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Hepburn & Cukor

by Susan King

During her 62-year career in which she won a record four Best Actress Oscars, Katharine Hepburn had major collaborations with two men — actor Spencer Tracy and director George Cukor. Hepburn, who was born May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, made nine films with Tracy beginning in 1942 with the romantic comedy “Woman of the Year” and ending 25 years later with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” for which Hepburn won Best Actress. But her relationship with Cukor was even more impressive. He directed her in her film debut in 1932’s “A Bill of Divorcement” as well as nine more films concluding in 1979 with the CBS TV movie “The Corn is Green.”

Cukor, who was known as a woman’s director — after all, he did make 1939’s “The Women,” elicited some of Hepburn’s most complex, less-mannered performances. Here is a look at their collaborations.

A Bill of Divorcement

Hepburn, who had cheekbones that didn’t quit, made her debut giving a sensitive turn as a young woman whose father (John Barrymore) returns home after 15 years in an asylum. Ironically, Hepburn hadn’t impressed anyone in her screen test save for Cukor, who was entranced by her according to an article on the Criterion Collection website. “Her unique quality was more apparent in ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ and by the time ‘Little Women’ was released a year later, everyone understood.” The New York Times was duly impressed with the young actress describing her as “exceptionally fine” adding “Miss Hepburn’s characterization is one of the finest seen on the screen.”

Little Women

Hepburn is perfectly cast as the feisty Jo March in this exquisite 1933 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic novel. noted: “While some of her other films of the period would establish a fluttery, affected screen image that eventually led her to being declared ‘box office poison’ in the late ‘30s.  ‘Little Women’ would show just how fine an actress she could be and provide fans with the perfect embodiment of her brisk, New England strength.

Sylvia Scarlet

Their third collaboration was not the charm with this 1935 gender-bender comedy which was way ahead of its time. A major flop upon release, the charming, fun production has grown in reputation and has developed a cult following. “Sylvia Scarlett” was a pet project of Cukor and Hepburn, who plays a con artist who disguises herself as a boy. Time quipped that “Katharine Hepburn is better looking as a boy than as a woman.” 

Cary Grant is also delightful as her partner in crime. noted the role “gave him a chance to draw on his lower-class roots and his early experience in the circus to give a performance that would showcase his versatility as an actor.’ Dennie Moore plays a maid who tries to seduce Hepburn and Brian Aherne is an artist surprised he has feelings for this boy.

A preview audience hated the film; two-thirds of the crowd walked out; Cukor never worked again at RKO.



Howard Hawks’ 1938 screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby” with Hepburn and Grant has unfortunately overshadowed this smart, sophisticated romantic comedy/drama also released in 1938 starring Hepburn and Grant and directed by Cukor. And I may ruffle some feathers, but I find “Holiday” far superior to “Bringing Up Baby” as well as the first film adaptation of Phillip Barry’s Broadway hit.” Grant plays Johnny, who was an orphan and had worked since he was a boy. He has fallen in love the beautiful but shallow Julia (Doris Nolan) who hails some a wealthy family. Hepburn plays the black sheep of the family who is attracted to the free-spirited Johnny. Hepburn and Grant exude much charm and chemistry in “Holiday;” you know they’ll end up together.

The Philadelphia Story 

Labeled “box office poison,” Hepburn headed to New York and became the toast of Broadway in 1939 in a Barry romantic comedy. And she wisely brought the film rights to the play that ran 419 performances, so she was in control of the film version. She reunited with Cukor and Grant; Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Warrick were added to the cast of the comedy about a wealthy young woman who is readying for her second marriage while her first husband (Grant) tries to woo her back. Nominated for six Oscars, including for best picture, actress and director, it won best actor for Stewart, as the earnest young reporter, and for Donald Ogden Stewart for adapted screenplay.

Keeper of the Flame

Hepburn made beautiful music together with critics and audiences in George Stevens’ 1942 romantic comedy “Woman of the Year," for which Hepburn would earn an Oscar nomination. They [Hepburn and Tracy] soon reunited under Cukor’s direction in the 1942 drama with Donald Ogden Stewart providing the adapted screenplay. Hepburn plays widow of a famed civic leader who had recently died in an accident. Spencer Tracy is the reporter assigned to write a piece about the famed leader. But Tracy learns that the man wasn’t what he appeared to be in public. The New York Times was impressed: “George Cukor’s direction sustains a mood of mystery even when little exists. Mr. Tracy, as usual, gives a quiet, thoughtful, and solid performance…and Miss Hepburn plays the wife…with an excellent blend of hauteur and distress.

Adam’s Rib / Pat & Mike 

In 1949 and 1952, Cukor, Hepburn, and Tracy reunited for two exquisite romantic comedies that were penned by married writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who would win supporting actress for 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” The couple earned Oscar nominations for their stylish screenplays. 

In “Adam’s Rib,” Hepburn and Tracy played married attorneys who find themselves on opposing sides in a case involving a woman (Judy Holliday) shooting her two-timing husband. And in “Pat & Mike,” Hepburn plays star athlete who falls apart whenever her fiancé is around. Tracy, sporting a Brooklyn accent, is her new, rather rough around the edges, manager who tries to keep them apart only to fall in love with her- Not much meat on her, but what’s here is ‘cherce.’”

Love Among the Ruins

Twenty-three years after “Pat & Mike,” Hepburn and Cukor proved that time hadn’t diminished their magic in this nostalgic comedy that premiered on ABC in 1975. Hepburn plays a wealthy widow and former actress who find herself in court on a breach of promise lawsuit. Laurence Olivier is also in fine form as the famous barrister hired to defend her. The two had a torrid affair when she was an actress, but the haughty Hepburn insists they never met. “Love Among the Ruins” won six Emmys including best actor, actress, director, and writer. 

The Corn is Green

Their final project together was the well-received 1979 CBS TV movie adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play “The Corn is Green” about a teacher who strives to bring education to a Welsh mining town and ends up mentoring a young miner who has raw potential. (Bette Davis starred in the 1945 Warner Bros. release.) The New York Times noted the 71-year-old Hepburn “may be less English spinster than Yankee schoolmarm, but her charm and energy remain overwhelming.” Hepburn received an Emmy nomination. 


Cukor made one more film, 1981’s “Rich and Famous.” He died in 1983 at the age of 83. Hepburn acted until 1994; she died in 2003 at the age of 96.


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