Roark went to see the picture. It was still Vesta, as he had seen her last. She had lost nothing and learned nothing. She had not learned the proper camera angles, she had not learned the correct screen makeup; her mouth was too large, her cheeks too gaunt, her hair uncombed, her movements too jerky and angular. She was like nothing ever seen in a film before, she was a contradiction to all standards, she was awkward, crude, shocking, she was like a breath of fresh air. The studio had expected her to be hated; she was suddenly worshipped by the public. She was not pretty, nor gracious, nor gentle, nor sweet; she played the part of a young girl not as a tubercular flower, but as a steel knife. A reviewer said that she was a cross between a medieval pageboy and a gun moll. She achieved the incredible: she was the first woman who ever allowed herself to make strength attractive on the screen.
– [Ayn Rand, Unpublished Work, Later appeared in The Early Ayn Rand – A selection from her unpublished fiction (reference via Valda Redfern)]
The fascinating character of Vesta Dunning was edited out of the final version of The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand dispensed with her and perhaps compensated by transferring some of her personality to Dominique Francon, the book’s heroine . Nevertheless, many people, even those who have never heard of Rand, have seen Vesta on the silver screen. The young Katharine Hepburn, who predated The Fountainhead by a few years, fit Rand’s description so perfectly that one could be forgiven for thinking that Rand had modeled Vesta after her. Hepburn would have been 100 today.
Kate was the original firebrand, an eccentric who refused to play the Hollywood game. I tend to like her more in her early flops : Christopher Strong, Bringing Up Baby, Stage Door, and Holiday, than in her early hits: The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year. I did, of course, like The African Queen enough to have watch it twice in a row. I think that post-1940, Hepburn’s roles, either deliberately or not, became more conformist, less provocative and less interesting. In these films, the female lead starts out as a refreshing contrast to the shy, forlorn, submissive damsel, but towards the end, she is tamed and subordinated to the male character. It is as if RKO and all the big studios abandoned the sense of danger associated with Garbo, Davis, Dietrich and Hepburn and gave in, wholesale, to the easy and accessible charms of Shirley Temple.
Most of these films were seen at the behest of my roommate, who got me interested in classic films when we were graduate students in Minneapolis. Every week, we requested a classic film from the public library, sometimes as old as the 1920s and 30s, and watched it on Saturday night. In between watching classics like Ben Hur, The Best Years of our Lives, Dr. Zhivago, The King and I, and Casablanca, we had a Kate Hepburn movie as often as we could. It would be unfair to close this post without referring to the site from which we got our information and our recommendations. We referred extensively (and almost exclusively) to ReelClassics.com, a very large database of classic movies, and actors and actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It defies belief that all that information has been compiled by only one person. Elizabeth’s site was a great resource for us, and her recommendations were always spot on.
- If you want a surprise, try the geeky and often overlooked comedy, The Desk Set, which pits a librarian (Hepburn) against an engineer (Spencer Tracy) in a story about the fear of computers replacing human staff in large enterprises. It is not a very well-known film, but it is a hoot from start to finish.
- When one reads about Hepburn’s landmark films, everyone talks about The Philadelphia Story, but there is rarely a mention of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), a three-hour film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy of a family coming apart. Kate’s tormented performance as an unhappy mother and morphine addict was probably her best work after 1950. It was the only Hepburn film that I found difficult to watch.