Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) was the tenth and final film Dorothy Arzner made for Paramount. As part of a corporate reorganization, Paramount instituted pay cuts for many of its employees.
Instead of taking the cut, Arzner left Paramount and went freelance.
She was barely out the door when the phone started ringing. David O. Selznick, then at RKO and having just finished King Kong (1933) had an idea.
He wanted to pair Hollywood’s only female director with his latest discovery, a rebellious and headstrong theater actress he’d convinced to come to Hollywood.
Two talented and fierce women—three including screenwriter Zoë Akins, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama—working on a tale of illicit love.
Dorothy Arzner was in.
So was Katharine Hepburn.
Christopher Strong tells the story of Cynthia Darrington, a young woman who’s never had a love affair except her lifelong one with airplanes. She’s a female flyer, modeled after American Amelia Earhart and Brit Amy Johnson.
What’s most striking—and entertaining—about watching the film in 2022 is that Katharine Hepburn is so fully…Katharine Hepburn.
This was only Hepburn’s second film and her first starring role, yet everything that eventually became part of the Katharine Hepburn lore was there from the start.
As an aviatrix, she wears pants throughout most of the film. She’s got that transatlantic Bryn Mawr College accent that no one’s had before or since. She brought that aristocratic arrogance that intimidated and enthralled the world.
She’s eccentric in the way that only the most wealthy can be.
It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
Cynthia (Hepburn) falls in love with her friend’s father, Congressman Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), a man admired for his longstanding fidelity to his wife Lady Strong (Billie Burke).
They embark on a guilt-ridden affair, and the film is at its best when exploring the tension Cynthia feels between flying and love. After promising that he will never ask her to give up flying, Christopher and Cynthia make love for the first time in a wonderful scene that shows only Hepburn’s arm as they make pillow talk.
Before she turns out the light, Christopher breaks his promise and asks her to stop flying—he worries so, you see—and she agrees.
Though she loves Chris, she’s bored by her life without flying. She comes to understand the miseries of mistress-hood —she does all the waiting. She’s the one left alone at a table for two when he can’t get away from his wife and family.
It’s a life of crumbs, and yet love forces her to take what she can get.
Everything changes when she becomes pregnant with his child. Cynthia realizes this is both a wonderful and terrible thing—wonderful because he would leave his wife and marry her to raise the child.
Yet terrible because Lady Strong has been kind to Cynthia, despite her deep suspicions of her husband’s affair.
In fact, Lady Strong’s portrayal is quite positive—she is no shrewish wife. Chris has no justification for cheating on her, and he—and Cynthia—know it.
Realizing that her baby will tear the Strong family apart, Cynthia goes up one last time in her plane. Under the pretense of breaking the world’s altitude record she goes on a suicide mission with no intention of returning.
Christopher Strong could only have been made in 1933.
Any earlier and Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t have been in Hollywood.
Any later and the newly enforced production code would’ve rejected the plot.
And a contemporary remake about a pregnant woman who commits suicide rather than complicate the life of the married lover twice her age?
I don’t think so.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
- Hepburn, Katharine. Me: Stories of My Life. 1991.
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Ooh that’s a harsh ending!
I know, I mean come on!!!!!
Hepburn wasn’t a movie creation; she was an exceptional person who just happened to be a movie star. She’s great even in early roles, and one imagines quite a handful for any studio head to handle.
Is she playing an alien in the third pic? I do like her antenna!
She really is one of a kind. I’ve always found that I liked the persona of Katharine Hepburn much better than any of her individual roles!
I was waiting for someone to ask about the costume! She’s dressed up as a moth for a costume party. It’s a bizarre scene, as no reason is given why she dressed up as a moth, and we never actually see her at the party. It’s an early scene with the man who would become her lover, and we get the first hint of attraction between them when they’re talking and she’s in that costume.
The prosecution rests. Lunch?
I’ll order the takeout…