Credit: RKO

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Tom Atkinson

The funniest thing about Dorothy Arzner’s 1933 film for RKO, Christopher Strong, is its name. The title character is played by Colin Clive, whose charm belies his emptiness, and reveals Arzner and writer Zoë Akins’ ploy at making him the purported centre of the film’s universe. He is less a person than a point around which the rest of the film orbits, and it’s at the edges of that orbit that Arzner and Akins find their interests: the women in Sir Christopher’s life.  

Arzner and Akins are infatuated not with Sir Christopher, but with Lady Cynthia Darrington, played by one of the only actresses to make a successful transition from pre-Code to Code, Katharine Hepburn. It’s a rare role for someone with her strong-willed, independent-minded screen persona, the only time she ever played The Other Woman. The film itself is an unusual affair film too, one where the drama lies not in the husband-wife or husband-mistress relationship, but in the separate pain suffered by wife and mistress. Sir Christopher is a hole in the film’s centre, filled by the women he has wronged. 

Affair stories are composed of three parties: the cuckold or cuckquean (the feminine version – I’m learning something new every day in lockdown!), their philandering spouse, and the other lover. The formulation on its own feels dangerous. How do you get around this complex, interlinked mess of clashing perspectives and desires without seeming prudish by rooting for a loveless marriage, or heartless for thinking only of The Other Woman? 

Arzner is one of the few filmmakers to have avoided both in Christopher Strong, though it must have proved a challenge. Hepburn, even in 1933, even in only her second film role, was already a magnetic presence. She has something of the tomboyish, smirking self-assuredness of Marlene Dietrich; but Dietrich also had a European mystique on the other side of the pond, which famously skyrocketed whenever Josef Von Sternberg trained his camera on her face. Hepburn is more down-to-earth, and even in a relatively serious drama like Arzner’s film, there was already a wacky screwball energy inside her waiting for a George Cukor or Howard Hawks to harness it.

Such qualities make her a difficult problem to sidestep. Even without Hepburn in the role, the character of Lady Cynthia, a spritely, warm, Transatlantic-accented pilot in her 20s, is a stark contrast to the chilly, rigid English aristocracy in which the story takes place. It’s wondrous that Arzner is able to make a protagonist out of this glamorous, very modern woman, and still empathise just as fervently with Sir Christopher’s cheated-on wife, Lady Elaine (Billie Burke).

The milieu of 1930s London, especially with the sense of duty foisted on Lady Elaine as the wife of an MP, might well have given Arzner and Akins an easy path for their characterisation of the cuckqueaned wife. There are hints of Lady Elaine’s shrewish side in the subplot where she disapproves, in that classically maternal, instinctually repressive way, of her daughter Monica’s (Helen Chandler) dalliance with party animal and married man Harry (Ralph Forbes). But Monica’s friendship with Lady Cynthia complicates matters, tethering Lady Elaine to the woman who might well destroy her marriage.

Arzner avoids pity or condescension in her treatment of Lady Elaine, and Billie Burke plays her with real dignity and sadness. The compassion for the character, who is temperamentally worlds away from Hepburn’s, is quite astounding for a fairly inconsequential commodity picture from RKO. She is like Carol Kane’s unassimilated Jewish immigrant housewife, Gitl, in Hester Street (1975) from the late Joan Micklin Silver. Like Lady Elaine, Gitl’s character is – or could be – a stereotype from the get-go.

Dutiful and tightly wound, as bound to type by her social status as Elaine, she arrives in New York City to an unwelcoming husband, Jake, who has by now fully embraced the Yankee spirit and become a full-blown American. He is jocular, moustachioed, a bit of a scoundrel – he has little time for his timid wife. Kane and Silver wrestle the film away from Jake’s perspective once Gitl is introduced, however. Her wonder at the New World feels genuine, as are her real desires for an affectionate husband. She is not a mewling hindrance to the life of a charming wannabe bachelor, but a real person. She and Lady Elaine are would-be antagonists in stories about foreign tradition and restrictions, who are invested with life and emotion by Silver and Arzner, respectively.

It is the promise of America that partly underpins both Hester Street and Christopher Strong. Lady Cynthia may have a British name, but Hepburn is pure New England moxie. She was born in Connecticut, the same place where she would die 96 years later, to a urologist father and feminist rights campaigner mother. She called herself Jimmy, a foreshadowing of the iconoclast she would become when she canonised the women-in-trousers look. She might as well have been the ideal, independent American woman, which might be why Sir Christopher wants her so much. Yes, Hepburn’s Lady Cynthia is a performance. But, in a testament to her incorrigible star power, her real-life aura was already inseparable from her onscreen presence. For all intents and purposes, Lady Cynthia and Katharine Hepburn are one and the same.

It’s even more of a wonder, then, that the film’s finale doesn’t feel like a heartless tragedy, foisted onto Hepburn as punishment for her sexual liberation, instead playing like woman-to-woman solidarity between Arzner and Hepburn’s character. Lady Cynthia poses a serious question veiled in a hypothetical: if she were pregnant, what would Sir Christopher do? Ever the well-intentioned emotional simpleton, he says he would leave his wife purely out of duty to his unborn child, regardless of any love he might have for the mother. Lady Cynthia, her amicable relationships with Lady Elaine and Monica in mind, takes one last flight in her trusty airplane to break the world altitude record, before removing her own oxygen supply and plummeting to her death.

This has to be among Old Hollywood’s most unrepentantly fatalistic final reels – Hepburn’s face hidden at first by her pilot’s mask, with talking heads superimposed on the frame around her, reminding her of the imminent damage should she tell Sir Christopher of her pregnancy. It may be the pre-Code talking. But I suspect it has far more to do with the involvement of someone like Dorothy Arzner, who is perspicacious enough to reconcile Lady Cynthia’s deep emotional torment over the potential demise of her lover’s marriage with the pure liberating energy of her profession. 

A small glance towards Hepburn’s Code films somewhat flips the Christopher Strong formulation. She is still a star of scabrous wit, and the men in her life are no match for her sheer rapidity and zaniness. But she is no longer the tragic heroine like in Arzner’s film, in which her sexual exploits, however sympathetic we may be to them, are happening in a milieu that breeds repression and scorns such behaviour. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), she is the fast-talking, chaotic niece of a millionaire, while in Philadelphia Story (1940), she is the belle whose affections are competed for by Cary Grant’s dapper yacht designer and James Stewart’s ratty photojournalist. 

The latter, in particular, displays the double-edged sword of Hepburn’s shift, and the pre- to mid-Code levelling in general. Whereas there is an acknowledgement of her outstanding progressiveness in Arzner’s film, Philadelphia Story features an inversion of Christopher Strong. She is now the centre of orbit in a love triangle where everyone is a free agent, unmoored by marriage. In fact, she and Grant are each other’s ex-spouses – how’s that for progressiveness! But Hepburn, like the citizens of Springfield in the Kang-Kodos election of ’96, must choose one. The relationship between Christopher Strong and Philadelphia Story is like that of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street and Crossing Delancey (1988) – a sly condemnation of matrimony versus a reluctant but ultimately full-throated embrace of it. In spite of Hepburn’s fierce iconoclasm in fashion, politics, and social values, even Dorothy Arzner could not imagine her – or perhaps did not have the freedom to – outside the boundaries of matrimony or motherhood. The Hepburn of Philadelphia Story might well have told her Christopher Strong self: “Don’t blame me – I voted for Cary Grant.”