Many Happy Reruns: Katharine Hepburn and Leslie Charteris

Well, I prefer doing it slowly, in narrow, dusty aisles, surrounded by strangers. Browsing for second-hand books, I mean. Nowadays, it is so much easier, and often cheaper, to pick up that elusive volume by going online, rather than making a day of it in out-of-the-way bookstores, antique shops, or flea markets. I’m not giving up on that experience, though—on the thrill of the hunt and the triumph of the catch. Hay-on-Wye, where I went yesterday, is the very place for such a literati safari. It is a tiny Welsh village with a population of about 1500; but its narrow streets are lined with about forty bookstores, some of which specialize in Hollywood cinema and crime fiction. That’s where Hepburn and Charteris, both born on this day in 1907, will come in . . . eventually.

Yesterday, I came home with a little something for my Claudette Colbert collection (pictured), with another copy of Norman Corwin’s Thirteen by Corwin (a fine one with dust jacket, previously owned by the BBC research department), and a title from the Directors Guild of America Oral History series, an interview with television pioneer Worthington Miner. Prior to entering television in the late 1930s (yes, NBC did have a television schedule back then, even though only a few thousand Americans owned a set), Miner had been a theatrical producer in the 1930s; and, in March 1937, his leading lady was none other than Ms. Hepburn, who starred in an adaptation of Jane Eyre (previously discussed here).

According to Miner,

Katie was a wonderful Jane; it was her cup of tea, and she sparkled. But we had a dreadful Rochester and an even worse last act. [. . .] As a result, we decided to book it on the road for a few months and not risk bringing it into New York. For weeks on end it battled the elements, storms and tornados, floods and disasters, without an empty seat in the house. Katie’s name was already a prodigious drawn in the hinterlands. Jane Eyre made a tidy profit, but the kudos was nil for any of us, even Katie herself.

Years, later, Miner was involved in securing the rights Long Day’s Journey Into Night for another producer, with whom Miner strongly disagreed about Hepburn in the role of Mary Tyrone. Miner believed that Hepburn—a “mercurial, unpredictable performer”—was utterly “wrong” for the part. In the “right” role (Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, for instance, which she reprised in several radio productions) she was “incomparable, a class unto herself.” When miscast, however, she could be “aggressively, monstrously bad.” To me, Undercurrent comes to mind; Hepburn was just not cut out to be the victim, even when permitted to fight back.

Someone very much angered by Hollywood casting was Saint creator Leslie Charteris, who shares Hepburn’s birthday. I have mentioned previously (and have been corrected on some muddled facts by Saint expert Burl Barer), that Charteris was not at all pleased when George Sanders took over the role of his Robin Hood of Modern Crime. He much preferred Louis Hayward, who had portrayed Simon Templar in The Saint in New York.

Now, one of the writers involved in adapting Charteris’s novel for the screen was Irwin Shaw, whose play Bury the Dead Miner had produced on Broadway and whose final radio play, “Supply and Demand,” he directed for the Columbia Workshop in the spring of 1937, when Hepburn was touring with Jane Eyre.

Perhaps I am overly fond of such six-degrees-of-separation games; but with some Miner assistance, I could almost send Hepburn and Charteris on a dinner date, discussing a role that might have been swell as a follow-up for Bringing Up Baby: a sophisticated screwball-mystery of The Thin Man variety.

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