21 April 2019

Easter special: La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1907)

Happy Easter! Films on the Passion of Christ, starting with the Annunciation and ending with the Resurrection, were extremely popular in the early years of cinema. No doubt the impetus was given by the already popular stage versions, in particular, the Oberammergau Passion Play, performed every decade at a small Bavarian town. Many cards were made for the Oberammergau Passion Play, already from the late 19th century onwards. This inspired first the Americans to create their own Passion Play films in the late 1890s. They were immediately followed by the French companies Lumière and Gaumont. While Gaumont shot another version in 1906, Pathé produced four versions in 1900, 1902-1903, 1907, and 1913.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: Joseph and Maria at Betlehem.

La vie du Christ
FFrench postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Sleep of Jesus.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Flight to Egypt.

Miraculous moments created by classical theatrical effects


Roberta Pearson writes in her entry on biblical films in the 'Encyclopaedia of Early Cinema' (2005) that the 1907 Pathé version "was probably seen by more people in North America and Europe (and more than once) than any other film of the period."

Pearson also stresses that these biblical films heavily relied upon "previous intertexts such as a long tradition of biblical illustration, including illustrated Bibles, stereoscope cards, magic lantern slide series, and illustrated lectures."

The Pathé 1907 version confirms this too, even if not as explicit as the later From the Manger to the Cross (Kalem, 1912), which faithfully copied the Bible illustrations made by James Tissot for his 1897-1897 French Bible.

Typical in the 1907 Pathé film is the tableau style in which every shot is preceded by an intertitle, which uses few words to indicate the scene and always in Pathé's patented red color (likewise, Gaumont used green for its intertitles).

While most shots use painted backdrops, still all kinds of sets, props, and people were used to create some deep staging, even if on a modest scale. Deepness could even be accentuated by diagonals of people simultaneously crossing the screen and approaching the camera, e.g. in the Adoration of the Magi.

Also, at times, inserts (cut-ins) were used to stress details, such as the Veil of Veronica or the Ecce Homo moment of the scourged, bound Jesus, crowned with thorns. Miraculous moments were created by classical theatrical effects but also by modern cinematic effects such as stop motion (e.g. the appearance of the angels) and double exposure (e.g. Jesus walking on the water).

La vie du Christ. Aux pieds du sphinx
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: At the Feet of the Sphinx.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Wedding at Cana. The actress on the right is Julienne Mathieu, a regular at Pathé in its early years. She plays the Holy Virgin Mary.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ, which might be La Vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca, 1903). Caption: The Entrance to Jerusalem. This image deviates from the one in the existing prints of Vie et passion de notre seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907).

It is unclear who played Jesus


When comparing the Pathé postcards with the film, some cards show a certain kind of compressed, simultaneously happening actions, which are spread out over time within the film.

A good example is the scene of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. In the film, we first see a lively street with many extras. They disappear when the holy couple appears. In vain, Joseph and Mary ask for shelter to the innkeeper on the left, while later on the girl on the right directs them to an offscreen space on the right, clearly the stable. On the card, we see the innkeeper, the girl, the couple, and the extras altogether.

Discussed is who directed the film. It is clear that Ferdinand Zecca, who also co-directed with Lucien Nonguet the 1903 version, was the main director for the 1907 version as well.

There are suggestions the Spanish special effects 'wizard' Segundo De Chomon, who was probably responsible for all the trick photography in the film, may have been co-director as well for the film. Others contest this.

In any case, De Chomon's wife Julienne Mathieu clearly plays the Holy Virgin Mary, while it is unclear who played Jesus. The film was released in bright stencil coloring, announced as 'Pathé-Coloris', It increases the pictorial qualities of the images.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ which might be La Vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca, 1903). Caption: Jesus chases the merchants from the Temple. This image deviates from the one in the existing prints of Vie et passion de notre seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907).

La vie du Christ
French postcard. Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ aka Vie et passion de notre seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Last Supper.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Flagellation.

The Passion in colour


When Kalem's From the Manger to the Cross was released in the Netherlands, Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet (re-)released the Pathé 1907 version with the title Van de Kribbe tot het Kruis, a Dutch translation of the Kalem title, angering Kalem and the local Dutch renter.

When under attack, Desmet coolly reposted he at least had the Passion "in colour" while Kalem's film was in black and white. Desmet was rather matter-of-fact. When a local exhibitor asked him if he had a description of the Pathé Passion film, he wrote back: "The film is self-explanatory and you probably have a Bible somewhere."

In his monograph on early French cinema, 'The Ciné Goes to Town' (1994), American film scholar Richard Abel stresses that even if the Gaumont 1906 version may differ from the Pathé 1907 version in a more female perspective (Gaumont director Alice Guy e.g. linked the character of Jesus closely to women surrounding him), both versions share that they were offered on the market "in a variety of lengths, including versions of multiple reels." Just like with earlier Passion Play movies, exhibitors were encouraged "to purchase and exhibit whatever combination of tableaux would best suit their programs."

While from the 1903 earlier version by Zecca only some five tableaux remain, several coloured prints of the 1907 version, remain, including the one in the Desmet Collection at EYE Filmmuseum. Not all are complete and not all have the garish stenciling.

It is moreover a pity that our postcards don't possess the same pictorial colouring. For other pre-1910 Pathé film, postcard sets have been made with multicolour images. We hope to complete this Passion postcard set in the future with pictures from other key moments in the film and in the Passion tale, such as the Annunciation and the Crucifixion.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: St. Veronica - The Holy Face.

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Burial. On the right the actress Julienne Mathieu (Virgin Mary).

La vie du Christ
French postcard by Pathé Frères. Scene from the early Pathé film La vie du Christ/La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Ferdinand Zecca, 1907). Caption: The Resurrection. For this version of the Passion, Segundo De Chomon did the special effects. His wife, Julienne Mathieu played the Virgin Mary. Unknown is who played Jesus.

Sources: Roberta Pearson in Richard Abel (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema; Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914; and Ivo Blom, Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade.

20 April 2019

Photo by Terra

Terra Film was a Berlin-based film production company. Founded in 1919, Terra became one of the four Germany's largest film production companies in the 1930s under the Nazi regime.

Hans Adalbert Schlettow and Mady Christians in Die Jugend der Königin Luise (1927)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 88/4. Photo: Terra Film. Publicity still for Königin Luise, 1. Teil - Die Jugend der Königin Luise/Queen Louise (Karl Grune, 1927) with Hans Adalbert Schlettow and Mady Christians.

Fritz Kortner
Fritz Kortner. Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 6037. Photo: Götz Hofbauer / Terra Film.

Diomira Jacobini
Diomira Jacobini. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3748/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Terra-Film. Publicity still for Revolutionshochzeit/Revolutions Bryllup/The Last Night (A.W. Sandberg, 1928).

Heinrich George
Heinrich George. German postcard by Das Programm von Heute, Berlin. Photo: Baumann / Terra. Publicity still for Jud Süss/Jew Süss (Veit Harlan, 1940).

Heinz Rühmann
Heinz Rühmann. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3535/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra. Publicity still for Quax, der Bruchpilot/Quax the Crash Pilot (Kurt Hoffmann, 1941).

The Switch to the Talkies


Terra Film was founded at end of 1919, initially as a limited liability company and converted into a corporation in October 1920. In 1922, Terra acquired studios and reproduction facilities of Eiko-Film GmbH in Berlin-Marienfelde. For a few years, Ullstein AG and IG Farbenindustrie AG were the major shareholders with 47% and 50% of the share capital, respectively. In 1928, the latter bought the Ullstein share and became almost sole owner with 97%.

Terra's first film was Figaros Hochzeit/The Marriage of Figaro (Max Mack, 1920), starring Alexander Moissi and Hella Moja. It was followed by films such as the Science-Fiction film Die Insel der Verschollenen/The Island of the Lost (Urban Gad, 1921), a loose adaptation of H.G. Wells' 'The Island of Dr. Moreau', and the comedy Der Liebeskorridor/The love Corridor (Urban Gad, 1921) with Anton Edthofer and Adolphe Engers.

In 1927, Heinrich George starred in Bigamie/Bigamy (Jaap Speyer, 1927) as a man between two women, played by Maria Jacobini and Anita Dorris. Mady Christians starred in the two part historical epic Königin Luise/Queen Luise (Karl Grune, 1927/28).

Terra's heyday came after the switch to the talkies and under National Socialism. In 1930, the Swiss Scotoni family, headed by the influential businessman Eugen Scotoni, acquired Terra for 1.2 million Reichsmarks. Between 1930 and 1935, when Terra was gradually nationalised by the German government, Eugen's son Ralph Scotoni oversaw his family's interest in Terra Film.

A huge success was the crime film Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Murdered (Kurt Bernhardt, 1931). Conrad Veidt stars as the Marquis de Sévigné, who is put in a difficult position when he falls for the lovely but married Lady Falkland (Trude von Molo). Her husband, the strict Lord Falkland (Heinrich George), subjects her to constant abuse... The following year a separate English version was made, Stamboul (Dimitri Buchowetzki, 1932), starring Warwick Ward, Rosita Moreno, and Margot Grahame.

In 1933, Ralph Scotoni automatically became a member of the Nazi Party (as was common for owners of large companies) but he never picked up his membership card. Many of the 40 films from the era of Ralph Scotoni were influenced by Nazi ideas. The focus was also on Swiss subjects and locations, and the similarities between Switzerland and Nazi Germany. Examples are Wilhelm Tell/William Tell (Heinz Paul, 1934), Der Springer von Pontresina/The Champion of Pontresina (Herbert Selpin, 1934) with Sepp Rist.

German-Swiss historical film Wilhelm Tell/William Tell (Heinz Paul, 1934) starred Hans Marr, Conrad Veidt and Emmy Göring. It is based on the 1804 play William Tell by Friedrich Schiller about the Swiss folk hero William Tell, a woodsman who was an expert with his crossbow. It was made by Terra Film, with a separate English-language version supervised by Manning Haynes also being released. While working on the film Veidt, who had recently given sympathetic performances of Jews in the British films The Wandering Jew (Maurice Elvey, 1933) and Jew Suss (Lothar Mendes, 1934), was detained by the German authorities. It was only after pressure from the British Foreign Office that he was eventually released.

According to Wikipedia, since the Terra films lost money, the family sold its stake in Terra in 1935. Ralph Scottoni left Germany after the nationalisation of Terra. The family continued to run a chain of cinemas in Switzerland.

Matthias Wieman and Mady Christians in Königin Luise (1927)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 89/3, 1925-1935. Photo: Terra Film. Publicity still for Königin Luise/Queen Louise (Karl Grune, 1927) with Mady Christians and Mathias Wiemann.

Gösta Ekman in Revolutionshochzeit (1928)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3746/2. Photo: Terra Film. Gösta Ekman in Revolutionshochzeit/Revolutions Bryllup/The Last Night (A.W. Sandberg, 1928).

Maria Jacobini
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3955/2, 1928-1929. Dist.: Terra-Film. Maria Jacobini in the Italian late silent film Il carnevale di Venezia/Carnival in Venice (Mario Almirante, 1928).

Dorothea Wieck
Dorothea Wieck. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 7771/1, 1932-1933. Photo: Klagemann / Terra.

Gustav Diessl
Gustav Diessl. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 9795/1, 1935-1936. Photo: Bodal Film der Terra.

Propaganda


Between 1933 and 1944, Terra released 120 feature films, including some propaganda films. In Die Reiter von Deutsch-Ostafrika/The Riders of German East Africa (Herbert Selpin, 1934), Sepp Rist played a German farmer in German East Africa, who is conscripted into the Schutztruppe (German armed colonial force) at the beginning of the First World War. Another example is Hermine und die sieben Aufrechten/Hermione and the Seven Law (Frank Wisbar, 1935) with Heinrich George and Karin Hardt. From 1935 on, Terra produced in the Tempelhof studios of Ufa Film Art GmbH.

In the wake of the nationalisation of the film industry in July 1937, Terra-Film Art Ltd. changed its name and a majority was now owned by the state-owned company Cautio Treuhand GmbH. Terra-Film Art continued to produce Propaganda films like the war film Kameraden auf See/Comrades at Sea (Heinz Paul, 1938) starring Theodor Loos. The film is set during the Spanish Civil War, which it portrays as a Communist uprising against the lawful government.

Otto Lehmann produced for Terra the notorious propaganda film Jud Süß/Jew Süß (Veit Harlan, 1940) at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. Jud Süß/Jew Süß is considered one of the most antisemitic films of all time. Director Veit Harlan also wrote the screenplay with Eberhard Wolfgang Möller and Ludwig Metzger. The leading roles were played by Ferdinand Marian and Harlan's wife Kristina Söderbaum. Werner Krauss and Heinrich George played key supporting roles.

Jud Süß/Jew Süß has been characterised as "one of the most notorious and successful pieces of antisemitic film propaganda produced in Nazi Germany." It was a great success in Germany, and was seen by 20 million people. Although the film's budget of 2 million Reichsmarks was considered high for films of that era, the box office receipts of 6.5 million Reichsmarks made it a financial success. SS Leader Heinrich Himmler urged members of the SS and the police to watch the film.

After the war, some of the leading cast members were brought to trial as part of the denazification process. They generally defended their participation in the film on the grounds that they had only done so under duress. Despite significant evidence to support their arguments, Susan Tegel, author of 'Nazis and the Cinema', characterises their postwar attempts to distance themselves from the film as "crass and self-serving". However, she concedes that their motives for accepting the roles seem to have been more driven by opportunistic ambition than by antisemitism.

Veit Harlan was the only major film director of the Third Reich to stand trial for 'crimes against humanity'. After three trials, Harlan was given a light sentence because he convinced the courts that the antisemitic content of the film had been dictated by Goebbels and that Harlan had worked to moderate the antisemitism. Eventually, Harlan was reinstated as a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany and went on to make nine more films. He remained a controversial figure and the target of protests.

But how bad or good is the film? I never saw it myself, but many reviews at IMDb are surprisingly positive. Karl Self: "Considering the enormous, fanatical hatred of the Nazis against Jews, the movie's antisemitism comes across as surprisingly subtle. Flanked by the occasional antisemitic outburst ("There are no hostels for Jews in Stuttgart") the movie builds a convincing psychogram of a perpetrator and leaves all its great performances to its antiheroes, while the good guys come across as pale, square and boring."

Together with the propaganda films Die Rothschilds/The Rothschilds (Erich Waschneck, 1940) and the 'documentary' Der ewige Jude/The Eternal Jew (Fritz Hippler, 1940), Jud Süß/Jew Süß (Veit Harlan, 1940) remains one of the most frequently discussed examples of the use of film to further the Nazi antisemitic agenda. In the 2000s, two documentary films and the feature Jud Süss - Film ohne Gewissen/Jew Suss: Rise and Fall (Oskar Roehler, 2010) were released that explore the history and impact of this films.

Anna Dammann
Anna Dammann. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2534/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Hertha Feiler
Hertha Feiler. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2566/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Quick / Terra.

Leny Marenbach
Leny Marenbach. German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. A 2808/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Margot Hielscher
Margot Hielscher. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. 3854/1. 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Heinrich George in Andreas Schlüter (1942)
Heinrich George. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. 3647/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Lindner / Terra. Publicity still for Andreas Schlüter (Herbert Maisch, 1942).

Absolutely One of the Best Movies Ever 


Otto Lehman later also produced for Terra Fronttheater/Front theatre (Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1942), starring Heli Finkenzeller. In the film, the very successful actress Lena Andres (Finkenzeller) marries dr. Paul Meinhardt (René Deltgen). For his sake, she renounces her acting career. When Paul is drafted, she gets persuaded by director Langhammer (Lothar Firmans), with whom she shot several films, to step in for a sick colleague on a front-theater tour. Paul learns about it and retreats disappointed. Lena follows her now transferred to Greece man with the troupe of the front theater there to save their marriage. A clarifying conversation between the spouses leads to a reconciliation.

Like Lehman, several producers had their own 'production groups' at Terra. Among them were also Helmut Beck, actor-director Gustaf Gründgens, Edward Kubat, comedy star Heinz Rühmann, Viktor von Struve, EC Techow, Hans Tost and Walter Tost.

Hans Tost was one the most productive of them. He produced such films as Nanu, Sie kennen Korff noch nicht?/What, you know still don't know Korff? (Fritz Holl, 1938) with Heinz Rühmann, Wir machen Musik/We make music (Helmut Käutner, 1942) with Ilse Werner and Viktor de Kowa, and the Hans Albers hit Große Freiheit Nr. 7/Great Freedom No. 7 (Helmut Käutner, 1944), the first Agfa-colour film by the Terra. This musical drama was named after Große Freiheit, a street next to Hamburg's Reeperbahn road in the St. Pauli red light district. Große Freiheit Nr. 7 tells the story of the blond 'singing sailor' Hannes Kröger (Hans Albers) who works in a St. Pauli club - address: Große Freiheit 7 - and falls in love with a girl played by Ilse Werner. But she prefers his rival Willem (Hans Söhnker) and Hannes returns to the sea.

In 1942, Terra was absorbed into Ufa-Film GmbH (UFI) and retained only formal independence. Among Terra's directors were Boleslaw Barlog, Géza von Bolváry, Peter Paul Brauer, Erich Engels, Kurt Hoffmann, Helmut Käutner, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Roger von Norman, Rudolf van der Noss, Heinz Paul, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Günther Rittau, Herbert Selpin, and Hans Steinhoff.

Terra produced many successful entertainment films. A huge success was the circus drama Zirkus Renz/Circus Renz (Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1943), starring René Deltgen, Paul Klinger and Angelika Hauff. The circus film was made as a deliberately escapist release at a time when the Second World War was starting to turn against Germany and its allies. The film takes its title from the real Circus Renz.

Heinz Rühmann made with his production group such popular comedies as Der Florentiner Hut/The Florentine hat (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1939), Quax, der Bruchpilot/Quax the Crash Pilot (Kurt Hoffmann, 1941), Ich vertraue Dir meine Frau an/I Entrust My Wife to You (Kurt Hoffmann, 1943), and Quax in Afrika/Quax in Africa (Helmut Weiss, 1944-1953).

His biggest success, Die Feuerzangenbowle/The Punch Bowl (Helmut Weiss, 1944) tells the story of a famous writer (Heinz Rühmann, 42 at the time) going undercover as a student at a small-town secondary school after his friends tell him that he missed out on the best part of growing up by being educated at home. The story in the book takes place during the time of the Wilhelmine Empire in Germany. The film was produced and released in Germany during the last years of World War II and still it is a favourite for many film fans. Marcus Cyron at IMDb: "Die Feuerzangenbowle is absolutely one of the Best Movies ever and the Best German Movie at all."

From the early 1960s to the 1980s, Terra-Film GmbH returned in West-Berlin and produced or co-produced more than 100 films.

Paul Hörbiger
Paul Hörbiger. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 3118/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Terra / Wien-Film.

Joachim Gottschalk
Joachim Gottschalk. German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. A 3253/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Dorothea Wieck
Dorothea Wieck. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, Berlin, no. A 3628/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Heli Finkenzeller
Heli Finkenzeller. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3648/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Theodor Loos
Theodor Loos. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3680/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Binz / Terra.

Kirsten Heiberg
Kirsten Heiberg. German Postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3371/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Heinz Rühmann
Heinz Rühmann. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3852/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Ilse Werner
Ilse Werner. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3896/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Quick / Terra.

Lil Dagover
Lil Dagover. German postcard by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3920/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Baumann / Terra.

Sources: Wikipedia (German and English) and IMDb.

19 April 2019

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was an indomitable American stage and film actress, known as a spirited performer with a touch of eccentricity. She introduced into her roles a strength of character previously considered to be undesirable in Hollywood leading ladies. As an actress, she was noted for her brisk upper-class New England accent and tomboyish beauty.

Katharine Hepburn
Belgian postcard by N.V. Victoria, Brussels, no. 12. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Katharine Hepburn and Franchot Tone in Quality Street (1937)
Italian postcard by Generalcine, Roma / Off. Graf. 'La Lito', Milano. Photo: RKO Radio Pictures. Publicity still for Quality Street (George Stevens, 1937) with Franchot Tone.

Katharine Hepburn
British Art Photo postcard, no. 38-1.

Katharine Hepburn
American postcard by Coral-Lee, Rancho Cordova, CA, no. CL/Personality # 130. Photo: Douglas Kirkland.

An unlikely Hollywood star


Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born in 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S. Her father was a wealthy and prominent Connecticut surgeon, and her mother was a leader in the woman suffrage movement.

From early childhood, Hepburn was continually encouraged to expand her intellectual horizons, speak nothing but the truth, and keep herself in top physical condition at all times. She would apply all of these ingrained values to her acting career, which began in earnest after her graduation from Bryn Mawr College in 1928.

That year she made her Broadway debut in Night Hostess, appearing under the alias Katharine Burns. Hepburn scored her first major Broadway success in The Warrior’s Husband (1932), a comedy set in the land of the Amazons. Shortly thereafter she was invited to Hollywood by RKO Radio Pictures.

Hepburn was an unlikely Hollywood star. Possessing a distinctive speech pattern and an abundance of quirky mannerisms, she earned unqualified praise from her admirers and unmerciful criticism from her detractors. Unabashedly outspoken and iconoclastic, she did as she pleased, refusing to grant interviews, wearing casual clothes at a time when actresses were expected to exude glamour 24 hours a day, and openly clashing with her more-experienced coworkers whenever they failed to meet her standards.

She nonetheless made an impressive film debut in George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a drama that also starred John Barrymore. Hepburn was then cast as an aviator in Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933). For her third film, Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933), Hepburn won an Academy Award for her portrayal of an aspiring actress.

Katharine Hepburn
British Real Photograph postcard, no. 40.A. Photo: Radio Pictures.

Colin Clive and Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong
British postcard in the Filmshots series by British Weekly. Photo: Radio. Publicity still for Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933) with Colin Clive.

Colin Clive and Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong
British postcard in the Filmshots series by British Weekly. Photo: Radio. Publicity still for Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933) with Colin Clive.

Merry Christmas! Katharine Hepburn in Little Women
Dutch postcard by the Rialto Theatre, Amsterdam, 1934. Photo: Remaco Radio Picture. Publicity still for Little Women (George Cukor, 1933). In the picture are Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker and Spring Byington. The Dutch title of the film and the book by Louise M. Alcott is Onder moeders vleugels.

Katharine Hepburn
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 1045a. Photo: R.K.O. Radio.

Box office poison


However, Katharine Hepburn’s much-publicised return to Broadway, in The Lake (1933), proved to be a flop. And while filmgoers enjoyed her performances in homespun entertainments such as Little Women (George Cukor, 1933) and Alice Adams (George Stevens, 1935), they were largely resistant to historical vehicles such as Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936), A Woman Rebels (Mark Sandrich, 1936), and Quality Street (George Stevens, 1937).

Hepburn recovered some lost ground with her sparkling performances in the screwball comedies Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) and Holiday (George Cukor, 1938), both of which also starred Cary Grant. However, it was too late: a group of leading film exhibitors had already written off Hepburn as “box office poison.”

Undaunted, Hepburn accepted a role written specifically for her in Philip Barry’s 1938 Broadway comedy The Philadelphia Story, about a socialite whose ex-husband tries to win her back. Howard Hughes, Hepburn's partner at the time, sensed that the play could be her ticket back to Hollywood stardom and bought her the film rights before it even debuted on stage. It was a huge hit.

She chose to sell the rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Hollywood's number one studio, on the condition that she be the star. As part of the deal she also received the director of her choice, George Cukor, and picked James Stewart and Cary Grant as co-stars. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) was a critical and commercial success, and it jump-started her Hollywood career. She continued to make periodic returns to the stage (notably as the title character in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco), but Hepburn remained essentially a film actor for the remainder of her career.

Hepburn was also responsible for the development of her next project, the romantic comedy Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942) about a political columnist and a sports reporter whose relationship is threatened by her self-centred independence. The idea for the film was proposed to her by Garson Kanin in 1941, who recalled how Hepburn contributed to the script. She presented the finished product to MGM and demanded $250,000—half for her, half for the authors. Her terms accepted, Hepburn was also given the director and co-star of her choice, George Stevens and Spencer Tracy. Woman of the Year was another success. Critics praised the chemistry between the stars.

Katharine Hepburn
French postcard by A.N., Paris, Paris, no. 996.

Katharine Hepburn
French postcard by Edition Chantal, Paris, no. 77. Photo: R.K.O.

Katharine Hepburn
French postcard by Viny, no. 2131. Photo: R.K.O.

Katharine Hepburn
Dutch postcard by S & v. H., Amsterdam.

Katharine Hepburn
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 206. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1950. Although the postcard was produced in 1950, the photo was taken much earlier, probably for The Phildadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940).

An unprecedented fourth Oscar


Katharine Hepburn's stature increased in the following decades as she chalked up such cinematic triumphs as John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), in which she played a missionary who escapes German troops with the aid of a riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart), and David Lean’s Summertime (1955), a love story set in Venice.

Hepburn received an Academy Award nomination for the second year running for her work opposite Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956). Again she played a lonely woman empowered by a love affair, and it became apparent that Hepburn had found a niche in playing 'love-starved spinsters' that critics and audiences enjoyed.

After two years away from the screen, Hepburn starred in a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' controversial play Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. She clashed with director Joseph L. Mankiewicz during filming, which culminated with her spitting at him in disgust. The picture was a financial success, and her work as creepy aunt Violet Venable gave Hepburn her eighth Oscar nomination.

In Long Day’s Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962), an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s acclaimed play, Hepburn was cast as a drug-addicted mother, opposite Ralph RichardsonJason Robards and Dean StockwellLong Day's Journey Into Night earned Hepburn an Oscar nomination and the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. It remains one of her most praised performances.

Katharine Hepburn won a second Academy Award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967), a dramedy about interracial marriage; a third for The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968), in which she played Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O'Toole as King Henry II; and an unprecedented fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell, 1981), about long-married New Englanders (Hepburn and Henry Fonda). Her 12 Academy Award nominations also set a record, which stood until 2003, when broken by Meryl Streep.

In addition, Hepburn appeared frequently on television in the 1970s and 1980s. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her memorable portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (Anthony Harvey, 1973), and she won the award for her performance opposite Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins (1975), which reunited her with her favourite director, George Cukor.

Though hampered by a progressive neurological disease, Hepburn was nonetheless still active in the early 1990s, appearing prominently in films such as Love Affair (Glenn Gordon Caron, 1994), which was her last film. At 87 years old, she played a supporting role, alongside Annette Bening and Warren Beatty. It was the only film of Hepburn's career, other than the cameo appearance in Stage Door Canteen (Frank Borzage, 1943), in which she did not play a leading role.

Hepburn was married once. In 1928, she wed Philadelphia broker Ludlow Ogden Smith, but the union was dissolved in 1934. While filming Woman of the Year in 1942, she began an enduring intimate relationship with her costar, Spencer Tracy, with whom she would appear in films such as Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952); both were directed by George Cukor.

Tracy and Hepburn never married — he was Roman Catholic and would not divorce his wife — but they remained close both personally and professionally until his death in 1967, just days after completing the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn had suspended her own career for nearly five years to nurse Tracy through what turned out to be his final illness.

In 1999 the American Film Institute named Hepburn the top female American screen legend of all time. She wrote several memoirs, including 'Me: Stories of My Life' (1991). Katharine Hepburn died in 2003 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96.

Katharine Hepburn
Belgian collectors card by Chocolaterie Clovis, Pepinster. Collection: Amit Benyovits.

Turhan Bey and Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944)
Belgian Collectors Card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine, no. C. 159. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bucquet, Jack Conway, 1944) with Turhan Bey.

Katharine Hepburn
Belgian Collectors Card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Collection: Geoffrey Donaldson Institute.

Katharine Hepburn
Belgian Collectors Card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine, no. C. 110. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Collection: Geoffrey Donaldson Institute.

Katharine Hepburn
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 206. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (Miraculously, the card has the same credits as this card).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia and IMDb.