In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters to Old Hollywood. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.
Katharine Hepburn made more TV movies than you might suspect for an actress whose film career began in 1932 and was almost as active in the theater throughout her life.
Her migration to the small screen began after the death of Spencer Tracy in 1967, probably not a coincidence. All told, she made nine films for television, beginning with a remake of The Glass Menagerie in 1973 and ending with One Christmas in 1994, her final film role.
In 1972, Hepburn appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and was asked if she would ever make a film with Laurence Olivier, the legendary British actor who was so big they named an acting award after him. Hepburn smiled and said, “Well, neither of us is dead yet. Even though you may think so.”
And that set certain wheels in motion...
To this point, Hepburn had made eight films with director George Cukor, including her 1932 film debut, A Bill of Divorcement, and the two wanted to collaborate again. They dusted off an original screenplay by James Costigan originally intended for the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontaine called Love Among the Ruins. Hepburn approached her friend Olivier to see if he had any interest in the film. He didn’t. Film journalist Emanuel Levy picks up the story:
...Cukor and Hepburn proceeded to write a long, personal letter to Olivier, which consisted of a series of questions: “Do you find the relationship—thus cast—not interesting Do you find it not funny Do you find it too trivial Would there be any particular thing which could make you do it, and if so, what Say it’s just hopeless, and we will both blow our brains out.” Cukor decided to be cute and mention their biggest professional failures. “What a combo!” he told Larry. “The star of Romeo and Juliet; the girl who was so successful in The Lake; and the director—fresh from his success—of Gone With the Wind. Irresistible!”
Olivier was amused enough by the letter to change his mind.
Hepburn plays a widowed stage actress in pre-WW1 London, at the center of a scandal involving a younger man, a suitor who claims she stood him up at the altar and was now taking her to court for “breach of promise.” Olivier plays Hepburn’s attorney. A big fan, he met her briefly long ago and has carried a torch for her ever since, but she doesn’t even remember him. The movie aired on ABC in March 1975.
Hepburn and Olivier make a great combo, as you might imagine, and they both get a number of moments to play off each other and chew a little scenery during the courtroom scenes.
Olivier’s character only knew Hepburn for a few days, but he totally loved her, and he had to watch her marry someone else instead. No one else lived up to her memory in all the years since, and now he has to defend her in a case against a young man who reminds him more than a little of himself when he met her. It’s a bittersweet situation, to say the least, but fortunately the tone of Ruins is light and comic.
When Hepburn’s character speaks of her late husband, it’s hard to not think of Tracy. Though they never married, they shared an intimacy akin to that of husband and wife. Here she’s a kind of British Auntie Mame. It’s not hard to imagine a younger man falling for her; the big question is whether this particular young man did.
Ruins feels more or less like a Cukor film, one that flew in the face of the “New Hollywood” era of cinema, the one that promised to “bury” Cukor and his generation—and even if this wasn’t a theatrical release, it showed the oldsters still had plenty of life left: it won seven Emmys and a Peabody Award, including Emmys for Cukor, Hepburn, Olivier and screenwriter Costigan. Worth watching.
This post was originally scheduled for August, during my month of TV movies, but when Crystal and Michaela announced this blogathon, I knew I had to move it. Just lucky, I guess.
Other movies by Tracy and Hepburn:
Desk Set (Tracy & Hepburn)
The African Queen (Hepburn)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Tracy)
Libeled Lady (Tracy)
The Actress (Tracy)
Tracy and Hepburn (book review)