Every era of romantic comedy requires a slightly different skill set from its leading ladies, from the waifish, vulnerable ingenues and brassy flappers of the silent era to the quirky affability of 1990s movie stars. Katharine Hepburn came up in the age of the screwball comedy, which meant that witty, fast-paced dialogue was the order of the day. Although she would eventually become practically synonymous with the genre, it was not a style that she initially excelled at. Indeed, perhaps her greatest triumph was not the fact that she was able to overcome a string of flops that would see her famously labeled as box office poison, but her ability to transform from a traditional dramatic actress into an essential presence in one of the most popular film genres of the day.
Katharine Hepburn was born in 1907, the daughter of a wealthy, intellectual New England family. Rather than following the traditional path of a WASPy debutante that might have been expected of her, she was encouraged to go to college. She studied drama at Bryn Mawr – hardly the conventional trajectory for an early starlet, many of whom grew up in scrappy theater and vaudeville families, learned their craft while working on stage, or were discovered by prominent silent film directors. When she began acting in film, her first roles did not have the comedic leanings that she would eventually become known for. Her first screen role was a supporting performance in the pre-Code melodrama A Bill of Divorcement, where she plays a young woman who questions her upcoming nuptials when she learns that her father’s mental illness is hereditary.
Before she would get a chance to experiment with comedy, her performances frequently highlighted her dramatic abilities: the fiery Jo March in Little Women; an impulsive queen in Mary of Scotland; a Roma woman in 1840s Scotland in The Little Minister. Just three films into her career, she would star as aspiring actress Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, a role that would utilize her theatrical training and mimic her own rise to fame. She won an Academy Award for the performance, and was nominated again two years later in 1935 for Alice Adams, where she plays an ambitious girl from a working-class background who schemes to join high society. Hepburn was minted as a bona fide Hollywood star incredibly quickly. But unfortunately, the backlash against her is all too familiar: We’ve seen time and again actors, especially women, who audiences invent reasons to dislike in reaction to perceived overexposure.
Compounding this issue, it seemed that throughout much of the 1930s, studios couldn’t figure out quite what to do with her. Many of her films failed to make much of an impact financially, and the efforts to sustain Hepburn as a massive Hollywood star hit roadblock after roadblock. But with 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, they had something different on their hands. Here, she plays Susan Vance, a flighty, maddeningly eccentric socialite whose life becomes entangled with a straightlaced paleontologist when her pet dog buries a priceless bone needed to complete a dinosaur skeleton he’s been single-mindedly devoted to for years. She’s paired up for the second time with her co-star from Sylvia Scarlett, a gender-bending romantic comedy that would see both actors still developing the personas that would define their careers. But while that film had its comedic elements, Bringing Up Baby was Hepburn’s first true screwball comedy – and it didn’t come easy to her. The initial days on set were tense ones, as Hepburn struggled to keep up with the fast pace of the dialogue, often overacting in an effort to make all the jokes land. For someone classically-trained, with a theater education where they’re encouraged to savor the words and find meaning in them, the rapidity with which lines need to be spat out in a screwball comedy must have been jarring indeed.
Although Hepburn was an Oscar-winning actress at this point, she also desperately needed Bringing Up Baby to be a success. So when director Howard Hawks tactfully suggested that she work on her comedic timing with vaudeville star Walter Catlett, she devoted herself to the task. The results speak for themselves: In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn brings a uniquely chaotic energy to her performance as Susan Vance, breezily leaving destruction in her wake. She provides the perfect foil to Grant’s David Huxley, who was also out on a limb as a befuddled nerd after a career of mostly dashing characters. They find a rhythm together that allows them to each have their moments to shine, the focus ebbing and flowing seamlessly between the two. Bringing Up Baby would define their professional collaboration, with two more films to follow in its wake (Holiday later in 1938 and The Philadelphia Story in 1940, respectively).
But at least in the short-term, they were not particularly well-rewarded for their efforts in Bringing Up Baby. While some critics of the time responded to it positively (Variety had special praise for its two stars, saying that Hepburn gave “one of her most invigorating screen characterizations as a madcap deb” and Grant “performs his role to the hilt,”), audiences were less convinced. It was not a financial success, especially having gone over budget and over time, for which Hepburn received the majority of the blame; it was this film that would prompt her inclusion on the Independent Theatre Owners’ of America’s now-infamous list of actors who were considered “box office poison.” Hepburn was left in the precarious position of being a huge Hollywood star who was unable to headline a successful film.
Nevertheless, her performance in Bringing Up Baby was strong enough that filmmakers remained willing to find reasons to cast Hepburn in other screwball comedies. The genre would, two years later, provide her Hollywood redemption. Cast alongside Cary Grant and James Stewart (her reputation was such that studio heads believed that her presence could only be mitigated by having two very popular male stars on either side of her), The Philadelphia Story would see Hepburn play a more refined version of her character in Bringing Up Baby. A divorced socialite on the eve of her second marriage, she is thrown for a loop by the sudden arrival of her first husband (Grant), especially since she has a pair of reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) covering her wedding for the society pages. This would be the career rebirth that Hepburn had been waiting for: The Philadelphia Story was a massive box office hit and earned six Academy Award nominations, including one for Hepburn herself.
Having essentially reset the trajectory of her career by rapidly shifting gears into a new genre, Hepburn was able to continue acting for decades, becoming such a beloved icon that it’s difficult to even imagine that audiences once rejected her. By the time she retired, she had amassed an incredible 12 Oscar nominations and four wins, the most of any actor in history. It’s fair to say that both her longevity in the industry and her huge critical success would not have been possible without her ability to transition into a genre that did not come naturally to her at first. Screwball comedies may not have launched her career, but they are what saved it.