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(Re)introducing Kate the Great

Film series focuses on Hepburn’s many faces

A star was born in “A Bill of Divorcement’’ with Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore. A star was born in “A Bill of Divorcement’’ with Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore. (RKO)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 1, 2011

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Imagine what it must have been like to be in the first audience that saw Katharine Hepburn onscreen.

It’s not an easy task. First you have to imagine the movies and pop culture without her - without that headstrong Yankee certainty, the upward gaze, the Bryn Mawr canter of her speech. Then you have to imagine getting into the Aug. 30, 1932 premiere of a new film called “A Bill of Divorcement,’’ starring John Barrymore and a first-time actress you’d never heard of.

Let producer David O. Selznick take it from there. “Very early in the picture,’’ he wrote years later, “there was a scene in which Hepburn just walked across the room, stretched her arms, and then lay out on the floor before the fireplace. It sounds very simple, but you could almost feel (and you could definitely hear) the excitement in the audience. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. In those few simple feet of film a new star was born.’’ The next day, the Hollywood Reporter swooned. “Not many times in the history of celluloid entertainment has there been such a first performance as Miss Hepburn gives.’’

Another, perfectly acceptable way to experience the Great Kate as if for the first time is to take a young person to the Paramount’s Bright Family Screening Room today at 7 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. and watch “A Bill of Divorcement’’ through his or her eyes. The film is the opening salvo in ArtsEmerson’s three-month, 13-film series “Kate the Iconoclast/Katharine the Icon,’’ and because the movies showing in October are among the star’s earliest, you can sense Hepburn coming to grips with Hollywood, even as Hollywood struggled to come to terms with her.

“A Bill of Divorcement’’ is based on a play and feels like it; director George Cukor is unable to open up the story and let in the air. Yet Hepburn is still a minor miracle as Sydney Fairfield, a young woman who meets her father for the first time and confronts her family’s hereditary madness. As the father, Barrymore tones down the ham and, off screen, was under orders from mutual friends to be protective of the young actress. (That didn’t stop him from making a pass at her.)

Ironically, if “Bill’’ has dated, Cukor’s 1933 period piece “Little Women’’ - screening today and tomorrow at 2 p.m. - plays as more timeless than ever. Hepburn, the Connecticut-bred daughter of a wealthy doctor and a suffragette mother, was born to the role of Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March, and she came as close to the entitled, idealistic social conscience of the New England Transcendentalists as a 20th-century woman could. She was the cameo in the attic chest made vibrant and alive.

Audiences of the time knew it - the film was easily the biggest hit of Hepburn’s early career - and the actress knew it, reaching back to the 19th century to base her performance on her aunt Edith Hooker, the Jo of her mother’s side of the family. If you’re bringing a young girl to Kate for the first time, this is the one with which to start.

Or 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby,’’ which plays Oct. 14 at 8:15 p.m., Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., and Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. in a new print struck from a recent Museum of Modern Art restoration. Actually, you could argue that “Bringing Up Baby’’ should be anyone’s first movie, period. The one screwball comedy to edge close to genuine madness, it juggles dinosaur bones, escaped leopards (two!), yappy terriers, Cary Grant as a nerd, and a Hepburn so serenely disassociated from common sense that she makes some moviegoers actively nervous. (Here’s a moment to treasure. Panic-stricken Grant, upon realizing Hepburn has a leopard in her room: “Susan, you have to get out of this apartment!’’ Hepburn: “I can’t. I have a lease.’’)

It’s hard for modern audiences to comprehend that “Baby’’ was a flop - not only a flop, but another nail in the coffin of Hepburn’s early career. The audience love-fest that started with “Bill of Divorcement’’ and “Little Women’’ - and that resulted in a Best Actress Oscar for her third film, “Morning Glory’’ (1933) - quickly faded as Hepburn’s studio, RKO, cast her in one starchy hoop-skirt drama after another (“The Little Minister,’’ “A Woman Rebels,’’ “Mary of Scotland’’). Then they tried to loosen her image with modern-dress comedies such as “Baby,’’ “Stage Door,’’ and the wonderfully bizarre “Sylvia Scarlett,’’ a notorious 1936 bomb that only found its audience in the 1960s revival-house era.

“Scarlett,’’ playing Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 9 at 2 p.m., was the first of four films that paired Hepburn with Grant, who remains her most natural onscreen match no matter what she and we felt for Spencer Tracy. Two others playing this month are “Holiday’’ (Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 23 at 2 p.m.) and her commercial comeback, “The Philadelphia Story’’ (Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 8:45 p.m.). Because ArtsEmerson is sticking to 35mm prints, her finest ’30s drama, “Alice Adams,’’ isn’t part of the series.

Next month the series rolls out three of the Tracy-Hepburn classics that restored her to the good graces of Hollywood and the public, softening the actress’s edge while explicitly taking her down a peg - “Woman of the Year’’ (Nov. 5-6), “State of the Union’’ (Nov. 11-12), and “Adam’s Rib’’ (Nov. 18-20). The program closes with three of Hepburn’s late-career films, made when she was an American institution - “The African Queen’’ (Dec. 3-4), “Summertime’’ (Dec. 9-10), and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ (Dec. 16-17).

They’re all fine. But this weekend is the chance to sample the incandescence when it was freshly lit.

All films screen in the Bright Family Screening Room at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center, 559 Washington St.,

Boston. Tickets are $10, $7.50 for members and seniors, $5 for students and children, free for Emerson students. Call the box office at 617-824-8000 or visit ArtsEmerson.org.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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