This post is part of The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry! Check out all the other entries here!
Warning! This blog entry will discuss various plot points and the ending of the film in question. There will be advance warning before the ending is revealed but in order to have good discussion of the film I feel that the main points of the plot need to be revealed.
It is a fine evening out in England and the lovely young socialites and their lovers are having a treasure hunt. The instigator of this event is Carrie Valentin, aunt to Monica Strong (Helen Chandler). Monica is having a grand time at the party with her married boyfriend, Harry Rawlinson (Ralph Forbes), and is all set to win the grand prize of a sable scarf when Aunt Carrie announces that there is a problem. It seems that the scavenger hunt was too easy and there are too many winners so there is a bonus item. The party guests must find a truly faithful husband and a women over twenty who has never had a love affair. Monica knows just who to bring and rushes home to get her father, the parliamentary leader Sir Christopher Strong (Colin Clive). Harry meanwhile steals a motorcycle and rushes off to find the female counterpart to the final item and ends up colliding with her on the motorway. Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn) is a renowned aviatrix and has also never had a lover or a love affair.
Back at the party Christopher and Cynthia share their respective stories and help Harry and Monica claim their prizes. Cynthia agrees to dine with Monica and Christopher later in the week, and then takes her leave to head to the airfield for an early morning flight. Cynthia soon becomes a great friend to Monica and begins spending a great deal of time at the home of Christopher and his wife Elaine (Billie Burke). Elaine begins to have some misgivings at the growing closeness of Cynthia and Christopher but she remains silent, convincing herself that her husband loves her and that will be enough. Christopher meanwhile finds himself more and more drawn to Cynthia, who is the complete opposite of Elaine. Her single-mindedness and determination draw Christopher to her in spite of his love for his wife. Cynthia has also begun to develop feelings of her own and begun to fall in love with Christopher.
Monica meanwhile is running wild with Harry, who is still married. Elaine finally steps in and forbids her daughter from seeing him any longer. Harry agrees to take time apart from Monica, much to her chagrin, and leaves the house to return to his wife. Monica is devastated and hurries off to her room where she remains for some time. The family takes their annual trip to Cannes, with Elaine going ahead to get the house ready. She cannot wait for the arrival of her husband, delighted at the prospect of finally having him all to herself again. But to her dismay she receives a telegram informing her that not only are Christopher and Monica coming to join her but they are bringing a surprise guest in the form of Cynthia.
One night the entire family go to yet another party hosted by Aunt Carrie. At the party Elaine watches with increasing unease as Christopher and Cynthia glide around the dance floor. She complains of a headache and takes her leave of the party. Monica has found a swarthy young man to occupy her time and she manages to leave with him, with her father’s blessing surprisingly. But Christopher is blind to all dangers to his daughter’s honor in is now single-minded desire to be alone with Cynthia. Christopher and Cynthia take a moonlit boat ride and it is here that they finally confess their love for each other. Upon their return they decide that they must not pursue their relationship any further and part with a kiss. Unfortunately, Elaine cannot hear what is being said and can only watch in despair as her husband kisses another woman.
Cynthia keeps her word and stays away from the Strong family, that is until Monica appears on her doorstep. She is determined to kill herself because Harry, who is now divorced from his wife, refuses to marry her after finding out about her dalliance in France. Cynthia convinces her to reconsider her suicide plan, which Monica finally agrees to, before hurrying off to attempt an around the world flight from England to New York. After a grueling and deadly competition, Cynthia is declared the winner and she returns to New York exhausted. While in her hotel she receives a call from Christopher who is desperate to see her. That night she hosts him in her hotel room and they consummate their affair. The couple now begins seeing each other in earnest, much to Elaine’s increasing despair, and Cynthia agrees to give up her high-flying and dangerous life style.
Warning to anyone who doesn’t want to know the ending of the film! This would be the time to stop reading!
Things are happy for a time, but nothing lasts forever. Monica and Harry are now married and expecting their first child. Going out to lunch at one of their old haunts they spot Christopher and Cynthia having an intimate moment in the back corner. That night at a party celebrating their upcoming blessed event, Monica denounces the affair to Cynthia and warns her that she will confront Christopher later that evening so as not to hurt her mother. She ends her friendship with Cynthia and Cynthia takes this as her cue to leave. On her way out, Cynthia is stopped by Elaine who wishes to thank Cynthia for what she did to save Monica from her suicide which has led to their present happiness. Later that night Cynthia is waiting for Christopher to come to her apartment for dinner when she receives a note instead. Christopher is remaining home with his family to toast the health of his new grandchild but promises that he will join her the following evening. Cynthia goes to her desk and writes a note to Christopher in which reveals that she too is pregnant. She does not send the note and the next evening she and Christopher are sitting in front of the fire. Cynthia asks Christopher if he would marry her, at the expense of his family and his happiness, if she was pregnant. Christopher says that of course he would, but they don’t have to worry about that do they?
As the early light creeps in, Cynthia sneaks out of the house to take part in a dangerous aeronautical test. In an attempt to climb to 3500 feet, she climbs into her plane and readies her oxygen mask. On the table in her home is the note to Christopher with a new postscript in which she says that courage conquers love and that she hopes he will understand when she doesn’t come back. Taking off from the airfield Cynthia begins to climb higher and higher into the sky. As she climbs, Cynthia sees the faces of the people that she has loved and hurt, and remembers the moments spent with Christopher. Tears stream down her face and in her emotional turmoil she rips off her oxygen mask. Too late does she attempt to recover from her mistake and she blacks out. The plane plummets to the earth and erupts into a fiery wreck, killing her. Sometime later a statue is erected in Cynthia’s honor with a plaque that reads HER LIFE AND COURAGE INSPIRED US ALL.
This is such an interesting film with so many fascinating aspects to possibly discuss. This is the first leading role for Katharine Hepburn and the only time she ever played “the other woman”. This is also the film that gets the most credit for the development of the “Katharine Hepburn persona”, the independent, slightly masculine, non-conformist attitude that would become a staple of Katharine Hepburn’s career. It was directed by a woman, Dorothy Arzner, as well as written by one, Zoe Akins. And there is also the sad tale of Helen Chandler and her descent into alcoholism. Lest we forget this is also a pre-code film so there are two extramarital affairs, one out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and a fiery death scene all in seventy-seven minutes. So when it came time to write this blog post I decided it was best to narrow things down and focus on two topics. One being the possible parallels between this film and Katharine Hepburn’s own love life, and the other being the ending.
The ending of this film deserves a moment or two of discussion. My main issue was did Cynthia go up in order to commit suicide? I am not so sure. I know that in her note she tells Christopher that she isn’t coming back, but I wonder if she was simply planning on leaving and raising their child on her own. After spending time to convince Monica that she shouldn’t kill herself, to then go and do the exact opposite seems a little odd. And Cynthia never seemed to be the sort to just want to end it all. I think that she realized that Christopher was never going to leave his family, that she would always be the mistress. She knows that Monica hates her now and that Elaine will soon know everything. She knows that Christopher would marry her if she told him she was pregnant but that it would ruin their love for each other because he would only do it out of duty and not because he wanted to. And then there is the matter of giving up her aviatrix career. Before they are discovered by Monica, Cynthia was telling Christopher that she was feeling that she wanted to go back to flying and doing what she loved. She missed having that purpose and independence, and she hated the idea of becoming a woman just waiting all day for her man to come home. Having thought of all this, the idea that this strong, single-minded, independent, fiery woman would go out and commit suicide to spare her lover having to marry her doesn’t quite make sense to me. I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t planning to go out and attempt the altitude climb to start her career again before going out into the world to live her life with her child. She is looking back on what has transpired and realizes that she has lost friends, hurt people, and will never see the man she loves ever again. Her emotions take hold and she can’t breathe so she rips the mask off. We can see the shock and panic when she realizes her mistake and tries desperately to get the mask back on but it is too late. Why bother to try to get the mask back on if your intention was to take it off? In my mind the character of Cynthia is complex and vibrant, and perhaps this is why I can’t quite wrap my head around the apparent suicide.
I tend to think that Katharine Hepburn put a lot of herself and her own personal experiences into this role. In fact, the scene where Christopher calls her hotel room after her world flight closely mirrored when Howard Hughes returned from his global flight and called his girlfriend, Katharine Hepburn. The character of Cynthia is uninterested in men for the most part, preferring instead to keep her mind focused on other matters such as her flying career. She tells Christopher that they are both different from most people and that is why they are attracted to each other. I can only imagine that this might have been close to something Katharine Hepburn would have felt in her life. She was a truly unique and independent person and not prone to flights of fancy. Looking at two of her great loves, Spencer Tracy and yes Howard Hughes, we can see that this men are also unique and independent. The sense of resigned loneliness that is in Cynthia when we first meet her, a feeling that yes she is lonely and wishes to experience love but that she has decided to put that behind her to pursue her goals, seems to be an honest emotion coming from Katharine Hepburn herself. I wonder if that is why she seemed to take on the persona of Cynthia Harrington over the rest of her career, because maybe she felt that this woman was not only close to who she was but also someone who she wanted to be.