a matching skull cap sprouting curly antennae. (She's going to a costume party as - what else? - a moth.) The outlandish outfit is a conversation piece for sure, but it has unfairly become the film's defining image and often gives potential viewers the erroneous impression that Christopher Strong is a weird, even wacky movie with sci-fi overtones. Even I forget that director Dorothy Arzner's pre-Code picture is a serious, adult drama about infidelity that deserves far more attention than that one crazy costume. But every time I see the film, I remember.
Christopher Strong has less to do with its titular character than it does with the three women in his life, and there's no one better than Arzner, the only female director working in Hollywood at the time, to depict their respective stories. Arzner's liberated perspective meshes well with Hepburn's independent, non-conformist persona and together the two women craft a striking and affecting portrait of someone who lives life on her own terms until her love for a married man puts her in a confining box that threatens to crush her spirit.
Lady Cynthia Darrington (Hepburn), a daring aviatrix who laughs in the face of danger as she chases records and strives to make history, meets Sir Christopher Strong (Clive), a respected member of the British Parliament, at one of his sister's wild parties after both are dragged in by guests on a scavenger hunt. She represents a woman over age 20 who has never had a love affair and he's that rare male specimen who has been married for more than five years and never been unfaithful to his wife. Christopher is steadfastly devoted to Lady Elaine (Billie Burke) and both disapprove of the brazen behavior of their grown daughter Monica (Helen Chandler), who blithely carries on with a devil-may-care married man (Ralph Forbes).
Christopher and Cynthia become friends, but over time an attraction develops and an affair ensues. Elaine senses Christopher's growing indifference toward her and suspects his infidelity, but her pride and sense of propriety keep her from confronting him. As the story progresses and examines sexual politics from different angles, all the couplings are tested and all the characters' viewpoints and attitudes about life and love evolve...for better and worse.
Christopher Strong, like many pre-Code films, treats male-female relationships in a refreshingly frank manner. The script by Zoë Akins, who two years later would win the Pulitzer Prize for her play The Old Maid (which would be successfully filmed in 1939 with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins), paints full-bodied portraits of all three women and doesn't pussyfoot around such spicy topics as extramarital sex, one-night stands, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The dialogue is literate and lyrical, and though the characters are primarily archetypes, they feel authentic.
Arzner, who had just finished Merrily We Go to Hell, a devastating portrait of a misbegotten marriage with Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney, picks up right where she left off. Relationships, whether they be between men and women or girlfriends, were Arzner's bread-and-butter and she manages all the complex dynamics and moral dilemmas here with aplomb. Several artistic shots enhance the emotional notes in the narrative and she and cinematographer Bert Glennon, who would nab an Oscar nod for John Ford's Stagecoach several years later, lovingly photograph Hepburn, giving her the total star treatment with an array of breathtaking close-ups.
The two strong-willed women, however, reportedly clashed on the set. In his 1975 biography of Hepburn, author Charles Higham writes that Arzner "drove [Hepburn] very hard, and the two women frequently quarreled." Christopher Strong was just Hepburn's second motion picture and first starring role, and Arzner, who was always under enormous pressure to succeed given her status as the only female in an exclusive boys club, struggled to exert control over the free-spirited actress who had definite ideas on how her role should be played, but didn't yet enjoy the lofty standing to implement them.
Howard Greer designed all the costumes except one. The moth abomination was dreamt up by Walter Plunkett, who would win an Oscar almost two decades later for An American in Paris. According to Higham, the gown was made "entirely of bits of metal. It was unbearably heavy, and when [Hepburn] removed it, each portion of it had to be peeled off with inifinite care, or it would have skinned her alive. When she rested in the costume, she couldn't sit down, but had to lie, in pain, on a slantboard."
Health problems also plagued Hepburn during shooting, but she rose above them, giving a restrained yet captivating performance in a role that fits her like a glove. Brash one minute and achingly vulnerable the next, she insightfully portrays a woman who's torn between her thirst for excitement, adventure, and freedom and a need to be nurtured, sheltered, and loved. Though the chemistry between Hepburn and Clive, best known for his turn as the titular scientist in Frankenstein, is tepid at best, she makes the union believable.
Clive often gets a bad rap for his stiffness, but it befits a stuffy aristocrat and member of Parliament. At age 33, he plays a far older character quite believably and without the benefit of any transformative makeup. He's entirely credible as Chandler's father, even though he's a mere six years older than she. Chandler also shot to fame in a Universal horror film (Dracula) and is especially good as the amoral party girl who changes her tune when she learns her dad is having an affair. Forbes excels as her adulterous playboy lover, but the real surprise is Burke, who we mostly remember as a ditzy, frivolous society matron in an array of classic comedies, Dinner at Eight chief among them. As Christopher's long-suffering, slightly neurotic wife, she's supremely touching and never strikes a sour note. Burke always claimed her all-time favorite role was Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, but it's a shame she didn't get the chance to play meatier parts in serious dramas more often.
Christopher Strong may only rate a footnote on Hepburn's massive and impressive résumé, but it remains an elegant, absorbing, and substantive film that only gets better with age. It's a treat to witness the birth of Hepburn's bold, feminist, take-no-prisoners persona that would sustain the actress for the next 60 years and to watch this icon of cinema blossom before our eyes. Arzner may not have seen eye-to-eye with Hepburn, but she knew what she had and presents the actress in the finest possible light, silver moth costume and all.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Christopher Strong arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative yields a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of this 90-year-old film. Stunning clarity, superior contrast, and faint yet noticeable grain produce a breathtaking film-like picture that brims with detail and depth. Deep blacks, bright whites, and beautifully varied grays enhance the image, strong shadow delineation keeps crush at bay even during nocturnal scenes, and sharp close-ups highlight Hepburn's angular features and alabaster skin. Costume textures, especially Hepburn's skintight silver gown, are well defined and not a single nick, mark, or scratch mar the pristine source. A few shots look strangely out of focus around the edges of the frame, but that's likely a deficiency of the negative. I don't own the previous DVD of Christopher Strong, but this Blu-ray is without a doubt the definitive home video presentation of this oft-neglected Hepburn curio.
Audio from pre-Code films can be problematic, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is remarkably clean, crisp, and full-bodied. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of an early score by the legendary Max Steiner without any distortion and sonic accents like plane propellers and engines and an explosion are powerful enough to rock the room. Sometimes the effects can drown out isolated lines, but overall the dialogue is easy to comprehend. No pops or crackle intrude and just the faintest bit of hiss can be detected during quiet moments. Once again, the wizards at Warner have restored a challenging track to near perfection and it's music to our ears.
Three vintage shorts comprise the extras package.
Vintage Short: Plane Nuts (HD, 20 minutes) - This aptly titled 1933 two-reeler stars Ted Healy and his "Stooges" - Moe, Larry, and Curly - in a slap-happy revue that unevenly combines slapstick vaudeville routines with lavish, kaleidoscopic musical numbers (one of which features an aviation theme) populated by dozens of chorus girls and boys. The short is directed by Jack Cummings, who would go on to produce some of MGM's greatest musicals, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Kiss Me, Kate.
Vintage Short: Tomalio (HD, 22 minutes) - This 1933 Vitaphone short stars the incomparable Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in his final film before his untimely death at age 46. (Arbuckle had just finished resuscitating his career after being wrongly implicated in a notorious scandal years before and had just signed a feature film contract with Warner Bros the day before he died in his sleep.) Directed by Ray McCarey, brother of Leo McCarey, the short chronicles Arbuckle's comedic struggles with both his stubborn mule and an eccentric Mexican general.
Vintage Cartoon: Buddy's Beer Garden (HD, 7 minutes) - This early black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon looks spectacular in HD and features a caricature of Mae West while depicting the madcap goings-on at a beer garden.
Strong performances and Arzner's elegant direction keep Christopher Strong airborne and Warner Archive's beautiful transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative helps this pre-Code antique soar to new heights. Excellent audio and a few notable supplements enhance this definitive presentation of an often overlooked but highly worthwhile and enjoyable film. Highly Recommended.
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