Obscure Hope-Hepburn movie reappears

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Noelle Middleton, Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn in the 1956 film, "The Iron Petticoat." (TCM)

In the mid-1950s, Katharine Hepburn and Cleveland’s own Bob Hope teamed for a romantic comedy that had a happy ending onscreen — and much misery off.

The comic and the Oscar winner worked together on the little-seen and possibly even less-loved The Iron Petticoat (1956), a work that is now far more notable for its cast and controversies than for its Cold War jokes and chemistry-free pairing of Hope and Hepburn.

The film was a notable failure in its day, and has not been shown at all in the U.S. for almost 50 years. On Monday, it will get its first authorized American home-video release, in a limited-edition DVD and Blu-ray combo pack available only through Turner Classic Movies’ website, http://shop.tcm.com. TCM also will televise the film at 8 p.m. Nov. 29.

The presentation is a vintage ’50s cultural and political clash. Hepburn plays a Russian pilot who has defected after being passed over for promotion because she is a woman. But she is still an ardent Communist, and U.S. Air Force captain Hope is assigned to convince her of the wonders of democracy. Banter and love ensue.

While the plot was noticeably similar to the earlier hit Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, the project had some potential. Ben Hecht (The Front Page) wrote the original script, then called Not for Money, and it was at first planned for Hepburn and Cary Grant, with whom she had worked so well in the comedies The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.

But Grant proved unavailable; Hope biographer Arthur Marx said Grant “bowed out rather suddenly after he read the script.” (More about that script later.) Grant’s departure opened the door for Hope, who according to biographer William Robert Faith was looking for more prestigious material and dreaming of his own Oscar.

Not long before Iron Petticoat, he had shown a dramatic side in Seven Little Foys and made That Certain Feeling, “probably Hope’s most sophisticated motion picture,” Faith says. Hope followed Iron Petticoat with another ambitious effort, Beau James.

Hepburn later told biographer A. Scott Berg that she thought this would not be a typical Hope movie but “a contemporary comedy.” Perhaps making it even more of a personal mission, this was the first time Hope shot a film in his native England, which he had left for America with his family when he was 4.

The DVD essay (also available on the TCM site) notes that yet another Hope biographer thought the married Hope wanted a break from Hollywood after a scandal magazine reported on his affair with actress Barbara Payton. In any case, Hecht, Hope and Hepburn journeyed to England, and the troubles really started, although the details vary somewhat.

A common version, repeated in the TCM essay, has Hope appearing with his team of joke writers, ready to make the script more Hope-full. But Faith, who was also Hope’s public-relations man for many years, says Hecht had not finished the script when Hope arrived, so Hope offered the help of his writers — offending Hecht. Still, Faith said, “Hope’s and his writers’ ideas were reluctantly accepted in the interest of completing the project.”

Reluctantly, perhaps, but not happily. Hecht would later take out an ad in a Hollywood paper decrying the changes in the script. (Hope, who owned a piece of the film, would take out his own ad in reply.) Hepburn, for her part, told Berg that Hope had taken a witty Hecht script and made it “his cheap vaudeville act with me as his stooge.” She further thought Hope was “the biggest egomaniac with whom I have worked in my entire life.”

Director Ralph Thomas, about a decade younger than Hope and Hepburn, indicates in the TCM essay that he had trouble handling his more experienced stars, and that they “were playing in two different pictures: She was a mistress of light, sophisticated, romantic comedy, and he was much broader.” Hepburn biographer Anne Edwards is blunter, saying Hepburn “at least looked the part of a Soviet pilot and played it impressively,” while concurring with a critic’s complaint about Hope falling back on his old “cheap tricks.”

To be sure, there is a scene where a heartbroken Hepburn is so suddenly, emotionally raw, breaking away from the dragged-out verbal comedy and obvious Cold War jokes before and after that moment. But that is a departure not only for the movie but for Hepburn herself, who seems unwilling or unable to make the farcical moments work, and whose Russian accent often sounds more like something from the Swedish Chef.

Yet Hope fares no better, locked into jokes that he might have brought over from his other ventures, including a shout-out to Bing Crosby and silly one-liners like: “Women in uniform bother me. I don’t know whether to kiss ’em or salute.”

No one saluted The Iron Petticoat when it made its way into theaters, and by 1966, the distribution rights had lapsed and the film pretty much disappeared. For Hope and Hepburn fans, the new video release will likely be welcome, revisiting a moment in each star’s career, and doing so with a sparkling video presentation. The set also has ample extras, including on-disc displays of lobby cards, still photos, an essay about the movie and the original pressbook, as well as a couple of edited scenes. And you may want to pause over that scene with Hepburn, when it looks as if a much better, more memorable movie might have come from this effort.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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