Our Favorite Films of Katharine Hepburn

On the legendary actress' birthday, we stroll down memory lane and reminisce about some of her most essential films.
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On the legendary actress' birthday, we stroll down memory lane and reminisce about some of her most essential films.
Katharine Hepburn Photo

Katharine Hepburn (Photo: Film Classics)

It takes a certain kind of brilliance to exude elegance from the past and still be forward-thinking. But that's what you get with legendary stage and screen star Katharine Hepburn. Today would have been her 108th birthday.

Born to progressive blue-blood parents in Connecticut, she decided on a career in acting while at Bryn Mawr College. After a few years in Broadway productions, a Hollywood scout was taken with her 1932 performance in The Warrior's Husband, a fantasy-comedy that had Hepburn leaping about the stage in an Amazonian costume. She headed out West to build a career that, in 1999, named her the greatest female star in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute.

She was a fiercely independent woman, among the first in the public eye to wear men's trousers (shocking!) and, after a divorce in 1934 at the age of 29, never remarried. Though there has been much speculation about her private affairs, one open secret (which she did confirm) was her longtime relationship with her frequent screen collaborator, the married Spencer Tracy. She was nominated for the Academy Award 12 times (always Best Actress, never supporting) and won four statues. She died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Hepburn and Tracy made nine movies together. I'm only including one on this list, and that's only because Kate (I can call her Kate) has such a terrific and robust resumé. Now, to get you up to speed on this great woman's work, let's get those rental recommendations ready.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

By 1938 Hepburn already had a hit with Little Women and won the Oscar for the backstage drama Morning Glory opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Adolphe Menjou, but for my money, if you are sticking with the essentials, you want to start here. Bringing Up Baby is one of life's few pieces of absolute perfection, a dizzy, screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. Cary Grant plays a timid, bespectacled paleontologist about to get married, and is in the midst of sucking up to a rich society woman for a donation to his museum. Enter Susan Vance (Hepburn) a free-spirit who, for reasons too complicated to get into here, has a pet leopard. Turns out she's the niece of the woman with the purse. Shenanigans ensue and, naturally, these two people who couldn't be more different fall in love. The movie was not a box office success at the time, but is now recognized as a masterpiece of 1930s filmmaking.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

After Bringing Up Baby's initial miss with the public, Hepburn went into a proactive mode to secure projects more likely to be a hit. She secured the rights to the play The Philadelphia Story and sold them to MGM with an assurance that she would star and have approval of her director and cast mates. The result, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart as her twin romantic interests, and George Cukor calling the shots, was a perfect fit. Hepburn is tremendous as the tough-as-nails Philadelphia socialite who leaves her cocktail-loving husband (Grant, with one of cinema's best character names, C. K. Dexter Haven) and is about to marry a wealthy “man of the people” played by George Kitteredge. Complications arise when a photographer played by Stewart enters the picture, temporarily winning Hepburn's heart. But who could ever really fall out of love with Cary Grant? It may sound like a lot of soap opera, but there's a panache to the picture that is purely of the time.

The African Queen (1951)

What a difference a decade makes. Goodbye Hollywood sets of elegant mansions, hello location shooting in Uganda. Hepburn teamed with Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston for this romantic adventure, with a screenwriting assist from James Agee. (No, Hepburn is not the queen of the title; that's the name of Bogey's boat.) Hepburn plays a British missionary in German East Africa, an area that today comprises parts of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. When World War I breaks out, German colonists attack her village, killing her brother. Bogart is the grisly, ungodly skipper who comes to deliver the mail, but soon Kate realizes he's her only ticket to safety. What follows is a big, technicolor survivalist tale that involves leeches (ewwww) and falling in love (awwww).

Summertime (1955)

A little different from the a rusty scow in the Ulanga River – a gondola on the Grand Canal. Director David Lean, in a run-up to his trilogy of epics The Bridge of the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, took Katharine Hepburn to Venice and let us all fall in love. But with a specific person or the spirit of the city? Hepburn, already 48 when the film came out, played an unmarried schoolteacher from middle America. Her dream trip to Venice is lovely (and filled with comic foibles) but all the couples in Piazza San Marco cause her a bit of unrest. She begins a romance with a local, but is the thought of it lasting anything other than a pipe dream? No spoilers, but ready the hankies!

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

The truth is this: Stanley Kramer's socially conscious films are always important, but they're not always good. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an example of a milestone movie that, if we're being honest, can be a little on the dull side. Nevertheless, it was brilliant casting to have Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as Mr. and Mrs. Drayton, whose daughter (Katharine Houghton) brings home an African-American fiancé (Sidney Poitier). Hepburn and Tracy had already co-starred in eight romantic comedies together, like Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike. Now, some years later, they were perfectly suited to represent an older generation's reaction to an interracial marriage. As I'm sure you could imagine, this movie was wildly controversial in its day. By modern standards, it's a bit stuffy, but progress moves in baby steps.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

What, you think Game of Thrones just came out of nowhere? Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine alongside Peter O'Toole as King Henry II and (the very young) Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart is classic, juicy British medieval stuff. Despite nifty castle settings, this is very much a filmed play, giving these fine actors plenty of time to sink their teeth into the great scenes of dastardly court schemes. What's best is that even with all the dungeons and adultery, you can still say the movie is educational!

On Golden Pond (1981)

While Hepburn continued to work in television into this mid-1990s, this was something of her last hurrah. She and co-star Henry Fonda both won the Academy Award for their portrayals of Ethel and Norman Thayer. Production of the film was something of a gift to Henry Fonda from his daughter Jane, who had quite a bit of Hollywood heat on her at the time. She purchased the rights to the play upon which this was based, and also gave herself a plum role (why not?). It is a bittersweet film about aging and family dynamics and, if you like watching men go fishing while the women stay home and worry, this is one for you. While it may sound like a snooze, it is actually quite touching and beautifully shot.