I don’t think time is being kind to Katharine Hepburn’s reputation: it’s incredible how many terrible pictures she made, how often she was bad in them, and how seldom she was in a good picture. She’s terrific as Rose Sayer in “The African Queen,” and as Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She’s pretty good in “Summertime.” She may be okay in “The Philadelphia Story,” but it’s a rotten, woman-hating picture, as is “Woman of the Year.” I hate every one of those bum comedies she made with Spencer Tracy — the most overrated actor in pictures.
The last picture they made together — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — is so stupendously terrible that I sometimes find it hard to dial away from it when it’s on TCM — its dreadfulness creates something like a magnetic force field or an electrical charge, rather like the shock you can expect if you take a shortcut while monkeying with an electrical circuit. It hurts like hell while it’s got you, and you know the ominous current will kill you, but it’s hard to pull free. Hepburn’s especially terrible in the performances for which she won her four Academy Awards. “On Golden Pond,” for example, is unwatchable. I can’t think of it without shuddering. Jane Fonda told a funny story about it. Both she and Hepburn were nominated for Best Actress that year. Hepburn already had three Oscars; Fonda had two. And one of Hepburn’s was a tie (with Barbra Streisand). So when Hepburn got the Oscar for “On Golden Pond,” she rang Fonda the next day and crowed, “You’ll nevah catch up to me now!”
A friend lent me his DVD of the expensive MGM 1944 epic “Dragon Seed,” based on the best selling novel by that Great Lady of China, Pearl S. Buck, and for my sins, I watched it. It’s as bad as, perhaps even worse than, “The Good Earth,” the other lavish Chinese epic with no Chinese actors in major roles. James Agee’s original assessment of “Dragon Seed” was a b s o l u t e l y correct. He wrote that it was an “unimaginably bad movie,” full of “such distinguished Chinese as Katharine Hepburn, Akim Tamiroff, etc.” all performing in Chinaman drag against “unearthly, sepia-tinted landscapes, speaking their inhuman language.” (The prosthetic epicanthus folds over Hepburn’s eyes make her look like the Cowardly Lioness.) Agee continued with a litany of complaint about how every last detail was wrong, including the shape of Miss Hepburn’s eyelids, and finished by observing, “Indeed, I’ve never seen another picture so full of wrong slants.” He was a very funny writer, but not as funny as the authors of “Dragon Seed.” Two screenwriters are credited: Marguerite Roberts, who later wrote the screenplay for 1968’s “True Grit,” and Jane Murfin, who, after a long, prolific career (“Lilac Time,” “Smilin’ Through,” “Roberta,” “The Women,” to name but four of her 66 titles), never wrote another screenplay after this one, though she lived another eleven years.
Agee is right about the “inhuman language” spoken in “Dragon Seed.” The dialogue in this wretched picture is terrible beyond belief . . . every minute there’s a new outrage. For instance, in one scene Turhan Bey (a/k/a “the Turkish Delight”) looks upon a long parade of refugees and says, “We are an island in a river of fleeing people!” And a minute later, comes the following bit of turgidity, with nary a syllable of overlapping dialogue (for these were the good old days when everyone politely waited his turn to speak, no matter how overwrought): Henry (Clarence Oddbody, AS2) Travers, as Wise Old Chinaman No. Two (Wise Old Chinaman No. One is Walter Huston), watches an endless line of coolies hauling heavy machinery on shoulder-borne litters across a rugged terrain, and asks Turhan Bey: “Cousin, what are these? They carry different burdens!” Bey says noisily to the passing parade, “Only a fool would carry iron on his back when sacks of rice are so much lighter!” An anonymous coolie on the line responds with considerable spirit, “This is not iron, but a factory, that we carry on our backs! Behind us follows a whole city!” Bey and Travers shake their heads in bewilderment. Only Katharine Hepburn, with an inverted basket on her head, fully understands the social change that is taking place. Out of the corner of her mouth, like a gangster, Miss Hepburn observes, sotto voce, “These are not as the others were . . . They seem to have a plan!” Viva Hollywood! Those big studios really knew how to make a stinker. I laughed and laughed.
When the picture was made (1944), there were more than a half billion Chinese on the planet, yet to look at the credits, no more than a half dozen were in Hollywood. There are four Wongs in uncredited roles (as Japanese soldiers), Four Wongs don’t make it right.
Song of Love
Several years ago, Renee Fleming was TCM’s guest programmer on Monday night and for the second movie of the night, she chose the 1947 MGM biopic of Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann called “Song of Love.” Katharine Hepburn plays Clara and Paul Henreid plays poor doomed Prof. Schumann. I’d seen about ten minutes of it two or three years earlier and was appalled by what I saw, but when it was on again I happened to be in the mood for it — probably because of the bludgeoning my senses took from watching “The Great Waltz,” which was Miss Fleming’s first pick for the night. Miss Fleming has a beautiful voice, but it appears that all her taste is in her mouth.
“Song of Love” is every bit as bad as I had remembered, but I couldn’t stop watching it. Brahms is played by Robert Walker, who gulps and stammers so much, you’d think he was playing Bashful the Dwarf.
The script was written by the doyenne of the Classical Music Cinema, Irmgard von Cube, who also wrote “They Shall Have Music,” which was one of the few times Heifetz ever appeared in a Hollywood picture. Apparently, Miss von Cube was besotted with music, but her imagination was so trivial and vulgar that she turned the story of these great artists into one of suffocating, sit-com domesticity. The story of Herr and Frau Schumann and their complicated friendship with Johannes Brahms unfolds as a series of silly little housekeeping turmoils, hardly worthy of “The Brady Bunch”: how will the Schumanns get their important dinner party on after their maid walks out two hours before the guests arrive? Clara is too featherbrained to have mastered any of the domestic arts, so Johannes and Robert agree to cook the meal themselves . . . if they can work up the nerve to kill the clucking chicken. “Comedy” ensues. Honestly, it was a scene straight out of “Ich Liebe Lucy,” minus the laugh track.
That ubiquitous Nellie from the forties, Henry Daniell, in an unbecoming Prince Valiant wig, is on hand as Franz Liszt, glowering over the keys and banging with all his might. In one scene, he bangs away so hard that the strings snap as he plays, whereupon he moves to a second piano, stage left, and proceeds to bang even harder on that one. (As a matter of fact, this is quite accurate: before their plates were made of cast iron, pianos literally used to fall apart under Liszt’s hands in the middle of his concerts, as in a Warner Bros. cartoon.)
We can be grateful that Miss von Cube rarely allows any of her characters to say a word about music, other than things like Clara’s, “Your latest work is lovely, darling,” or the startled observation made by one of the Schumann children upon hearing his mother in concert: “Her hands move so FAST, Mr Bwahms!” There is one scene, however, in which Clara so abominates Lizst’s inventions on a piece of her husband’s that she complains about it during the performance and then noisily chastises him afterwards for ruining it with what she calls “glittering pyrotechnics.” Daniell swallows the opprobrium like a good sport; when one of his friends leans into him and says, “She insulted you!,” Daniell replies in his nasal hiss, “She did worse than that: she dessssscribed me!”
As Robert Schumann, Paul Henreid does what he always does: nothing at all. As he descends into madness, dark greasepaint is smeared on the bags under his eyes and when he attempts to conduct his own work, the orchestra is obscured by buzzing . . . ah, the poor loonie! With all that buzzing, his music sounds like Varèse. His final madness takes the form of benign reasonableness: he goes about with a distracted, lopsided half smile and seems utterly resigned to failure. Henreid’s Schumann is so meek and gentle, I couldn’t understand why anyone fretted over his mental health: he didn’t need an alienist — he needed water and plenty of sunlight. But I screamed with laughter when I saw that Clinton Sundberg of Appleton, Minnesota — an MGM contract player who always looked and sounded as if he’d just fallen off the turnip truck — was Schumann’s alienist and eventual coroner.
There was one lovely little exchange near the end of the movie, however: after Schumann is in the cold, cold ground, Clara attends a gathering at which a violinist, hitherto unknown to her, plays the wedding music that Robert had specifically written for her. Tears come into her eyes. “That’s the first time I’ve had it played for me by someone else,” she tells the violinist. “How did you happen to know it?” The violinist replies, “I am a musician, madame.”