Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Quality Street (1937)

A few years ago I was up in Duluth, Minnesota looking for someplace quiet, to grab a bite when we suddenly the perfect place: a small restaurant, with a kitschy, pseudo Russian theme that served custom-made burritos named after Rasputin and the like. It was as if the universe had reached into my brain and conjured up exactly what I needed to make me perfectly happy. I've treasured that memory, odd as it may seem, because I felt like it was evidence that of the interconnectedness of all things.

I was content to live my life with just that one instance of planetary alignment, but the other day it happened again. I was home sick, feeling very much in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, something light and frothy with just a touch of screwball. I needed one of those rare tonic films. To complicate matters, I was also feeling very Jane Austen-y since watching The Young Mr. Pitt had reminded me of the early 19th century and, inevitably, of Austen. I picked disconsolately through my Austen DVDs. Sense and Sensibility was too sad. (I always, always cry like a baby when Marianne almost dies). Pride and Prejudice was just too long, Emma was not quite right and Bridget Jones was definitely not on the bill. I scanned my Tivo and alighted randomly on the description of Quality Street: a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) becomes an old maid waiting for a young man (Franchot Tone) to return from the Napoleonic Wars. OK, Kate Hepburn and Franchot Tone--I'm there already. Throw in Napoleonic Wars and you've definitely got me intrigued. And doesn't this outline sound just a little bit like...PERSUASION?! Oh, Universe, you've done it again. You've reached into my brain and provided me with exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it.

What a fun discovery this movie was. It IS a screwball version of Persuasion. Take out Louisa's head injury and add in Anne Elliott posing as her own coquettish, young niece, and you more or less have Quality Street. This film has all the tea-swilling, pelisse-wearing, repressed-sexual-smoldering of a Jane Austen adaptation and all the chaotic misunderstandings and physical gags of 1930s RKO comedies. The story is based a play by Edwardian playwright, James M. Barrie, best known for his novel Peter Pan. The ever-competent George Stevens directs.

Franchot Tone, whom I've liked ever since he took my attention, however briefly, away from Cary Grant in Suzy, is really great here. I've rarely seen him in comedies, and he definitely shines in the part of the cocky young man who is humbled when he actually has to pursue a woman. Even while he chases "niece" Olivia, hoping to reign her in as a favor to spinster aunt Phoebe, he tips his hand in just the right places to show the audience that it's Phoebe he really loves. Hepburn, is excellent as well, belying the old story that she learned everything she knew about comic timing from Walter Catlett in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

If it's so great, why doesn't Quality Street top the list of Hepburn films from this her infamous "box office poison" period---a list that includes such gems as Sylvia Scarlet, Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby? Maybe it's the 19th century setting that puts people off. We think of Hepburn as a modern actress and prefer her comedies edgy and hip. There's nothing particularly edgy about Quality Street,--none of the cross-dressing deviance of Scarlet, or the risque undercurrents to Baby's fast-moving mayhem. (My bone! It's rare! It's precious!) Quality Street has remained quietly buried, dug up once a year when TCM does a Katharine Hepburn tribute; I captured it only through exhaustive Tivo-ing. But if you have any interest in Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone, 1930s comedy, or Jane Austen, I'd say you definitely want to make the effort to watch this one.

4 comments:

SteveQ said...

Okay... this post's been up since before Thanksgiving. If you were waiting until someone commented, happy new year! May the year bring you great things, like a lost Cary Grant film being discovered.

Jennythenipper said...

Yes, perhaps I was waiting for another comment! Cheers and Happy New Year to you!

Lauren Hairston said...

I just got to see this film on TCM and really liked it. Katharine Hepburn made some fun movies during her "poison" period. Plus, I just love Franchot Tone.

I found your blog while doing some "research" on Brian Aherne. Looks like you've beat me to every film I've seen recently!

Dinda said...

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