How Katharine Hepburn Orchestrated Her Hollywood Comeback On Her Own Terms

Once dubbed “the most maligned woman in Hollywood,” Hepburn fought a frustratingly familiar uphill battle against her own industry.
Katharine Hepburn Bringing Up Baby
RKO Radio Pictures
By  · Published on March 15th, 2018

When one thinks of Katharine Hepburn now, the image that likely comes to mind is that of a Hollywood icon, a woman who was ahead of her time with an independent attitude and a penchant for wearing masculine clothes, and a renowned actress with an incredibly successful career. But she wasn’t always thought of this way.

In the mid-1930s, Hepburn was a star on the rise. She won an Academy Award in 1933 for Morning Glory and that same year starred in George Cukor‘s hit adaptation of Little Women. But then she hit a rough patch. To be given leave from her studio, RKO Pictures, to do a Broadway play, she first had to star in Spitfire in 1934. She received poor reviews for the film and reportedly kept a picture of her character in her bedroom throughout her life to keep her humble. The Lake, the play she had left Hollywood to be in, was also a failure. She had a few ups and downs with movies over the next few years, but her career was largely on a decline. Even Bringing Up Baby (pictured above), now considered a classic screwball comedy, was a failure at the box office upon its release in 1938.

Part of Hepburn’s struggle to connect with audiences was her public persona. At a time when the industry was under the moral guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code and the pressure from Depression-era audiences to reaffirm traditional values and remind everyone of a simpler time, there wasn’t a lot of room in Hollywood for Hepburn’s forward-thinking independence.

In 1938 she was declared to be “Hollywood’s most baffling question mark” as a woman who was deeply private and abrasive with the press, but kind and generous behind closed doors. When she tried to assert control over her career, she was viewed as bossy. With the pressure on her to conform to traditional roles for women, she wore slacks made for men, kept her personal life hidden from the world, and never settled down to have kids. When she didn’t want to reveal the details of her life to the press, Hepburn was dubbed “Katharine of Arrogance” and was also called “the most maligned woman in Hollywood” in a 1940 Modern Screen article. 

These problems culminated in May of 1938 when the Independent Theater Owners of America released a list of actors and actresses they believed to be “box office poison.” They stated that stars like Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford were a burden to studios because they received high salaries but had no box office draw. In response, RKO offered Hepburn a B movie, and she began to receive salary offers lower than what she had been paid at the start of her career. 

Not content to let “box office poison” be the end of her story, Hepburn got to work. She bought out her contract from RKO and moved back to her home in Connecticut. There, she met with playwright Philip Barry. He had written the play that Hepburn’s last film, Holiday, was adapted from and the two were friends. His latest play, The Philadelphia Story, was inspired by real-life socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, but Barry also had Hepburn in mind when writing the fictional character of Tracy Lord. The Philadelphia Story follows Tracy, a resident of the Main Line, Philadelphia’s old money suburb. On the eve of her wedding to her second husband, she is visited by her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, who she divorced two years prior for not living up to the high standards she’d set for him. Hijinks ensue, and in the end, after becoming disillusioned with her would-be-second-husband, Tracy accepts her ex, flaws and all, and they are remarried.

Hepburn signed onto the play and took a risk with it by agreeing to forgo a salary in exchange for a percentage of the profits. With the help of Howard Hughes, who Hepburn had previously been in a relationship with, she also bought the film rights for $30,000. The play was a massive hit when it opened on Broadway on March 28, 1939. When the production closed a year later, it had grossed more than $1.5 million and had received rave reviews.

In the fall of 1939, Hepburn began negotiating with studios to adapt the play. Articles from The Film Daily described Warner Brothers negotiating in October of 1939 for the film rights for $250, 000. Hepburn eventually sold to MGM in January of 1940. In addition to $175, 000 for the film rights, Hepburn was also given a $75, 000 salary from the studio. She likely could have negotiated a higher amount up front from another studio considering the success of the play, but at MGM Hepburn was given what she desired more than money: control.

Her deal with MGM allowed her to personally select the director, writer, and co-stars. She chose George Cukor, who she had worked with four times previously, to direct, and Donald Ogden Stewart to write the adaptation. For the male leads, when her initial choices of Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were unavailable, she chose Cary Grant for the role of C.K. Dexter Haven and James Stewart as Macaulay “Mike” Connor. Stewart plays a reporter who covers the wedding and has a few will-they-won’t-they moments with Tracy before she decides to reconcile with Haven.

When The Philadelphia Story premiered in New York on December 26, 1940, it was met with widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. When screening at Radio City Music Hall, it sold more tickets in the first week than any film had in the five years before that. The film was released nationwide in January of 1941 and became the second highest grossing film of that year. It garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for Hepburn, and it took home the awards for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Stewart. 

But the biggest success story was Katharine Hepburn, the woman who made it all happen. She had won her way back into Hollywood and would continue to make films for the next five decades. Ironically, the assertiveness that alienated audiences was exactly what pushed Hepburn to retain control of her comeback vehicle. At a time when many stars were at the mercy of the studio system, she acquired and sold the rights for a profit and personally selected the cast and crew for the film.

After the film was released, Harry Brandt, the head of the Independent Theater Owners of America, removed her from the “box office poison” list and declared “Come on back, Katie. All is forgiven.” Why exactly Brandt felt he was in the position to forgive Hepburn and not the other way around is unclear, but the sentiment is nevertheless well-meaning, and it is proof that she had successfully turned her career around.

It would be nice to think that Hepburn’s struggle and success paved the way for studios to give actresses more control over their projects. After all, she was a woman ahead of her time in 1940, but she shouldn’t be ahead of our time in 2018. While there obviously have been improvements made to the filmmaking industry that give women more freedom, Hepburn’s battle against Hollywood isn’t an unfamiliar one.

Today we see stars like Reese Witherspoon still struggling to find good, complex roles for women. In Witherspoon’s case, she, like Hepburn, took matters into her own hands and found stories to invest in and adapt to the screen when Hollywood didn’t provide her with the projects she desired. From The Philadelphia Story to Big Little Lies, there’s plenty of proof that success comes from giving women in the filmmaking industry the freedom to make what they want to make.

In May of 2018, it will be 80 years since Katharine Hepburn was declared “box office poison” because of unsuccessful films she had made under studio contracts and because of her headstrong personality that the public perceived as arrogance. Today,  the studio system of the 40s is no longer in place, and actresses usually aren’t judged as harshly as Hepburn was for not wanting to settle down and have kids. But women — especially women of color and women without the financial backing that Hepburn received from her family — are still struggling to have their films made and to get the recognition they deserve. The more things seem to change…

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.