Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Little Minister ( 1934 )

Margaret Perry is hosting The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon which kicked off on May 9th and we at Silver Scenes could not resist joining in on celebrating one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen. Our contribution to the event - The Little Minister - came out of the 1930s, one of Hepburn's busiest decades as an actress. 

The Little Minister is a charming whimsical film about a recently ordained minister ( John Beal ) of a small Scottish village who gets rebuffed by his congregation when he falls in love with a wild gypsy girl ( Katharine Hepburn ). At first, he wins the respect of the townsfolk when he stands up against the town bully Rob Dow ( Alan Hale ). Dow is the leader of the village weavers who are planning a rebellion against their employer, Lord Rintoul ( Frank Convoy ), who has cut their salary, but then when the minister brazenly associates with the sprightly gypsy of the woods, Babbie, and announces his plans to marry her, he is practically tarred and feathered before it is found out that she is really the illustrious Lady Babbie, ward to Lord Rintoul, in disguise. 

Sir James M.Barrie's "The Little Minister" was beloved by the masses since its first publication as a novel in 1891. Maude Adams, the famous American stage star, made the play a huge success both in England and America, and in 1921, both Paramount and Vitagraph released film versions of The Little Minister starring Betty Compson and Alice Calhoun, respectively. 

Katharine Hepburn had always adored Maude Adams and when she heard that RKO was planning to make The Little Minister a major production with Ginger Rogers in the lead role, she was particularly anxious to secure the part of Lady Babbie herself. 

Pandro S. Berman, the head of RKO, was more than happy to cast her in the role, hoping to restore her to her star status after the dismal failure of her previous film, Spitfire

The husband and wife team of Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason were brought in to weave a screenplay that would parallel their Oscar-winning script of 1933 - Little Women. In fact, most of the production team of Little Women were reunited for The Little Minister, which RKO lavishly bestowed $648,000 on to make. It was the studio's most expensive production of the year and was released as their Christmas gift to the nation. Berman was secretly hoping for a major success but alack and alas, the film did not regain its expenses. Even though it brought in respectable business, it lost $9000. 

Katharine Hepburn considered her portrayal of Babbie as a "rather fancy performance" years later, looking back on the film. The role of Babbie called for a girl with an almost other-worldly elfin quality and "I think I'm probably just too down-to-earth for that" Hepburn admitted. 

George Cukor, one of Hepburn's most beloved directors, was busy making David Copperfield over at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and could not be called upon to take the helm of The Little Minister. In his place, Richard Wallace ( The Shopworn Angel, Sinbad the Sailor ) did a marvelous job. 

The film itself is an enchanting fantasy and from its opening scenes lures the audience into the picturesque village of Thrums. Max Steiner's lovely score, which incorporates old and familiar Scottish tunes, carries our hearts into the highland while RKO's resident wizard of design, Van Nest Poglase, and Carroll Clark, lend the film a total sense of authenticity by way of their meticulous set designs. No expense was spared in making The Little Minister the high-class production that it was. In addition to the leading actors, Donald Crisp, Lumsden Hare, Andy Clyde, Dorothy Stickney, Reginald Denny, Eily Malyon, and Mary Gordon also starred. 

7 comments:

  1. This is one of her costume films where you simply can't figure out where you're supposed to be with the Hepburn character - it's kinda wierd - sprightly in parts, but with a conflicted message. I think this is one of the films that contributed to her "box-office poison" phase, though I still say there's some value in every Hepburn performance. I love SPITFIRE (1934) for some reason. Thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

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    1. We have to see Spitfire...hearing all the "box office poison" stuff about it makes it sound very appealing! Hepburn wasn't really the best choice for this part ( she claimed that the only reason she asked for the role was because she heard that Ginger Roles wanted it ) but we thought she made a pretty good gypsy nevertheless. On and off though she may have been. ;-) Thanks for hosting this great event!

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  2. Hepburn as a "sprightly gypsy of the woods"? This I have to see.:)

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    1. I hope you enjoy the film when you get a chance to see it....my sister and I really liked it, especially Hepburn's performance. :-)

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  3. I've never seen this, as I've always thought this was one of the biggest contributors to the 'box office poison tag, but perhaps I should give it a go. I'm sure there's something of merit there!

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    1. It wasn't really this film alone. Hepburn flopped in Spitfire and then she tried her hand at two Broadway productions that failed ( one of them being Dark Victory ), and then RKO put her in two other failures after this film. The Little Minister actually got very good reviews when it came out and we think it's a minor gem of a film. Hepburn believed that if Cukor was at the helm the film would have been as successful and enduring as The Little Women, and maybe there is something in that, but nevertheless it is well worth watching.

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  4. Diana and Connie, is there any way I can entice you to submit another post for this year's The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon? It would be so awesome to have you participate again!
    http://margaretperry.org/announcing-the-2nd-annual-great-katharine-hepburn-blogathon/

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