Courage Conquers Death in Christopher Strong

I can still recall the first time that I saw Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933). I was just a teenager flipping channels one lazy afternoon and suddenly the opening credits appeared on my television. I noticed Colin Clive’s name so I paused. I was familiar with the actor thanks to his role as Doctor Frankenstein in James Whale’s Frankenstein films and I was a big fan. The wonderfully eerie opening theme composed by Roy Webb (Cat People; 1942, I Walked with A Zombie; 1943, The Seventh Victim; 1943, The Spiral Staircase; 1945, The Body Snatcher; 1945, Mighty Joe Young; 1949, etc.) for Christopher Strong was rather ominous and I immediately thought I was going to be seeing another horror film or thriller starring Colin Clive but I soon discovered that I was wrong. Christopher Strong isn’t a horror film. It’s a romantic melodrama with some unexpected action featuring a spectacular star performance from the wonderful Katharine Hepburn. The movie captivated me and surprised me. It also made me a lifelong Hepburn fan.

In Christopher Strong Katharine Hepburn plays a beautiful and daring aviatrix aptly named Lady Cynthia Darrington. Christopher Strong is the name of Colin Clive’s character in the film but it seems to be a subtle play on words with a double meaning. Clive’s character is anything but strong and in fact it’s Hepburn’s character who is really a tower of strength in the film. The two future lovers meet at a lavish scavenger hunt (three years before a similar plot device was used in the opening of My Man Godfrey; 1936) where they’re not exactly guests. Cynthia Darrington has been brought to the party as an example of a virginal woman who hasn’t had any substantial relationships with a man, but she’s far from innocent. She arrives wearing a smart aviatrix outfit and driving a sporty roadster. Hepburn’s character then proceeds to strut through the party with a broad grin on her face and a knowing sparkle in her eye. She may be unlucky at love but she’s obviously a woman of the world with lots of experience in other areas of life. The much older Christopher Strong arrives at the party with encouragement from his devoted daughter (Helen Chandler) as an example of a faithful married man who is deeply committed to his wife. He gives a rather preachy speech about the sanctity of marriage that clearly impresses Cynthia Darrington. It also quickly becomes apparent that Christopher Strong has become fascinated with Cynthia Darrington’s independent spirit. The two leave the party together in Darrington’s sports car and as she speeds down the darkly lit road it’s obvious that this unlikely pair have become deeply attracted to one another.

Christopher Strong and Cynthia Darrington’s love affair takes center stage in the film and the two do share some steamy romantic moments together. Most notably in a gondola in Cannes while they’re serenaded by a group of roaming troubadours. And when the unconventional couple finally consummates their relationship we get a surprisingly erotic glimpse of Hepburn’s slender hand showing off the bracelet that Christopher has given her as well as her aviation ring that is embedded with the motto, “Courage Conquers Death.” But the most exciting scenes in Christopher Strong involve Cynthia Darrington’s flying adventures. During the movie the daring female pilot attempts to fly around the world in Amelia Earhart fashion (it’s important to note that Earhart would lose her life in a similar flight some 4 years after Christopher Strong was made) and almost succeeds, but her nerves and Christopher’s lack of support put an early end to her flight. Cynthia Darrington may be the “other woman” but as we watch Katharine Hepburn’s character make headlines as a female aviatrix and marshal parades in her own honor I find it impossible to not root for her success and romantic victory. Maybe that’s because the actresses own romantic history is rather complicated?

They say opposites attract and in Christopher Strong this idea is played out with devastating results. Katharine Hepburn’s character surrenders her independence and daredevil ways all for the love of a married man. She’s a genuine home-wrecker but it’s easy to forgive her. After all, she was an innocent when it came to matters of love before she met Christopher Strong and his wife (Billie Burke) is admittedly old-fashioned and narrow-minded. On the other hand I think Colin Clive’s character in the film is extremely unlikable. Christopher Strong is all talk and very little action. He can’t seem to commit to anyone or anything in his life and his lack of a real backbone ends up hurting everyone around him. This can partially be blamed on Colin Clive’s unusually stiff performance but it’s also easy to imagine that director Dorothy Arzner and writer Zoë Akins intentionally made Clive’s character unsympathetic. This early talkie was probably hindered by the effects of the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code, which was being put in place at the time and demanded that adultery should be punished in the movies. But Arzner was a smart women and a talented filmmaker who still managed to deify expectations. Her direction is extremely creative at times and the film is surprisingly subversive.

You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was somewhat alone in my affection for this movie. Christopher Strong didn’t make many fans when it was originally released in 1933. The fim was popular in New York but failed to win over audiences anywhere else. Critics seemed to find Katharine Hepburn’s domineering character too masculine and cold. Personally I think she was just ahead of her time and critics had a hard time understanding her. Hepburn’s ability to pull off dramatic scenes as well as comedy with a kind of effortless grace was hard to overlook, but many did. Thankfully she had a few defenders such as Mordaunt Hall at The New York Times who thought “… Miss Hepburn delivers an excellent character study. This lithe and graceful actress is convincing as a flying enthusiast and also as the lady who loves another woman’s husband. Her performance is always sympathetic, notwithstanding Lady Cynthia’s meretricious conduct.” Even today it’s often considered to be a lessor Hepburn film but I’ve never understood why.

I find Katharine Hepburn’s performance in Christopher Strong to be an absolute revelation. It was only Hepburn’s second film but her talent is apparent and there really hadn’t been another actress quite like her on screen. At the time of the movie’s release Hepburn was occasionally being compared to Greta Garbo who she slightly resembled and Marlene Dietrich who also enjoyed wearing slacks. You can even spot a little of Barbara Stanwyck’s swagger in Katharine Hepburn’s confident walk, but Hepburn’s appeal was very different. Her strong demeanor, powerful presence, clear sense of humor and androgynous beauty seemed utterly American, completely independent and truly modern. She was her own woman and she never let you forget it. In Christopher Strong her tall lanky frame seems to fit perfectly into her aviatrix uniform and you never question her flying skills or driving abilities. But Hepburn is equally comfortable wearing an incredible party costume designed to make her look like a shimmering moth. If Katharine Hepburn’s star turning performance in Christopher Strong doesn’t impress you, her astonishing wardrobe (designed by Howard Greer and Walter Plunkett) undoubtedly will.

In an interview with biographer Charlotte Chandler in the ’70s Katharine Hepburn reportedly said:

“If I hadn’t been an actress I can’t imagine what I would have been. Well, yes, I can. I would have liked being an aviator, like Amelia Earhart. But that isn’t a career to last as long as mine did, especially if you have some bad luck as she did. In that field you don’t get to have bad luck many time.

Several of the men I was attracted to could fly a plane and were aviation enthusiasts. Leland [Hayward] and Howard [Hughes] were dedicated fliers and Luddy [Ludlow Ogden Smith] could have built a plane. Leland helped me ‘fly my career.’ Howard wore a little plane on his jacket. He liked flying better than anything else in life. Howard’s name was a synonym for flying. Obviously I was always attracted to flying and fliers.” *

It’s easy to imagine Katharine Hepburn as an accomplished aviator. She not only looks the part but she seems more than capable of piloting a plane. I think that’s probably why Christopher Strong is one of my favorite Katherine Hepburn films. In some ways the actress lived the part of Lady Cynthia Darrington and it’s apparent on screen.

Christopher Strong is scheduled to play on TCM on Friday, August 20th as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars celebration devoted to the films of Katharine Hepburn. It’s the earliest Hepburn movie being shown that day and I think it’s well worth a look. If you’re not a Hepburn fan yet, Christopher Strong might have the ability to make you one too.

Update: I just discovered that Christopher Strong is also available from the Warner Brother Archives. Warner Brothers currently sells the film online but it isn’t available for rent. For more information please see the Warner Brother Archives.

* From the book I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

12 Responses Courage Conquers Death in Christopher Strong
Posted By rhsmith : August 20, 2010 11:13 am

These pictures are amazing, Kimberly. Holy moly, what a woman. I’ve never seen Christopher Strong but now I’m dyin’ to!

Posted By rhsmith : August 20, 2010 11:13 am

These pictures are amazing, Kimberly. Holy moly, what a woman. I’ve never seen Christopher Strong but now I’m dyin’ to!

Posted By suzidoll : August 20, 2010 2:00 pm

I like this film a lot, too. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I hope to catch it tonight. The wardrobe is so unique and helps establish Hepburn’s character, like many of the fabulous wardrobes of Golden Age movies. I am glad that you singled this Hepburn movie out for the Morlocks treatment.

Just a minor point about the adultery: The Hays Code was not mandatory when this film was made; it was voluntary. The Code was adopted by Hays in 1930, but it was not mandatory till June 1934. That means the producer or the studio either wanted the adultery to be punished from the get-go, or they voluntarily accepted the Hays Office’s suggestions.

The Code is one of the most misunderstood parts of the Golden Age, with many demonizing the Hays Office as a group of prudes who curtailed the artistic expression of Hollywood writers and directors. This is not really an accurate portrait of the Hays Office. But, it is an accurate portrait of the state and local censors that existed at the time. Prior to 1934, any violation of the Code made a studio’s film prey for these state and local censors, who could cut scenes, dialogue, and even sequences out of a film without notifying the studio. For example, Pennsylvania was very picky about adultery and suggested sex. Before any film was shown in Penn., it had to be watched by the state censorship board. If the Penn. censors found something too sympathetic to sex outside marriage or to those committing it, they were free to edit it out. Sometimes whole scenes were cut out. In the silent era, intertitles were often rewritten by these state and local censors. Most censorship boards were filled with political appointees, who knew nothing about filmmaking and didn’t understand the impact of their changes on the movie. Sometimes, the missing material made the movie confusing. When the altered film was finished playing in Penn. (or, wherever), the distributor assumed the missing scenes or titles were replaced, but in many cases, they were not.

Hays felt that he was was protecting artistic integrity with the Code. If his office suggested something violated the Code, the studio had the opportunity to change it in a way that suited the movie. This was better than having your film butchered by censors in the heartland. After all, if some viewer in Penn. saw a film that made no sense, who were they going to blame for seeing a confusing mess? Of course, they would blame the people whose names were on the credits, not some anonymous censors that they probably didn’t even know existed. A hatchet job by a local censor could affect the box office. That’s why Hays thought he was protecting artistic integrity.

When the Code became mandatory in 1934, a change that was the result of the studio moguls, not Hays or his Office, this rendered state and local censors meaningless.

Anyway, this is probably more than you wanted to know about the Code, but it’s one of my areas of interest as a film historian.

Posted By suzidoll : August 20, 2010 2:00 pm

I like this film a lot, too. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I hope to catch it tonight. The wardrobe is so unique and helps establish Hepburn’s character, like many of the fabulous wardrobes of Golden Age movies. I am glad that you singled this Hepburn movie out for the Morlocks treatment.

Just a minor point about the adultery: The Hays Code was not mandatory when this film was made; it was voluntary. The Code was adopted by Hays in 1930, but it was not mandatory till June 1934. That means the producer or the studio either wanted the adultery to be punished from the get-go, or they voluntarily accepted the Hays Office’s suggestions.

The Code is one of the most misunderstood parts of the Golden Age, with many demonizing the Hays Office as a group of prudes who curtailed the artistic expression of Hollywood writers and directors. This is not really an accurate portrait of the Hays Office. But, it is an accurate portrait of the state and local censors that existed at the time. Prior to 1934, any violation of the Code made a studio’s film prey for these state and local censors, who could cut scenes, dialogue, and even sequences out of a film without notifying the studio. For example, Pennsylvania was very picky about adultery and suggested sex. Before any film was shown in Penn., it had to be watched by the state censorship board. If the Penn. censors found something too sympathetic to sex outside marriage or to those committing it, they were free to edit it out. Sometimes whole scenes were cut out. In the silent era, intertitles were often rewritten by these state and local censors. Most censorship boards were filled with political appointees, who knew nothing about filmmaking and didn’t understand the impact of their changes on the movie. Sometimes, the missing material made the movie confusing. When the altered film was finished playing in Penn. (or, wherever), the distributor assumed the missing scenes or titles were replaced, but in many cases, they were not.

Hays felt that he was was protecting artistic integrity with the Code. If his office suggested something violated the Code, the studio had the opportunity to change it in a way that suited the movie. This was better than having your film butchered by censors in the heartland. After all, if some viewer in Penn. saw a film that made no sense, who were they going to blame for seeing a confusing mess? Of course, they would blame the people whose names were on the credits, not some anonymous censors that they probably didn’t even know existed. A hatchet job by a local censor could affect the box office. That’s why Hays thought he was protecting artistic integrity.

When the Code became mandatory in 1934, a change that was the result of the studio moguls, not Hays or his Office, this rendered state and local censors meaningless.

Anyway, this is probably more than you wanted to know about the Code, but it’s one of my areas of interest as a film historian.

Posted By Kimberly LIndbergs : August 20, 2010 4:01 pm

Richard – Hepburn looks amazing in the movie! I hope you enjoy it when you get the chance to see it.

Suzi – I’m actually familiar with the history of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code if you like) but I’m undoubtedly not as well versed on the topic as you are.

I only briefly mentioned it in my post because I do think the overall effects of it were probably starting to be felt in Hollywood in 1933 during the time that CHRISTOPHER STRONG was made (I probably should have made that clearer in my post). I believe that social pressures and the overall cultural atmosphere effected the choices that producers, writers and directors were making. Although I didn’t explore the topic very deeply in my post, I think it’s possible for example to make the case that there is a notable difference in the earlier films Dorothy Arzner made when compared to CHRISTOPHER STRONG. It’s probably most apparent in the way that Arzner dealt with the lesbian themes she liked to dabble in, which are very subdued here or just in the way the romantic interludes between Hepburn & Clive were shot. Was that a creative choice? A response to outside pressures? I honestly don’t know but I thought it was important to place CHRISTOPHER STRONG in its historical context so people could decide for themselves how the film may have been shaped (or not) by outside influences.

Posted By Kimberly LIndbergs : August 20, 2010 4:01 pm

Richard – Hepburn looks amazing in the movie! I hope you enjoy it when you get the chance to see it.

Suzi – I’m actually familiar with the history of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code if you like) but I’m undoubtedly not as well versed on the topic as you are.

I only briefly mentioned it in my post because I do think the overall effects of it were probably starting to be felt in Hollywood in 1933 during the time that CHRISTOPHER STRONG was made (I probably should have made that clearer in my post). I believe that social pressures and the overall cultural atmosphere effected the choices that producers, writers and directors were making. Although I didn’t explore the topic very deeply in my post, I think it’s possible for example to make the case that there is a notable difference in the earlier films Dorothy Arzner made when compared to CHRISTOPHER STRONG. It’s probably most apparent in the way that Arzner dealt with the lesbian themes she liked to dabble in, which are very subdued here or just in the way the romantic interludes between Hepburn & Clive were shot. Was that a creative choice? A response to outside pressures? I honestly don’t know but I thought it was important to place CHRISTOPHER STRONG in its historical context so people could decide for themselves how the film may have been shaped (or not) by outside influences.

Posted By Suzi : August 21, 2010 8:08 pm

Kim: I absolutely agree that the atmosphere created by the adoption of the Code–mandatory or voluntary–affected the filmmakers’ handling of the material. Good point about Arzner’s earlier films vs. this one in terms of that atmosphere.

Posted By Suzi : August 21, 2010 8:08 pm

Kim: I absolutely agree that the atmosphere created by the adoption of the Code–mandatory or voluntary–affected the filmmakers’ handling of the material. Good point about Arzner’s earlier films vs. this one in terms of that atmosphere.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 30, 2010 2:43 am

& dig this, *Kate actually thought she was fairly ungly during this era!?

(P.S. For those that have yet to see *Scorsese’s 04 “The Aviator” *Cate Blanchett was “perfecto” & deserved her own *ACADEMY GOLD for playing her. CHECK IT OUT SPORTS FANS!

Sole debit, was her first sequence with *Tracy & he tossed her an apple, saying it was from 1 of his farms *Spence never had any!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 30, 2010 2:43 am

& dig this, *Kate actually thought she was fairly ungly during this era!?

(P.S. For those that have yet to see *Scorsese’s 04 “The Aviator” *Cate Blanchett was “perfecto” & deserved her own *ACADEMY GOLD for playing her. CHECK IT OUT SPORTS FANS!

Sole debit, was her first sequence with *Tracy & he tossed her an apple, saying it was from 1 of his farms *Spence never had any!

Posted By Christopher Strong (1933), with Katharine Hepburn | Pre-Code.Com : March 15, 2013 4:05 am

[...] of TCM, Movie Morlocks looks at Hepburn’s grace and style in this picture, and talk about how close the character of [...]

Posted By Christopher Strong (1933), with Katharine Hepburn | Pre-Code.Com : March 15, 2013 4:05 am

[...] of TCM, Movie Morlocks looks at Hepburn’s grace and style in this picture, and talk about how close the character of [...]

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