Directed by: Dorothy Arzner
Written by: Zoë Akins
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Colin Clive, Billie Burke, Helen Chandler, Ralph Forbes
The unwritten rules of high society get learned through experience more than anything else because it takes time to understand all the players in the game. In this particular society, fidelity is only encouraged, and following one’s heart becomes the ultimate goal. By blending its use of tragedy and moments of care, Christopher Strong looks at the dynamic of several relationships and where love intersects with duty.
After her boyfriend has a motor vehicle crash, Monica (Helen Chandler) gets introduced to the daring Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn). Cynthia then meets her father Sir Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), who lives by honor and protecting his family, which gets complicated when he begins to develop feelings for Cynthia.
As aware as a story can be, Christopher Strong opens with a scavenger hunt where everyone wins, except with the final challenge where the participants must find either a man who has been married for over five years and has remained faithful or a woman over the age of 20, who has never had a romantic affair. The joke evidently shows everyone struggling to find someone fitting these criteria except for the two people about to embark on a romantic journey together. Setting these specific guidelines serves as a commentary of this time where the chance of running into a man remaining faithful to his wife for five years into their marriage would be preposterous. It says plenty about the men in this particular culture, but it sets up the rarity to become even more so with the introduction of Cynthia.
Elegance personified, Katharine Hepburn portrays the magnificent Cynthia Darrington and does so with style. Her strength as an actor and person allows her to seamlessly fit into this role and portray a woman not willing to fit into the mold set out for her. With her resources, she decided to become a pilot and attempts to set records whenever she can. She brings the charm and quick-paced dialogue many other Hepburn characters utilize while also being a magnet for attention in this feature. She’s not the first person to appear on screen but the moment she makes her entrance, everything gravitates towards her. I find it astonishing to discover her portrayal of Cynthia serves as only her second acting credit with a career of behemoth performances. So early in her career, she displayed what would make her the greatest actor we’ve ever seen.
The story plays out with the grand music and tragedy that comes with love and it’s laid at the feet of Cynthia. She sees a man who connects with her in such a loving way but their love can never truly manifest because of his marriage and what she wants during her life. She did not ask for any of this but just gets thrown into a situation she had no clue would happen to her. The other storyline plays out with Monica and her boyfriend Harry. Their plotline reaches some incredible highs and lows to a dangerous degree. As calm as one can imagine at the beginning, their relationship shifts as they get closer and the story progresses. The moments they share display a beautiful level of care, but the bumps they have show some troubling circumstances. The dichotomy of these two relationships shows the fleeting nature of young love and how entrenched the love of more mature folks manifest. Age and maturity play a major factor in how each character views their relational involvement with one another.
Dorothy Arzner directed this feature and reminds us of the brilliance she has as a filmmaker. One of the more underappreciated female directors of her era, she knew how to tell impactful stories with women being at the center of it. A trailblazer of classic Hollywood and she knew how to utilize Hepburn’s charm before anyone else. The flight and car sequences get captured with tremendous quality to express the danger Cynthia enters whenever involved in those vehicular feats. Arzner always exhibited moments where she was ahead of the times in the way she views women in the world. Each of her films demonstrates this on some level and in this feature it appears in the way the characters view marriage. Particularly, the women begin to see the shackles that could be strapped on them if they accept a marriage proposal. It may be a great option for some but not for everyone.
Tragic in moments, but also incredibly heartwarming, Christopher Strong served as an excellent introduction for me to the great works of the always forward-thinking Dorothy Arzner. While she makes better films later in her career, this shows the level of composure she has behind the camera. The film touches on the issues of connection and where happiness can become more important than the duty one has to other relationships. A high society film with an honest look at the attitude of the people within this social circle.