I can still recall the first time that I saw Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933). I was just a teenager flipping channels one lazy afternoon and suddenly the opening credits appeared on my television. I noticed Colin Clive’s name so I paused. I was familiar with the actor thanks to his role as Doctor Frankenstein and I was a big fan. The wonderfully eerie theme for Christopher Strong was composed by Roy Webb (Cat People; 1942, I Walked with A Zombie; 1943, The Seventh Victim; 1943, The Spiral Staircase; 1945, The Body Snatcher; 1945) was also rather ominous so I immediately thought I was going to be seeing another horror film or thriller but I soon discovered that I was wrong. Christopher Strong isn’t a horror film. It’s a romantic melodrama with some unexpected action featuring a spectacular star performance from the wonderful Katharine Hepburn. The movie captivated me and surprised me. It also made me a lifelong Hepburn fan.
In Christopher Strong Hepburn plays a beautiful and daring aviatrix aptly named Lady Cynthia Darrington. Christopher Strong is the name of Colin Clive’s character in the film but it seems to be a subtle play on words with a double meaning. Clive’s character is anything but strong and in fact, it is Hepburn’s character who is really a tower of strength in the film.
The two future lovers meet at a lavish scavenger hunt (three years before a similar plot device was used in the opening of My Man Godfrey; 1936) where they’re not exactly guests. Cynthia Darrington has been brought to the party as an example of a virginal woman who hasn’t had any substantial relationships with a man but she’s far from innocent. She arrives wearing a smart aviatrix outfit and driving a sporty roadster. Hepburn’s character then proceeds to strut through the party with a broad grin on her face and a knowing sparkle in her eye. She may be unlucky at love but she’s obviously a woman of the world with lots of experience in other areas of life. The much older Christopher Strong arrives at the party with encouragement from his devoted daughter (Helen Chandler) as an example of a faithfully married man who is deeply committed to his wife. He gives a preachy speech about the sanctity of marriage that clearly impresses Cynthia Darrington. It also quickly becomes apparent that Christopher Strong has become fascinated with Darrington’s independent spirit. The two leave the party together in Darrington’s sports car and as she speeds down the darkly lit road it’s obvious that this unlikely pair have become deeply attracted to one another.
Christopher Strong and Cynthia Darrington’s love affair takes center stage and the two share some rather steamy romantic moments together. Most notably in a gondola while in Cannes where they’re serenaded by a group of roaming troubadours. And when the unconventional couple finally consummates their relationship we get a surprisingly erotic glimpse of Hepburn’s slender hand showing off the bracelet that Christopher has given her as well as her aviation ring that is embedded with the motto, “Courage Conquers Death.” But the most exciting scenes in Christopher Strong involve Cynthia Darrington’s flying adventures.
During the movie the daring female pilot attempts to fly around the world in Amelia Earhart fashion (it’s important to note that Earhart would lose her life in a similar flight some 4 years after Christopher Strong was made) and almost succeeds, but her nerves and Christopher’s lack of support put an early end to her flight. Cynthia Darrington may be the “other woman” but as we watch Katharine Hepburn’s character make headlines as a female aviatrix and marshal parades in her own honor I find it impossible to not root for her success and romantic victory. Maybe that’s because the actresses’ own romantic history is rather complicated?
They say opposites attract and in Christopher Strong this idea is played out with devastating results. Hepburn’s character surrenders her independence and daredevil ways for the love of a married man. She’s a genuine home-wrecker but it’s easy to forgive her. After all, she was an innocent in matters of love before she met Christopher Strong and his wife (Billie Burke) is admittedly old-fashioned and narrow-minded. On the other hand, I think Clive’s character in the film is extremely unlikable. Christopher Strong is all talk and very little action. He can’t seem to commit to anyone or anything in his life and his lack of a backbone ends up hurting everyone around him. This can partially be blamed on Colin Clive’s unusually stiff performance but it’s also easy to imagine that director Dorothy Arzner and writer Zoë Akins intentionally made Clive’s character unsympathetic. This early talkie was probably hindered by the impact of the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code, which was being put in place at the time and demanded that adultery should be punished in the movies. But Arzner was a smart woman and a talented filmmaker who still managed to defy expectations. Her direction is extremely creative at times and the film is surprisingly subversive despite its conservative streak.
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was somewhat alone in my affection for this movie. Christopher Strong didn’t make many fans when it was originally released in 1933. The film was popular in New York but failed to win over audiences anywhere else. Critics seemed to find Hepburn’s domineering character too masculine and cold. But I think she was just ahead of her time and critics had a hard time understanding her. Hepburn’s ability to pull off dramatic scenes as well as comedy with an awkward effortless grace was hard to overlook, but many did. Thankfully she had a few defenders such as Mordaunt Hall at The New York Times who thought “… Miss Hepburn delivers an excellent character study. This lithe and graceful actress is convincing as a flying enthusiast and also as the lady who loves another woman’s husband. Her performance is always sympathetic, notwithstanding Lady Cynthia’s meretricious conduct.” Today it’s still considered a lessor Hepburn film but I’ve never understood why.
I find Hepburn’s performance in Christopher Strong to be an absolute revelation. It was only the actress’s second film but her talent is apparent and there really hadn’t been another screen presence quite like her. At the time of the movie’s release, Hepburn was occasionally being compared to Greta Garbo who she resembled and Marlene Dietrich who also enjoyed wearing slacks. You can even spot a little of Barbara Stanwyck’s swagger in Hepburn’s confident walk but Hepburn’s appeal was very different. Her strong demeanor, powerful presence, clear-eyed sense of humor and androgynous beauty seemed utterly American, completely independent and truly modern. She was her own woman and she never let you forget it.
In Christopher Strong her tall lanky frame seems to fit perfectly into her aviatrix uniform and you never question her flying skills or driving abilities. But Hepburn is equally comfortable wearing an incredible party costume designed to make her look like a shimmering moth. If her star-turning performance in Christopher Strong doesn’t impress you, her astonishing wardrobe (designed by Howard Greer and Walter Plunkett) undoubtedly will.
“If I hadn’t been an actress I can’t imagine what I would have been. Well, yes, I can. I would have liked being an aviator, like Amelia Earhart. But that isn’t a career to last as long as mine did, especially if you have some bad luck as she did. In that field you don’t get to have bad luck many times.
Several of the men I was attracted to could fly a plane and were aviation enthusiasts. Leland [Hayward] and Howard [Hughes] were dedicated fliers and Luddy [Ludlow Ogden Smith] could have built a plane. Leland helped me ‘fly my career.’ Howard wore a little plane on his jacket. He liked flying better than anything else in life. Howard’s name was a synonym for flying. Obviously I was always attracted to flying and fliers.”
It’s easy to imagine Katharine Hepburn as an accomplished aviator. She not only looks the part but she seems more than capable of piloting a plane. I think that’s probably why Christopher Strong is one of my favorite Hepburn films. In some ways, the actress lived the part of Lady Cynthia Darrington and it’s apparent on screen.
Christopher Strong is scheduled to air on TCM Friday, August 20th as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars celebration devoted to the films of Katharine Hepburn. It’s the earliest Hepburn movie being shown that day and I think it’s well worth a look. If you’re not a Hepburn fan yet Christopher Strong might have the ability to make you one too.
Update: I just discovered that Christopher Strong is also available from the Warner Brother Archives. Warner Brothers currently sells the film online but it isn’t available for rent. For more information please see the Warner Brother Archives.
by Kimberly Lindbergs originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on TCM.com in August 2010.