By Ed Garea
Spitfire (RKO, 1934) - Director: John Cromwell. Writers: Jane Murfin (s/p), Lula Vollmer (s/p). Lula Vollmer (1927 play “Trigger”). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Robert Young, Ralph Bellamy, Sara Haden, Martha Sleeper, Louis Mason, Virginia Howell, Will Geer, Sidney Toler, & Therese Wittier. B&W, 87 minutes.
1934 was not the best of years for Katharine Hepburn. Her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith ended that year. She appeared on Broadway in a play named “The Lake,” which is only remembered today because of Dorothy Parker’s review: “Last night Katharine Hepburn ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” And then there was this atrocity, made for RKO in 1934 where Hepburn plays a hillbilly faith healer from the Ozarks.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Could you run that by me again? Katharine Hepburn a hillbilly?” Yep, it’s true, and we can only wonder what was going through the minds of the executives at RKO when they assigned her to star in this dull mess.
Hepburn is Trigger Hicks, a young backwoods woman, and a young woman with apparently few inhibitions. She believes herself to be something of faith healer, based on a stolen pack of Sunday school cards she carries around with Biblical quotes, using them to speak to God and pray for others around her. But when riled, she’s apt to forget all about religion and hurl stones at the offender. She gets by doing laundry for the locals in her shack, which she shares with her father. (We never see him in the movie, so we have to take her word for it. He was evidentially smart enough to avoid appearing in this turkey.)
The only local figure to visit is Trigger’s friend, the dim-witted Etta Dawson (Haden). It’s Etta who brings Trigger her laundry, and most of Trigger’s interaction is with Etta. She tries to teach Etta the ways of the world and brings God in by reading her prayer cards. Etta, I think, plays along and humors Trigger (I hope, otherwise we’re really in trouble) as Trigger promises to pray for her to be made brighter, although after Etta leaves, Trigger asks God, “but not too bright.”
But there are now other people in the area in the form of two engineers involved with a dam project. John Stafford (Young) and his boss, George Fleetwood (Bellamy), occupy a nearby cabin. At first, they want the locals to warn Trigger to stay away from the dam, but as time passes and they get to know Trigger, their resolve softens. In fact, Trigger arouses the amorous affection of Stafford, proving that the engineers are so hard up for women, they are smitten by a flat-shaped woman with a downturned mouth and a lousy Ozark accent. Stafford goes on to make a full-fledged pass at Trigger, and she, too, is smitten. Boss George is unhappy with the behavior of his underling, but in a film such as this, when a strong emotion is expressed, we know the winds of change are in the air. And, wouldn’t you know it? Stafford’s wife (Sleeper) soon arrives and Trigger is disappointed and more distrustful of men than ever.
But she’s not disappointed for long, for she now kidnaps a sick baby from his parents, the Sawyers (Toler and Wittier), claiming they were doing nothing for him and only she could heal him through prayer. The locals, of course, are incensed and are out hunting for her. They already suspect her of being a witch. George finds Trigger is hiding the baby in his cabin and convinces her to give him back to his parents. When the child falls ill again, his parents bring him to Trigger in hope of a cure, but when the child dies, the locals are now convinced Trigger is a witch. Although George and John try to reason with the stone-throwing mob, the outcome is that Trigger is forced to leave town.
The next day, as she packs her few belongings, her faith in herself, God, and prayer shattered, George arrives to say goodbye. Touched by her simple devotion, he kisses Trigger and convinces her not to give up her faith and makes her promise to meet him at the shack in a year no matter what. And why not, she’s now in love with him. Fade out. What is it about Hepburn that so attracts men to her dour face and flat figure? Is it the lack of other women in the area, or perhaps just bad taste? At any rate, if Bellamy’s character is smart, he’ll miss that date a year from now.
By any standards this is a bad movie. Even Hepburn herself thought so. In her autobiography, Me, she writes only two sentences about the film and her character: "Was a Southern sort of mountain spirit. Shame on you, Kathy." She was also said to have kept a picture of herself as Trigger in her dressing room to remind her to be humble. But Hepburn had no one but herself to blame for this train wreck. This was not a case of the studio demanding she live up to her contract. The role was originally slated for Dorothy Jordan, but Hepburn pulled rank, as she wanted to try working against type. Be careful what you wish for . . .
She was awful in the part. Her “country” accent was laughable, more suited to a mountain woman from the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts than the Ozarks. That accent also remarkably shuts off during her love scene with Young. The New Yorker, noting this was is complete reversal from her last role as the highly literate Jo March in Little Women, declared that Spitfire would suggest that Hepburn is “doomed to elegance, doomed to be lady for the rest of her natural life, and that her artistry does not extend to the interpretation of the primitive or the uncouth.” That has to be one of the all-time understatements. Although Spitfire made a modest profit of $113,000 for RKO, it marked the beginning of a series of duds that led Hepburn to be labeled as ”box office poison” in the late ‘30s.
Of course, the film’s meandering plot doesn’t help matters, either. It wasted the efforts of a good supporting cast. This was Sara Haden’s first film and she was excellent in it. She also played the same part in the Broadway play. Ralph Bellamy, whose lack of charisma demoted him from leading man to supporting player, also acquitted himself well in the film, as did Robert Young, who was still being tested by MGM to see what parts he was “right” for in future films. He, too, ended as a supporting player in the movies, though he later became a star on television. Sidney Toler, in the minor part of Mr. Sawyer, has nothing to do but react. And young Will Geer, as West Fry, is hardly distinguishable from the scenery. At least he had the imagination to have himself billed as “High Ghere.”
Spitfire marked the first - and last - time Katharine Hepburn would depart from playing a lady. Even in films such as Dragon Seed, The African Queen, and Rooster Cogburn, she retains her ladylike dignity. So Spitfire served a double purpose: it taught Hepburn her limitations and gave the rest of us a good, hearty, unintentional laugh.