The Strength of CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933)


The famous moth costume

I’d forgotten how much I like Dorothy Arzner‘s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933). The plot isn’t very good, and Hepburn’s acting is a bit flat at times, but the Lady Cynthia Darrington character is very good, even if the plot doesn’t treat her well. Arzner’s directing is also very strong. The costumes are amazing – every one of Hepburn’s outfits in this film is stunning. Do not underestimate CHRISTOPHER STRONG as merely an early Hepburn film (her second, in fact), as I mistakenly did at first. It is a good film in its own right, and it deserves a closer look.

Writer – Zoe AkinsThe fascinating thing about this film is that it was both written and directed by women. Screenwriter Zoe Akins is possibly best remembered for writing HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953), the successful play adaptation of Edith Wharton‘s THE OLD MAID (1939), and CAMILLE (1936). Akins also wrote the screenplay which earned Katharine Hepburn her first Academy Award, MORNING GLORY (1933).

Director – Dorothy ArznerAlthough there were many prominent female directors in Hollywood during the silent film era, Arzner was one of the few who was able to continue to work under the studio system and through the transition to sound. Katharine Hepburn admired her work and had this to say about working with her:

“It seems odd now, a woman director, but it didn’t seem strange to me then. Several of the best cutters in the business were women. Dorothy was very well known and had directed a number of hit pictures. She wore pants. So did I. We had a good time working together.” (Hepburn 144)
Director Dorothy Arzner

Plot: Famous aviatrix Lady Cynthia Darrington prides herself as an independent woman who doesn’t need romance to feel satisfied with life. However, when she and notoriously faithful Sir Christopher Strong fall hopelessly in love with each other, they each must bend their principles and prejudices to suit their new-found passions. Cynthia must reconcile her desire to fly with her devotion to a married man. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that it doesn’t end well.

Lady Cynthia Darrington: 

“For the first time on screen, Kate, wearing jodhpurs and a leather helmet in the character of Lady Cynthia Darrington, could project the “rugged feminism” that would be an important part of the Hepburn image. In a sense, Kate was playing precisely the sort of free spirited woman her mother and aunt had worked to make possible.” (Leaming)

Although the plot sends an anti-feminist message, Hepburn’s character, Lady Cynthia Darrington, is the epitome of a wealthy autonomous English-woman, therefore not dependent on marriage for her livelihood. She is a role model for the other women in the film, both as a successful flyer, and as an intelligent and sensible individual. Modern audiences might be surprised by the progressive attitude of the film’s main character. First of all, she has a very modern view about being a single working woman. In the first scene in which she is introduced to the man who will become her lover, she says:

“I’ve never had a love affair or been married, in any sense of the word. Yet I’ve never thought of myself as a prig either. I’ve always wanted to fly.”

In a quarrel with Monica, a young friend who has gone to Cynthia for advice about a romantic entanglement, she is accused of being too romantically naive, but she replies completely unphased:

                    Monica: “You baby! You’ve never loved anybody. You don’t know anything about life. You’ll go up in that plane of yours someday and come down in a crash, dead, having missed everything.”

                    Cynthia: “Part of what you say is true. I’ll have missed the kind of torture you’re going through now.”

Cynthia also makes no bones about being enthusiastic about her profession. She is not swayed when some co-worker try to talk her out of the round the world flight:

                    “You don’t mean you’d try the round the world flight yourself!”
                    “Why not?”
                    “Why, you’re only a girl!”
                    “Well, it interests me.”

So she goes ahead and does it – and she wins, too. Very Amelia Earhart. Cynthia describes her desire to continue working and flying when she has taken some time away from the airfield to please her lover:

                    Cynthia: “I want to fly again, Chris.”
                    Chris: “That means you’re unhappy.”
                    Cynthia: “I’m divinely happy. But I’m getting soft. I’ve nothing to do all day but wait for you, or your telephone calls, or your telegram saying you can’t come.”
                    Chris: “What do other women do who don’t risk their lives flying?”
                    Cynthia: “I don’t know. I only know I want to go up again. I want to break records. I want to train hard and not eat and drink all the time. I want to get up at dawn. I want to smell the fields and the morning air, and not mind getting oil in my hair and hands. And I want to talk with the boys I’ve flown with again.”

Which way is the Atlantic?

Cynthia Struggles throughout her relationship with Christopher Strong to reconcile her desires for flying with her desires for romantic passion. Strong falls in love with Cynthia for her unfaltering determination, yet her does his best to thwart her pursuit of success, all in the name of love. At first, when he demands that she give up risking her life in airplanes, she refuses to comply, saying “Courage conquers death (her motto), but not love.” However, as the above disagreement illustrates:

“there is no position in which Cynthia (Hepburn) can realize needs and desires which, though felt with equal intensity, have been rendered culturally incompatible. She had to choose and the choice, whatever it is, involves loss and damage.” (Britton)

Lady Cynthia and Sir Strong

Cynthia continually resists the limitations her lover wishes to impose upon her:

                    Chris: “Promise me you’ll never take such risks again.”

                    Cynthia: “I must, and you must let me.”

                    Cynthia: “I could manage without you.”

                    Chris: “Yes, but I wouldn’t let you.”

Cynthia: “You’ve got your work, and family and friends. And me. And I’ve got only you. Besides, I want to fly again. But if you said yes, I’d suppose you didn’t love me as much as you used to. So I suppose I want you to say no.”


                    Cynthia: “I’m glad you said no like that. But I really can’t promise [not to fly]. I can’t”

                    Chris: “Then you don’t love me.”
                    Cynthia: “Darling, of course I love you.”

Chris, the film text, and the audience cannot fathom the very simple concept of combining a romantic relationship with a career. In this case, it isn’t even the institution of marriage that questions threatens Cynthia’s autonomy – it is defined within the context of “love” that he is able to limit her, and that she accepts his limitations. However, she cannot ideologically comprehend the necessity of those limitations, thus her constant rebelling against them.

As I have discussed in previous posts about the Bechdel Test, films in which multiple female characters get together to talk about anything other than men are very rare. Rarer still are films in which potential romantic rivals unite in friendship. A number of Hepburn films which feature communities of women offer examples of this female relationship. Feminist film historian Andrew Britton describes CHRISTOPHER STRONG:

“Whenever Hepburn is cast as another woman’s romantic rival, she invariably becomes friends with the woman and prefers to renounce the man rather than hurt her… The transformation of conscience which enable Elaine Strong [Cynthia’s lover’s husband] to tell Cynthia that ‘marriage and children make any woman old-fashioned and intolerant’, and to give her ‘a mother’s sincerest thanks’ for the way in which she has helped Monica, in the full realization that Cynthia and [her husband] have been having an affair, is one of the most remarkable features of Arzner’s film, and the terrible ironies which accompany it don’t in the least detract from the power generated by replacing an expected conventional confrontation with an expression of solidarity.”

With Elaine Strong (Billie Burke) and Monica (Helen Chandler)

Lady Cynthia Darrington, like the Hepburn characters of many of her later films, inspired other women, both within and outside of the film text. Monica comes to look up to her, Elaine Strong respects her as “a brave girl, not cheap or silly,” and towards the end of the film, Cynthia is approached by a girl asking for her autograph:

“You were our hero at school. We all prayed and burned candles for your safety in your flight around the world. You gave us courage for everything.”

If you did manage to catch CHRISTOPHER STRONG early on TCM’s programming for Katharine Hepburn’s day on Summer Under the Stars, you may have been surprised by how modern some of the themes of the film are. Unfortunately, the arc of the plot is unable to support or approve the continuation of those themes, thus the not-so-happy ending. To those of you who haven’t seen this movie: a couple weeks ago I wouldn’t have strongly recommended it – but now I can honestly say that when read intelligently, this film text has a lot of great things to say. And the costumes are out of this world!

“Courage can conquer even love.”

“In Memory Of Lady Cynthia Darrington Whose Life And Death Were A Source Of Inspiration And Courage To All.”

*Another article about CHRISTOPHER STRONG can be found here: http://dawnschickflicks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/christopher-strong1933.html 


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