Katharine Hepburn had a long and storied Hollywood career, and she didn’t make many bad movies. Comedy, drama, film versions of classic literature, all showed her depth and range in a life that spanned more than 60 years on screen. Here’s a list of Katharine Hepburn movies of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s no fan of ‘Kate the Great’ should miss.
(The films she made in her legendary partnership with longtime love Spencer Tracy can be found in this list of Hepburn-Tracy movies.)
Hepburn’s only pairing with Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen may be the best work of both classic stars. It ranks with Casablanca as an adventure film, a thrilling wartime story, and an utterly satisfying romance. Bogart’s rough, uncultured boat captain and Hepburn’s prim English spinster are an unlikely pair hatching a courageous, unlikely plot in Africa during World War I. It’s just as famous for its off-screen adventure, with director John Huston hauling Bogie, Bacall and Hepburn to the wilderness to film it. Not to be missed.
One of my great favorites, a fine screwball comedy pairing Hepburn as a ditzy socialite with Cary Grant as a studious, stuffy paleontologist, horn-rim glasses, dinosaur bones and all. The very silly plot also involves a tame leopard named “Baby” and a terrier with a penchant for burying bones - even the fossilized kind. Hijinks ensue, and things get even worse when a rather nasty leopard who looks just like Baby escapes from a circus. I know. Just trust me, it’s all adorable.
Another pairing with Cary Grant, The Philadelphia Story, like Holiday was another vehicle written for Hepburn to play a stubborn society girl, and often considered one of her greatest movies. The two glittering stars are joined by Jimmy Stewart in an Oscar-winning role as a reporter smitten with the heiress, Ruth Hussey as his long-suffering photographer, and a strong supporting cast. As with many of her early movies, the attitudes toward wealth and privilege in The Philadelphia Story feel strangely dated today, but it’s still a beautiful, funny, passionate film.
In an early movie version of the beloved and oft-filmed classic novel, Hepburn gets the juiciest role in Little Women as Jo, the tomboy of the four March sisters in a genteelly impoverished family struggling with their father’s absence during the Civil War. Hepburn’s dominance all but crowds out a fine cast, the film is a little too sweet and can’t capture the complex character studies and scope of the book. Nevertheless, Little Women is a nice example of an idealistic, classic American book becoming a classic American movie.