The knock on Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator has been that it's little more than a clever imitation. But so what? The Aviator comes to life when Blanchett shows up. She brings Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes and the movie some much-needed grounding, and for fans of Hepburn's early films, it's a jolt to see her revived. Hepburn was a force in the '30s: a man-crazy feminist with coltish enthusiasm, fragile cockiness, and sly little smiles that spread across her broad mouth. She was great from the start in films like Alice Adams, playing foolishly insecure women in circumstances well beyond their control, and she was great later in her career, playing independent-minded old spinsters. But the iconic Hepburn really appears first in 1937's Stage Door, when she breezes past an acid-tongued Ginger Rogers and hisses, "Evidently you're a very amusing person."
Like Hepburn's 1933 breakthrough Morning Glory, Stage Door is quasi-biographical. Hepburn plays an heiress who flees to New York to become an actress, stopping first at a ramshackle Broadway boarding house full of aspiring performers, from common hoofers to pretentious grand dames. Rogersalong with Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, and most of the rest of their housematestakes an instant dislike to Hepburn, with her patrician heirs and allusions to Shakespeare, but Stage Door doesn't side with either camp exclusively. It's a snappy, subtle comedy-melodrama about women who snipe at each other when they should be working together to elude wolfish theatrical producers like the one played by Adolphe Menjou. Hepburn's slumming actress preaches solidarity from the beginning, but doesn't have any credibility until she learns to invest her sympathy with real sorrow.
Hepburn jumped straight from Stage Door to Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, in which she played a different kind of heiress: a giddy flibbertigibbet who latches onto pent-up paleontologist Cary Grant and proceeds to make the next 24 hours of catastrophic slapstick seem like a mutually agreed-upon adventure. On Warner's DVD, Hawks pal Peter Bogdanovich provides a commentary, most of which consists of him describing what's going on and chuckling to himself. Bogdanovich does dig up the odd Hawks anecdote, though, like the one where Hawks admits Bringing Up Baby "would've done better at the box office if there'd been a few sane people in it." Indeed, while Hawks is capable of great comedies, and while the rapid patter in Bringing Up Baby is occasionally sidesplitting, Grant and Hepburn's relentless screwball mannerisms verge on the annoying. The movie is full of bright spotsit's hard to overrate the gusto with which Grant says "intercostal clavicle"but it's easy to see why audiences in 1938 didn't go for it.
Hepburn next played her third straight heiress (and her second opposite Grant) in the poignant Holiday, and after a year's exile to the stage, she returned to Hollywood in triumph to team with Grant yet again for the fullest performance of her career. Her character in The Philadelphia Story is an obstinate socialite about to be remarried two years after divorcing Grant's equally obstinate playboy; James Stewart plays the tabloid reporter whom Grant finagles onto Hepburn's family estate on the wedding weekend. In many ways, Stewart is the eyes of the audience, as he finds his working-class cynicism overcome by the charms of the obviously meant-for-each-other exes, as well as the possibility that they might share some of their money. Unlike the untethered, whimsical Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story is more down-to-earth, centered on three difficult but fundamentally likable people caught up in the tension of an impossible moment. The Philadelphia Story collides the '30s newspaper comedy with the blue-blood romantic melodramas to come, and it's also a prescient take on how people in the public eye fight to control their images: Hepburn hates the intrusion of the press because she knows she can't bottle up her warring impulses of lust and independence.
The two-disc Philadelphia Story DVD contains a commentary by enthusiastic Hollywood historian Jeanine Basinger, an hourlong documentary about director George Cukor, and the sensational feature-length documentary All About Me, hosted and narrated by Hepburn and drawn from the text of her biographies. The two-disc Bringing Up Baby has a similar hourlong doc on Hawks and a superb feature-length doc on Grant, while the single-disc Stage Door contains some period short subjects but begs for more background information. The three films are available separately or in the "Classic Comedies Collection" box set, along with Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be and a pair of Jean Harlow films, Dinner At Eight and the hugely underrated Libeled Lady. Dinner At Eight includes a good documentary on Harlow, which mostly illustrates how the doomed blonde bombshell embodied fabricated jazz-age glamourthe kind that hasn't worn too well. No such rot afflicts Hepburn, though. She's solid to the core.