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Warner Home Video presents
Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection (Morning Glory / Without Love / Dragon Seed / Undercurrent / Sylvia Scarlett / The Corn Is Green) (1933-79)

"You're everything that's fresh and lovely and sweet and brave and good."
- Michael (Brian Aherne), about our Kate, in Sylvia Scarlett

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: August 30, 2007

Stars: Katharine Hepburn
Other Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou, Spencer Tracy, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Walter Huston, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Jayne Meadows, Edmund Gwenn, Cary Grant, Brian Aherne. Ian Saynor
Director: Lowell Sherman, Harold S. Bucquet, Jack Conway, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 10h:35m:09s
Release Date: May 29, 2007
UPC: 085391137047
Genre: compilation


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ B+CC C+

DVD Review

2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the enchanting and incomparable Katharine Hepburn—we shall not see her like again, and she is likely to remain a great icon, of the independent woman, the leading lady, the Hollywood survivor, the flinty New Englander. To commemorate the centenary, Warner Bros. has issued this set of six of her films, which feels rather like a catalog grab bag. I don't know that a single movie in the set would make the Hepburn six-pack of one's dreams, and the great gift that Hepburn fans keep hoping to find under the Christmas tree is the long-delayed DVD release of The African Queen. But these movies cut across the decades and genres; some are more worthwhile than others, certainly, and as it inevitably does, your mileage may vary.

Morning Glory (1933)

"I've something very wonderful in me, you'll see."
—Eva (Katharine Hepburn)

Take the hick out of Eva Lovelace, the character Miss Hepburn plays here, and you cannot help but wonder how much the actress had in common with the role in this, her first Oscar-winning performance. It's a backstage Broadway story that runs through all the standard types of the form: the lecherous, money-grubbing producer, the playwright with an elevated sense of his own importance, a chorus line full of actresses eager to log some time on the casting couch and (also a career move) running down their rivals as bitchily and as frequently as possible. Eva (born Ada Love—the pornographic aspects of her stage name, Eva Lovelace, are exclusively for us to laugh about ahistorically) is recently off the bus from the homey burg of Franklin, Vermont, with reams of ambition and charm, an unshakable faith in her own talent, and a relentless persistence to succeed at all costs. On some level we admire her fortitude while on another we have to think that she's a self-involved psycho. But it's an absolutely familiar story—Eva wants to follow in the footsteps of Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt, and only the names have changed for aspiring young women of today. (Also their destination—they're now more likely to decamp to Hollywood rather than Broadway.)

Adolphe Menjou is the producer with the Midas touch who may or may not have compromised Eva's virtue after a few too many flutes of champagne; and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the soulful young playwright who detects in Eva a kindred spirit, not just another peroxided, self-involved diva. As much as anything else, it's a movie about the effects of a pretty face on the high and mighty, and we see the same backstage dynamics at work in everything from All About Eve to The Player. Undoubtedly like scores of men in the audience, pretty much every man on the screen falls head over heels for Eva—she's going out there just a Shakespeare-quoting high-maintenance piece of arm candy apparently looking for a sugar daddy, but she's coming back a star.

It's a slight story, and had to have felt a bit shopworn even back in 1933. But at less than an hour and fifteen minutes, it moves along peppily, and knowing that Hepburn was on the cusp of one of the great careers in the film business, you cannot help but watch and smile at what must have felt like her coming-out party.



Without Love (1945)

"Just sheer, wonderful animal spirit."
—Jamie (Katharine Hepburn)

Certainly no Katharine Hepburn set would be complete without an appearance by Spencer Tracy—they were one of the great Hollywood romances, on screen and off, and this movie, while not without its charms, is surely not in the same league as pictures like Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib. It certainly comes with the right pedigree: like The Philadelphia Story, the screenplay is by Donald Ogden Stewart and is based on a stage play by Philip Barry. It may be historical circumstances that keep this one from a spot in the pantheon—it's certainly not for lack of star power or commitment, because Kate and Spence give it all they've got, even if the material doesn't really stack up.

Released in 1945, the movie has about it the air of war—Tracy plays Pat Jamieson, a laboratory scientist new to our nation's capital, pressed into service for a very hush hush project. (The plot certainly strains credulity, because you've got to believe that a military undertaking with the importance of the Manhattan Project might just be underway by some absent-minded eggheads in your neighbor's basement.) This being wartime and Jamieson not being much for planning, he cannot find a hotel room, and good fortune arrives in the form of Quentin (Keenan Wynn), a happy dashing drunk with a rich cousin with an empty house. That cousin turns out to be Jamie, played by Hepburn, a somewhat imperious widow who mistakes Pat as an applicant for the caretaker position for which she has advertised. So it's kind of standard Hollywood meet cute, even more so when we learn that they each consider themselves unlucky in love—she's a widow, and has canonized her late husband; he consistently chooses the wrong women, and has recently had his heart stomped on by a coquettish little French thing called Lila Vine.

They're like minded and have sworn off love, and agree to what you might call a marriage of convenience: they'll be terrific intellectual company, especially as she helps with his research, but their partnership will be in the lab exclusively, and certainly not in the bedroom. You can probably connect the dots yourself here: first comes marriage, then comes love. What's kind of unfortunate is that there's more smutty innuendo in this movie than you might anticipate—Tracy's somnambulism is a cheap excuse to goad the Hays Code office and get husband and wife into bed together, for instance, though on the up side, it's hard to think of another romantic comedy that uses The Waste Land as a crucial plot point.

Wynn seems to be having more fun than either of the leads, especially because he gets to play the bulk of his scenes opposite Lucille Ball, as Hepburn's real estate agent and manager—even in black and white, it's kind of a kick to see the two leading ladies together, perhaps the most famous redheads in Hollywood history. Many of the best laughs come from Tracy's dog, Dizzy, which isn't really a good sign.



Dragon Seed (1944)

"I cannot stay always in the courtyard. These are not ancient times."
—Jade (Katharine Hepburn)

Oh, dear. History has been unkind to this film; though one cannot help thinking that it wasn't very good and may have been profoundly misguided to begin with. It's always a challenge to view movies from other eras and not impose our contemporary political and moral sensibilities onto them, but really, there's no way not to recoil from the principal fact of this film: Katharine Hepburn plays and is made up to look like a Chinese woman. Who could have thought this was a good idea? She and the rest of her Caucasian cast mates join the ignominious roster of white actors trafficking in Asian stereotypes and bad makeup, a list that might be headed by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Was this really okay back in the day? Because here it plays out like the Asian version of blackface—it's so patently offensive that it's hard to take the movie on any other level.

And at two and a half hours, it is insanely and ponderously long. On the progressive side of things, it boasts three women in its writing credits—the movie is based on a novel by Pearl S. Buck, and Marguerite Roberts and Jane Murfin share screenplay credit. But they've done no favors to their already disadvantaged cast, saddling them with exaggeratedly formal diction that sounds like haltingly translated Chinese: "Is it not good with me here?" You can feel the semblance of some sexual politics, at least—Hepburn plays Jade, a young wife who chafes at the constraints placed on her by ancient gender roles in the small, self-contained farming village in which she lives. The invasion of the village by the Japanese provides Jade with a heretofore unthinkable leadership role; still, the film is close to unwatchable, and the less said about it the better.



Undercurrent (1946)

"Where there's no spark, there's no fire."
—Ann (Katharine Hepburn)

When you think of Miss Hepburn's corpus of work, and imagine her teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli, I'd wager that the first thing that comes to mind is not film noir—but curiously enough that's just what you'll find in this moody piece, full of marital secrets and döppelgangers, deeply reminiscent of Suspicion and Mildred Pierce. Hepburn stars as Ann, the daughter of a crusty old New England professor, and if Ann isn't quite old enough to be an old maid, she's certainly on her way. That is, until she's swept off her feet by Alan Garroway, a dashing international industrialist who has partnered up with the professor, putting a laboratory breakthrough to work both to do well and to do good. Their courtship is all but a couple of frames—soon Ann and Alan are married, and she's whisked off to Washington, D.C., where he quickly transforms her from a dowdy, matronly sort into a postwar Sally Quinn.

And then the secrets start bubbling up: Alan has a brother. Who has mysteriously disappeared. And whom no one may speak of. And whom many think Alan has offed. You can see where it's headed: Ann starts out as Galatea to Alan's Pygmalion, only to nose closer to the sneaking suspicion that she's in fact married to O.J. Simpson. Robert Taylor is quite dashing as Alan, conveying both the air of the grand international industrialist and the paranoiacally suspicious little brother—this treads perilously close to (be still my heart!) an evil twin movie, and given that Robert Mitchum gets top billing, it's not too rough to deduce where this is all headed.

Certainly one of the pleasures of this film is that its characters inhabit an impossibly rarified world in which they own houses absolutely everywhere, and each one with its own full-time caretaker. Notable too is Jayne Meadows, as an old flame of Alan's—she is supposed to bear the same sort of uncanny similarity to Ann that the Garroway brothers do to one another. Aside from the Mitchum casting, too, there's a lot of telegraphing in the film, frequently from animals—horses that rear up and run away or dogs that whimper and turn tail when a bad character has entered the room, just out of frame. And Ann's father's dog is named Rummy, so the opportunity to insert your own jokes about President George W. Bush's first Secretary of Defense are legion.



Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

"Do you know what we are? He's a crook, and he's a crook, and he's a crook. Three bad eggs."
—Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn)

You might be tantalized by this early teaming of Hepburn with Cary Grant and director George Cukor, but films like The Philadelphia Story can only be faintly gleaned here—instead, it's a fantastically melodramatic shaggy dog of a movie, with a degree of sexual innuendo that had to have been racy in its day, and must have helped to usher in the stricter rules of the Hays Code. Hepburn plays the title character, a poor young waif who has just lost her mother and is now to be looked after by her wastrel of a father—he's not too busted up by the death of his wife but is desperately afraid regarding the debts he's got no chance of paying off, so he hightails it out of Marseilles and to his native England. (The conceit of the film is that Sylvia is half French and half English.) For reasons that seem to have more to do with plot expediency than common sense, Mr. Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn) decides that he'll have better success traveling with a boy rather than a girl—so Kate spends much of the film in drag, as Sylvester Scarlett. In the conservatory. With the candlestick.

On their ship bound for the mother country, they meet—who would have guessed?—a mysterious stranger: Jimmy Monkley, confidence man, charmer, and film legend in the making. This isn't quite the iconic Grant—he's a bit coarse and common here, not the dashing figure he'd soon evolve into, but he and the Scarletts start up on a series of short cons, grifting their way through the underbelly of English society. The story seems episodic at best, and frequently rudderless—the trio try to bamboozle and then partner up with Maude, a dunce of a cockney maid who dreams of music hall stardom, and they decide to put on a show! The four become the Pink Pierrots, a largely talentless traveling troupe, but one that captures the eye and the fancy of Brian Aherne as a bohemian artist sort with lady troubles of his own.

Essentially, this is Sylvia's coming-of-age story, though it's not too sturdily constructed, stopping still for mediocre vaudeville numbers and such oddities as Gwenn as a drunken, love-besotted road company Lear, raging on the heath in a storm. It's sort of worth watching for Hepburn's charm, especially when she's dressed as a boy—it's a device straight out of As You Like It or Twelfth Night, sexually ambiguous enough to be catnip to both men and women. I doubt that 1935 audiences anticipated the great things to come from the Hepburn/Grant pairing, but from our vantage, it's a lovely first shot across the bow.



The Corn Is Green (1978)

"I don't recall that I ever had any hope."
—Miss Moffat (Katharine Hepburn)

You can't help but feel that there's something ineffably sad about Katharine Hepburn in a made-for-TV movie, even if this one comes with a respectable pedigree—she's reunited with Cukor, but the project feels too tired and by the numbers to qualify as a proper victory lap. By this point, the Katharine Hepburn character had become a stock figure: the spunky independent woman who needs no man to define her life, and whose good manners and impeccable breeding keep her saucy tongue in check, most of the time, anyway. Here the Hepburn figure is plucked out of America and dropped down into Wales, though Hepburn doesn't even nod in the direction of an accent. She plays Miss Moffat, who has inherited a lovely manor house in a Welsh mining town—she shocks the local gentry by arriving with two impudent servants in tow, and launches the unthinkable idea of beginning a school for the local children, though for generations the working class families here have been consigned to short and dirty lives working in the mines.

It's no great surprise, then, that for purposes of dramatic necessity she discovers a prodigy, a soot-covered Will Hunting, if you will. Can she provide the boy with a proper education, even underwrite his years at university? Or is it simply a bit of cruelty, given that he and his forebears have been content with their lives, and expect to offer the same choice to their children and grandchildren? The air of noblesse oblige that permeates the story borders on imperialist; Cukor's dramatic interest seems to be in Hepburn exclusively, turning the children into so many cute little props. Certainly it's appropriately melodramatic, in a Goodbye, Mr. Chips kind of way; but it's really just soapy only, and it's pleasing to remember that Hepburn had a late-career flourish after this with On Golden Pond and on Broadway, rather than concluding in a project that nips its scenes to come in at the right time for the commercial breaks.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Image quality varies; Morning Glory looks, on occasion, hideously acid-damaged; Without Love fares somewhat better, but still shows lots of scratches. Picture problems are probably worst with Sylvia Scarlett, which begs for a restoration; The Corn Is Green is the only one of the six shot in color.

Image Transfer Grade: C

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: Again, quality varies—Undercurrent is surely the worst of the lot, sounding frequently like it was recorded under water, and some of the dialogue is well nigh impossible to discern.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 166 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Portuguese with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
8 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Box Set
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: A couple of brief but notable extras on some of the discs. Morning Glory features two vintage shorts: in the first, Menu (10m:20s), an eager housewife gets tips from a master chef, while her husband (played by Preston Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn, sans moustache) gets only indigestion and bicarbonate of soda. And in a Looney Tunes cartoon, an attempt to build Bosco's Mechanical Man (06m:56s) goes horribly wrong, and the robot intended to help around the house gets Frankensteiny ideas of his own. The Without Glory disc sports an original trailer, along with Purity Squad (19m:51s), fantastically earnest, "A Crime Does Not Pay Subject," with lawmen pursuing medical quacks in a pre-FDA era; and a Tex Avery Cartoon, Swing Shift Cinderella (07m:45s), in which a working girl is pursued quite literally by a wolf.

Dragon Seed comes with an original trailer as well, and a celebration of MGM's first two decades, Twenty Years After: A New Romance of Celluloid (09m:10s), which is basically a highlight reel. Then Screwy Squirrel takes the lead as he tries to bust out of Moron Manor, in Happy-Go-Nutty (07m:09s). Undercurrent sports a trailer, a few typos in its subtitles ("hand over first"), and two more shorts: Traffic with the Devil (18m:38s), a Fact Film From Real Life, is about maniacal L.A. drivers, but compared to rush hour these days, things here look downright pastoral; and a cartoon starring Lonesome Lenny (07m:45s), a poor little rich dog and his new friend from the pound.

Sylvia Scarlett gives us an MGM Traveltalks short—accompanied by Nathan Shilkriet's Traveltalks Orchestra, no less—called Los Angeles: Wonder City of the West (08m:30s), and it's worth watching for a stunning look at the streets or L.A. in 1935, and in color. It's a celebration of Googie architecture, has many shots of the long-departed red cars (cf. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), and features visits to the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney's house. And in a cartoon short, Alias St. Nick (10m:03s), a cat impersonating Santa wants to make Christmas less than merry for a house full of mice.

Finally, The Corn Is Green has neither extras nor a trailer, though it is the only title in the set with Portuguese subtitles; the rest have subtitles in English and French only.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

You'll have to assemble your own Hepburn greatest hits set (try Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The African Queen and On Golden Pond for a grand career overview), but she's always jolly company, and it's a pleasure to watch the on-screen Hepburn persona take shape and age well.

 


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