Christopher Strong – the movie, not the novel

Review by Val H.  Movies are new on this blog but there are strong middlebrow links.

In 1933 Hollywood released Christopher Strong, based on Gilbert Frankau’s 1931 novel of the same name.  (Here is the trailer and here the DVD.)  They tell of the affair between respected MP Christopher Strong and a family friend Cynthia (Felicity in the novel).  The impact on them and on Christopher’s family is devastating.

Reading 1900-1950 includes two reviews of Frankau’s book (here and here): one finds it tedious, the other enjoyable.  I want to explore the movie’s relationship with the original.

The film stars Katharine Hepburn (in only her second movie), Billie Burke and Colin Clive.  Hepburn remains an icon, but Burke and Clive are almost forgotten.  The director is Dorothy Arzner, an early female director (they are still rare).  The screenplay is by Zoë Akins, another pioneer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her play of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid (later a hugely enjoyable movie starring Bette Davis).

The New York Times was positive:

an ‘engrossing [but not] weighty’ story giving Hepburn ‘excellent opportunities’,  a ‘highly capable cast’ and Arzner’s and Akins’ ‘marked intelligence’.

It describes Cynthia’s behaviour as ‘meretricious’, but interestingly does not condemn her partner in adultery Christopher.

As so often between book and screen, the story has been changed, or rather simplified.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Frankau’s story is long and complex. The film lasts only 78 minutes.  Akins’ focus is the affair, omitting, for example, what one of the earlier posts describes as Christopher’s ‘meandering search for meaning’ and ‘increasingly controlling drive to ensure Felicity’s safety’.  Does this work?  Yes, both in 1933 and 2015.  The narrative is hardly original but it flows smoothly from first meeting through growing attraction to affair and outcome.  The background – fast and sophisticated London society – is effectively conveyed (although unconvincing to UK eyes).  There are exciting action sequences – state of the art then but creaky now – and dramatic, if again slightly creaky to our ears, confrontations.

The film is dominated by Cynthia, not Christopher.  Hepburn’s Cynthia is as determined, strong and unconventional as in the novel, although there are superficial alterations.  The novel’s daring racing car driver Felicity has become daring pilot Cynthia.  Why?  Did Cynthia sound more British and/or aristocratic?  At this distance who knows?  The change of career is perhaps easier.  The 1930s saw daring women racers and fliers (although even today there are more men in these fields), but flying won in 1933, perhaps because of Amelia Earhart on whose exploits the movie draws.  More importantly, Cynthia is the archetypal Hepburn role – the one which she arguably played most of her life and seemed to resemble.  Which came first?  Presumably Hepburn herself, but you feel she understood Cynthia.

Of the other characters, the women are better drawn, and acted, than the men.  Billy Burke’s Lady Strong suffers touchingly and is very ‘womanly’, in contrast to Cynthia.  Christopher’s daughter Monica starts, like Cynthia, adulterous.  However, her lover is at least separated from his wife and does the decent thing.  By the end, Monica is happily pregnant and disgusted by her friend’s behaviour.  As for Colin Clive’s Christopher, well, it is hard to see the attraction.  We are told he is a brilliant politician but don’t see it.  He is ultimately careless of both Cynthia and his wife.  For me, Clive fails, but then my sympathies lie with the women and I wonder too if the part is unplayable.

Moral codes have changed hugely over 80 years.  Adultery is easier to survive and divorce and illegitimacy all much more accepted.  In the 1930s, the affair becoming public might have ruined both lovers (interestingly, Frankau was divorced and was apparently advised therefore not to stand for Parliament).  For neither Cynthia nor Christopher is this a casual affair.  She says to him:

“I wouldn’t have loved you if you’d been a usual man. And you wouldn’t have loved me if I’d been a woman who didn’t take this kind of thing seriously.”

In the end, however, ‘meretricious’ Cynthia pays the higher price.  Knowing she is pregnant (he does not know), she chooses suicide, when Christopher seems to be returning to his wife.  But it is arguable that in a sense she sees suicide positively – for her, it is freedom from disillusion, disgrace and restriction.

The movie is often claimed by feminists.  Hepburn, Arzner and Akins are all feminist icons.  Cynthia rejects society’s bounds, in contrast to the other women.  In one scene, an admiring young girl asks for her autograph and after her death a statue is raised to her as a pioneer.  While tame in 2015, the film acknowledges the importance of sex, being released before the notorious Hays Code outlawed sex.  After this, Hepburn was sometimes forced to compromise: in 1942’s Woman of the Year, for example, her strong and successful journalist is viewed as unnatural and is humiliated by love and domesticity.

In this regard, it has been asked why, when it is Cynthia’s movie, it is called Christopher Strong.  I thought perhaps irony but Arzner said in a 1975 interview that she sympathised more with the ‘man on the cross’ than the women.  That is not the impression the movie leaves.

I set out to ask, as with middlebrow books, what we can learn from the film about its period and what, if anything, it has to say to us today.  These are always valid questions, but particularly interesting here, as middlebrow novels are so often seen – dismissed? – as women’s fiction and 1930s Hollywood specialised in ‘women’s pictures’.  Eighty-two years after its release, creaky though it is, Christopher Strong remains enjoyable and perhaps surprisingly frank.  It also shows, like many a middlebrow novel, how far women have come from the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ – and how far we still have to come.

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3 thoughts on “Christopher Strong – the movie, not the novel

  1. Fascinating piece. I’m not so sure that mores have changed that much over the years – women are still condemned for ‘sleeping around’ while men are praised…

  2. Great review, Val. The film, though creaky, did impress me for the depiction of a strong, independent woman, and despite the suicide at the end, seemed surprisingly unjudgemental of her adultery.

  3. Pingback: Middlebrow goes to the movies (again) | Reading 1900-1950

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