Airborne Adventuress: Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933)

            The theme of this CMBA blogathon, Blogathon and the Beast, includes "complex protagonists who challenge social norms" - and what could challenge social norms more than Katharine Hepburn, directed by a woman, playing an Amelia Earhart-inspired character in Christopher Strong
            Christopher Strong is a misleading title for this movie, because it's really about three women. True, their lives are intertwined through their relationships with Christopher Strong, but the film is constantly showing us that they can do without him. Pre-Code heroines already tend to be independent and self-sufficient - put a woman behind the camera, and suddenly the movie examines what these women can achieve when men aren't holding them back.
            Dorothy Arzner began her career as a script writer and editor who became so valuable to Paramount Studios that she threatened to leave for their rival, Columbia, if she wasn't given a film of her own to direct. Her directorial debut was 1927's Fashions for Women. Christopher Strong was made in 1933, during a period when Arzner was freelance directing.

            Christopher Strong begins with a group of wealthy English nobility having a scavenger hunt, because what else is there to do when you're rich socialites? The women are challenged to find a man who's been married for over 5 years and still faithful to his wife, while the men are challenged to find a woman over 20 who's never had a love affair. Party girl Monica and her married lover Harry set out to win, and Monica immediately fetches her father - Sir Christopher Strong. He's been loyal to her mother their whole marriage and gives a little speech about the sanctity of matrimony, etc. Applauding his speech is the woman Harry discovered while searching the streets - Lady Cynthia Darrington, an aviatrix who's never been in love.

            Cynthia and Christopher are introduced, and she becomes fast friends with Monica and the family. Monica is deeply in love with Harry, but her parents convince him to break off their relationship unless he gets a divorce. Cynthia supports her friend since both her parents have turned against her (see how Christopher Strong is failing to support a woman in his life? This theme will pop up again... and again). Monica is in the depths of despair and reluctantly agrees to go to their family's French villa if she can see Cynthia perform in an aerial show. Oh, the troubles of being rich.

            While at the villa, Christopher develops a crush on Cynthia which becomes increasingly apparent to his wife. She is understandably jealous and upset that her getaway with her husband was thwarted by this unwelcome guest. At a party at the villa, Christopher and Cynthia confess their love to each other (a love that seems entirely unrealistic given that they've known each other a few weeks, Christopher was entirely happy married before that, and poor Colin Clive has the acting range of a cardboard box). Meanwhile, the still-depressed Monica suppresses her feelings for Harry by escaping with a man named Carlo.

            Once everyone is back in England, Monica rushes to Cynthia's house vowing to kill herself. Harry has gotten his divorce, but Monica wanted to be honest and told him about Carlo, and now Harry won't talk to her. Cynthia promises her friend that she'll talk to Harry, because he truly loves her and therefore should overlook the Carlo situation. Cynthia goes to the United States and wins a flying race around the world like the girlboss she is, and there's a huge parade to honor her.

            Here, the film gets a bit complicated. Christopher doesn't approve of his daughter's lover, he's blind to his wife's jealousy, and he's trying to stop Cynthia from flying because it's too dangerous and he doesn't want to lose her. An all-around winner of a man! Cynthia makes a lovely little speech about how she'll never be happy if Christopher won't let her do what she wants, and then makes a U-turn and promises to give up flying for him. 

            Monica and Harry, now married despite her mother's opposition, are at an inn when they spot Christopher and Cynthia across the room. Gasp! Monica's dad is having an affair? With her best friend

            Monica and Harry announce that they're having a baby, news that finally brings Monica's mother around on Harry. But Cynthia's friendship with Monica is (again, understandably) over. Monica's mother approaches Cynthia and thanks her sincerely for always supporting her daughter - the subtext of which is forgiving Cynthia for the affair. And here we see the uniqueness of Dorothy Arzner movies, because what could have been the jealous wife trope becomes the... female friendship trope? 

            Monica married the man she loved despite what society and her father thought. Christopher's wife forgave his mistress despite the personal pain their relationship caused her, because she knows all too well what love feels like. And Cynthia, at the end of the movie, returns to flying to break the altitude record despite promising Christopher she would give it up. The three women were united by their complex ties to Christopher Strong, yes, but also by the friendship they formed in spite of him. All three found peace and fulfillment on their own terms. "Courage conquers even love," as Cynthia says.

            Katharine Hepburn brings her trademark heart and feistiness to Cynthia Darrington, not to mention her Transatlantic accent. There is no one better suited to play characters who dare to go against society, real or fictional. Christopher Strong might be named after a man, but it is truly a story of complicated female relationships - mother-daughter, friends, wife-mistress - and how those bonds have the strength to overcome any man's power over their lives. The moral of the story is really this: if you have the fastest plane in England, don't give it up for your best friend's dad! Or something like that.

            Thanks for reading!


  1. I'd had Christopher Strong in my movie collection for literally decades, and only saw it for the first time earlier this year. And I loved it! I'm glad to see you shine the spotlight on this seldom-discussed film -- I really enjoyed revisiting it here.

    -- Karen

  2. Very interesting choice for the blogathon. And you're right - anyone - especially a woman - who chafes against the norm is considered a bit of a beast - even if she is divine with a swanky accent. Lovely post.

  3. You said it! Katharine Hepburn is PERFECT as the woman who challenges societal conventions. This sounds like a terrific film.

  4. I love that you chose this film! I watched it for the first time earlier this year and was immediately won over. The story sucked me right in despite the misapprehension I held over the May-December romance. It wasn't that they had known each other for so short a time that made me uncomfortable. Rather it was the fact that Christopher had known her father very well and also that she was his daughter's age. Mr. Strong got hit with a hurricane strength mid-life crisis! I cringed when Cynthia spent vacation time with the Strongs. Even if it was before the beginning of Cynthia & Christopher's sexual relationship, it was just plain awkward.
    Katharine was as lovely as ever in this film and her performance was the highlight of the film. I detested the ending particularly since is heavily suggested that she is carrying Christopher's child. Despite the bitter ending and a wooden Colin Clive (very well said!), I still very much enjoyed this film and look forward to rewatching it very soon.


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