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Quality Street

13 Aug

Quality Street – directed by George Stevens. Costume Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★

The Story: In 1805, a young woman hopes for a proposal from the local doctor, but instead he leaves for The Napoleonic Wars and comes back 10 years later, when, in revenge for his rebuff, she pretends to be her own 20-year-old madcap niece.

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One wonders why Katharine Hepburn chose to drink this flagon of box office poison, after three flops in a row. Was it because George Stevens was to direct it? He had directed Alice Adams, a hit, and they had had an affair then.

It’s J.M. Barrie, and Maud Adams, Of Peter Pan fame, had starred in it on Broadway in 63 performances. It hardly offers Hepburn room for her trump suit of self-possessed, willful, smart, game women such as she would play in Stevens, Woman Of The Year.

Perhaps Hepburn thought the double roles of Phoebe and Livy would be an acting showcase. But neither female is particularly interesting or true in her hands. Hepburn’s faults as an actress are in full display with them: she puts on airs, she is arch, she is coy. She possessed the terrible trick to summon tears in a second and even control which eye would flow. Her performances all her life tend to be lachrymose, therefore, when only the audience should be.

Of course, there is still plenty in evidence of what we love her for: her remarkable face, her unflinching delivery, her ability to play an upper middle class female, and her ability to get her mouth around such lines as: ‘O, sir, this dictates of my heart enjoin me to accept your offer.’ According to her lights Hepburn snaps the script up like a macaroon. Good for her. Reluctance would have been awful.

The setting is Jane Austen land, and the genre is A Woman’s Film. The women are all in a tizzy about any man who passes who looks dashing. Eric Blore, he of the interminable grimace, as a sergeant is not dashing of course and ends up with the movie’s only authentically human character, the lusty, busty housekeeper, adeptly played by Cora Witherspoon. Estelle Winwood plays the gossip. The exquisite Fay Bainter plays Hepburn’s colluding sister. Franchot Tone plays the doctor beautifully, and looks beautiful doing it.

Maybe RKO thought the Barrie play would show class and tone. She had already played The Little Minister. But the period style stiffens into a pose. A greeting card has more weight. George Stevens, usually a master of screen treatment, films the whole thing as the stage play it is, four square, as fully lit as a cameo. Walter Plunkett’s costumes are frocks from fashion plates, women cradling shawls in the crook of their elbows when no sensible woman would have done so. Actually, Hepburn’s modern American manner is quite out of place in costume pieces, save in Little Women, which requires a hoyden in a long dress. Jo’s an A-level Hepburn character; Phoebe/Livy aint. Quality Street? A curiosity piece.

 
 
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