The Hepburn-RKO-J.M. Barrie Axis of Whimsy

Two J.M. Barrie adaptations, filmed at RKO, starring Katherine Hepburn, QUALITY STREET and THE LITTLE MINISTER.


THE LITTLE MINISTER, directed by Richard Wallace, is set in Barrie’s native Scotland and showcases Kate’s Bryn Mawr version of a Highland burr. Several real Scots provide doughty support — Andy Clyde is particularly enjoyable, and Sherlock Holmes regulars Alec Craig (in his first movie role, according to the IMDb) and Mary Gordon make welcome appearances. Donald Crisp looks exactly as he did thirty years later in GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY, but sounds different — he nailed the accent sometime in the intervening years.

But why no James Finlayson?

Poor John Beal struggles with the R-rolling, and is blown off the screen by Hepburn in gypsy drag. Flashes of authentic Scottish scenery, including brief use of the zoom lens (quite popular at RKO at this time — see also KING KONG).


QUALITY STREET is, we thought, the superior production. Never mind that Barrie’s conceit, Hepburn scrubbing up and impersonating a fictitious younger relative to fool Franchot Tone, even though Tone knows perfectly well what she looks like, is unworkable on-screen (suspension of disbelief and the perpetual long-shot would sell it on stage). Never mind that the whole cast is doing convincing English accents except tone-deaf Tone. Enjoy the Napoleonic era gadgets (women’s veils which swish open on a drawstring like net curtains, English geisha shoes for walking in the rain) and the dialogue and performances and director George Stevens’ elegant, witty framing.

In the prologue, Hepburn is disappointed in love as her beau decides to go off to the wars — she sits by the window with her aunt, and the Greenaway-symmetry does something expressive and very un-Greenawayesque: it captures their resignation to staying unmarried for life. Possibly while sitting in the window.


11 Responses to “The Hepburn-RKO-J.M. Barrie Axis of Whimsy”

  1. This was the apex of Hepburn’s “box office poison” period.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    I was expecting QUALITY STREET to be impossibly and unbearably twee – but was surprised how watchable (not to say charming) it actually was!

    My favourite Hepburn film from her ‘Box Office Poison’ years is the splendid and criminally underrated A WOMAN REBELS.

  3. I have to run Alice Adams next!

  4. Alice Adams is marvelous — one of both Hepburn’s AND George Stevens’ very best.

    Don’t share your regard for A Woman Rebels. It’s interesting but to me no more than that. I of course ADORE Sylvia Scarlet and wonder how Hepburn got along with fellow Sapphic Dorothy Arzner during the making of Christopher Strong

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Perhaps, with the Eric Blore of THE GAY DIVORCEE in mind, this should be called “The Axis of *Whumsy*”?

    I’ve yet to see ALICE ADAMS, alas, but I remember that it seems to’ve struck a primal chord with Pauline Kael (cf. the reference in I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES).

  6. La Faustin Says:

    ALICE ADAMS: I’m a big fan of the Tarkington novel, so have a hard time accepting the movie adaptation, which follows the book’s plot meticulously until it suddenly slaps on a Happy Ending that contradicts everything that went before (and neglects Tarkington’s own, extremely cinematic ending).

  7. I always enjoyed “A Little Minister”, mostly because Hepburn is so damn cute while playfully messing with Beal’s head. Beal’s stiffness might be intentional — he comes off as a boy only recent exposed to feminine wiles and trying to bluff it out. His petulant denunciation of Eve mid-sermon (upon finding her impudent note in his Bible) is close to Spanky addressing the He-Man Women-Haters Club.

    Also intrigued by Alan Hale as a formidable drunk bullied into salvation, he and his son both terrified that he’d fall back if the minister were driven out by scandal.

    I’ve read the novel, which is even soapier. I suspect the movie is based on a stage adaptation.

    There was another Scottish-set Barrie film, “What Every Woman Knows.” The idea is intriguing. A nouveau riche family discovers a student has been breaking into their library at night to study; they agree not to prosecute and to sponsor his political career if he marries their “unattractive” daughter (Helen Hayes). He does so and rises steadily, falling for a sophisticated woman but ultimately recognizing his wife is in fact the secret of his success, acting out of love. It’s talky and a bit fuzzy; you don’t get the clarity of ideas offered in “Pygmalion” or “Hobson’s Choice.”

  8. Oh, I’ve been meaning to look at WEWK, as it’s an unusual subject for La Cava. And Hollywood Scotland always delights.

    Hollywood Endings are, I find, at their best when unconvincing — everybody knows it’s a lie, and sadly and apologetically smiles to the audience, recognizing that they know too. Not having read any Tarkington I’ll have to see for myself if Alice Adams strikes a bum note. It’s always upsetting when a genuinely cinematic scene (eg the murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice) is passed over by a filmmaker.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    And Tarkington appreciated movies:

    Next day, Penrod acquired a dime by a simple and antique process which was without doubt sometimes practised by the boys of Babylon. When the teacher of his class in Sunday-school requested the weekly contribution, Penrod, fumbling honestly (at first) in the wrong pockets, managed to look so embarrassed that the gentle lady told him not to mind, and said she was often forgetful herself. She was so sweet about it that, looking into the future, Penrod began to feel confident of a small but regular income.

    At the close of the afternoon services he did not go home, but proceeded to squander the funds just withheld from China upon an orgy of the most pungently forbidden description. In a Drug Emporium, near the church, he purchased a five-cent sack of candy consisting for the most part of the heavily flavoured hoofs of horned cattle, but undeniably substantial, and so generously capable of resisting solution that the purchaser must needs be avaricious beyond reason who did not realize his money’s worth.

    Equipped with this collation, Penrod contributed his remaining nickel to a picture show, countenanced upon the seventh day by the legal but not the moral authorities. Here, in cozy darkness, he placidly insulted his liver with jaw-breaker upon jaw-breaker from the paper sack, and in a surfeit of content watched the silent actors on the screen.

    One film made a lasting impression upon him. It depicted with relentless pathos the drunkard’s progress; beginning with his conversion to beer in the company of loose travelling men; pursuing him through an inexplicable lapse into evening clothes and the society of some remarkably painful ladies, next, exhibiting the effects of alcohol on the victim’s domestic disposition, the unfortunate man was seen in the act of striking his wife and, subsequently, his pleading baby daughter with an abnormally heavy walking-stick. Their flight—through the snow—to seek the protection of a relative was shown, and finally, the drunkard’s picturesque behaviour at the portals of a madhouse.

    So fascinated was Penrod that he postponed his departure until this film came round again, by which time he had finished his unnatural repast and almost, but not quite, decided against following the profession of a drunkard when he grew up.

  10. Penrod (Billy Gray ) plays second fiddle to his sister — Doris Day — In On Moonlight Bay — meticulously deconstructed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in his classic Moving Places (one of the best film books EVAH!)

  11. I must investigate Penrod in all his forms!

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