| Our Rating:
L Factor: Subtext
Short Take: Hepburn plays an early 1930s aviator.
Duration: 78 min
|Director: Dorothy Arzner
Writer: Gilbert Frankau, Zoe Akins
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Colin Clive, Billie Burke, Helen Chandler, Ralph Forbes
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Christopher Strong was Katherine Hepburn’s first starring role and the first of the roles that would make her a feminist icon. She plays Lady Cynthia Darrington, an aviator who constantly challenges the distance and altitude records of the day. Cynthia wears pants, which none of the other women do in the film, and proudly proclaims that she has never had a love affair with a man.
This is about to change, as the bulk of the story is about the relationship between Cynthia and the title character, Christopher Strong (Colin Clive, Frankenstein), a happily married man who is also a member of the British Parliament. The two fall in love and carry on an affair, while Strong’s wife Elaine (Billie Burke, Glinda in The Wizard of Oz) suffers with the knowledge that her husband is still dutiful, but in love with a much younger woman and rarely home.
Both characters change. The once honorable Christopher is now carrying on an illicit affair, and Cynthia, who was once independent, doing what she wishes, gives in to his pleas that she stop an around the world flight just before the last leg is over. She begins wearing dresses instead of pants.
Her predicament comes crashing down on Cynthia when Christopher’s daughter Monica (Helen Chandler, Dracula) announces that she is pregnant. He is thrilled that he will be a grandfather, so chooses to spend the evening with his family, rather than with his lover.
Later when Cynthia asks him what he would do if she were pregnant, Christopher tells her that it would be his duty to leave his wife and marry her – not that it was his wish, but his duty. That is not what she wants to hear. What he doesn’t know is that Cynthia is, in fact, pregnant.
In the film’s tragic ending, Cynthia finally takes the reigns of her life back and sets a new altitude record. The end makes little sense to us in the modern world, but in 1930s England, being an unwed mother was an entirely different matter. The end also fits with the pre-code Hollywood rules at the time, which often required that a story like this end with a moral lesson.
Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood’s only female director during this time period, directed the film. In an interview, she mentions that she had seen Hepburn around the studio and felt that she was the “modern type” necessary for this role. Arzner was a lesbian, who usually wore a suit and tie on the set, and many see this film not only as a critique on gender inequality, but also on heterosexuality.
While most assume that the character was based on Amelia Earhart, in the same interview, Arzner says that Cynthia was based on aviator Amy Lowell, not Earhart. (AB)