Naughty But Niece
24 July 2016
QUALITY STREET (RKO Radio, 1937) directed by George Stevens, stars Katharine Hepburn in her third costume movie in a row (following 1936 releases of "Mary of Scotland and "A Woman Rebels"), and her first to be classified a comedy. Taken from the old stage play by Sir James M. Barrie, the same author whose work was used for Hepburn's 1934 release of THE LITTLE MINISTER, places the now legendary actress for the first of many times in the role of a spinster, but in this case not entirely throughout its 84 minutes.

The setting: "1805 England. Quality Street where a gentleman passerby is an event." Other than an event, Quality Street is also a location of homes where spinster women peep through their window curtains watching everything that goes on. The story introduces Susan Throssel (Fay Bainter), an old maid, hosting her spinster guests, sisters Mary (Estelle Winwood) and Fanny Willoughby (Helena Grant), and Henrietta Turnball (Florence Lake) as they crochet while one reads a book aloud. Phoebe (Katharine Hepburn), Susan's younger sister, arrives with the news of having met a certain individual dashing young man who's finds her fascinating, and will soon be arriving to tell her some important news. Thinking the young man to be interested in proposing marriage to Phoebe, Susan, once engaged to William, a Naval officer, offers her sister a wedding gown she never used. When Doctor Valentine Brown (Franchot Tone) comes to call, he surprises Phoebe with the news about enlisting in the Napoleonic war, stirring up bitter disappointment for her, especially after watching him marching off with the other enlistments. Ten years later, Phoebe and Susan, now spinster teachers at "The Misses Throssel School for Boys and Girls," find the soldiers returning home from war. Upon his arrival, Valentine becomes disappointed to find the once vibrant and beautiful Phoebe, now 30, looking old and tired. Noticing how the other ensigns (William Bakewell and Roland Varno) are wooing the young and silly Charlotte Parratt (Joan Fontaine), Phoebe abandons her drab existence by applying herself with new clothes and hair style. Phoebe's youthful appearance immediately attracts Valentine attention, who fails to recognize her as the girl he once loved. Passing herself off as her visiting flirtatious niece, Olivia, Phoebe not only becomes in Valentine's eyes, but after escorting her to the ball, attracts the attention of Charlotte's suitors as well. Problems arrive as the snoopy Henrietta and the Willoughby sisters suspect both Phoebe and "Livvy" to be one of the same, forcing Phoebe to wonder how long she'll be able to go on with her masquerade without arousing Valentine's suspicion and possibly losing him in the process.

Though the masquerading idea of woman attempting to fool the man she loves by becoming another identity is nothing new, it always seems to go well, especially wondering what will result for its climax. In spite the fact that QUALITY STREET was used as a basis of a silent 1927 MGM comedy starring Marion Davies, Conrad Nagel and Helen Jerome Eddy in the Hepburn, Tone and Bainter roles, the 1937 remake reportedly didn't do as well as the Davies original possibly due to Hepburn's current theatrical failures that labeled her at the time as "box-office poison." Even though QUALITY STREET somewhat resembles Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (successfully filmed by MGM in 1940) by way of locale, costume setting and spinster characters of the 19th century, the film itself is quite quaint and lavish scale with fine underscoring credited to Roy Webb. Of the supporting players, there's the comic relief of Eric Blore as a recruiting sergeant with a constant blink of an eye towards Patty (Cora Witherspoon); Fay Bainter providing character interest as both sympathetic spinster and mousy schoolteacher afraid of one of her students, a tall bully by the name of William Smith (Sherwood Bailey). It's also interesting spotting Estelle Winwood, a familiar face in many TV shows of the 1960s and 70s very early in her career, along with future Academy Award winner, Joan Fontaine, in two brief scenes, one with Hepburn.

Regardless of its reputation that caused QUALITY STREET to be seldom revived on commercial television back in the 1960s and 70s, the film itself began to surface more frequently later on with revivals on public television, home video (1980s-90s) and later DVD, cable television (American Movie Classics prior to 1998) and Turner Classic Movies. Alternative versions have usually been found through its opening credits: Title card Movietime" used in place of RKO Radio logo commonly shown in sixties and seventies; a brief glimpse insertion from an early RKO title, LET'S TRY AGAIN (1934) before the actual QUALITY STREET title fills the screen, or the restored theatrical opening on TCM. For anyone unfamiliar with both Hepburn and QUALITY STREET, it's worth seeing through once, at least out of curiosity (***)
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