by Victoria Large
I’m not sure that any film unsettled me quite as much this year as Christopher Strong did. The 1933 curio features Katharine Hepburn as Cynthia Darrington, a fearless pilot who falls in love for the first time in her life. Colin Clive plays the title character and object of Cynthia’s affections, a married and morally upright, if slightly repressed, member of Parliament who gambles his reputation by pursuing a love affair with Cynthia. Directed with surprising frankness by Dorothy Arzner (perhaps the only well-known female director to work under the studio system) and featuring Hepburn in a prototypically bold Hepburn role, Christopher Strong possesses moments where it feels truly radical. And, perhaps because Hepburn and Clive are both favorites of mine, I found myself rooting for Cynthia and Christopher, even as Christopher’s saccharine-sweet wife (played by a dewy-eyed Billie Burke) stood wringing her hands.
Yes, this is thirties melodrama, and yes, I should have known that the illicit affair at the film's heart would end in tragedy. But as much as I would like to argue that Hepburn’s powerful presence throughout undermines the conservative finale – an ending that forces Cynthia (and not Christopher) to pay for transgressing – the film has stayed on my mind because that isn’t quite the case. Ironically, Arzner is too good a director for us to dismiss the climactic sequence—she infuses it with real horror, and what may come across as a pat and dated cautionary tale on paper plays as something considerably more shattering onscreen.