The United States was understandably joyous over the end of World War II, and optimistic thoughts of peace and prosperity quickly turned to domestic concerns. However, the country’s position at the top of the heap was threatened by another big, bad S.O.B., America's wartime ally, the Soviet Union, which was still rattling its bloody saber.
Oh wait, these aren’t my history class lecture notes, we’re discussing another Katharine Hepburn performance! This time it’s Undercurrent (MGM 1946; Dir. Vincente Minnelli) On the surface, this aptly-named film appears to be another--to borrow a phrase from a previous decade--“return to normalcy”-type effort which serves as a snapshot of post-World War II America and a reflection of the paranoia that was already creeping into what was supposed to be a victorious and glorious time in U.S. history…but to the victors, the spoils were already…spoiled. That’s the psychological mind set of many a post-war Noir, but Undercurrent is more of a warmed-over Alfred Hitchcock movie, especially evident because the similar and superior Suspicion had been released in 1941. Undercurrent is an uncomfortable blend of pre-war talent and post-war concerns and Katharine Hepburn is mostly to blame. The problems I had with the film have more to do with Hepburn’s obvious behind-the-scenes clout. The snapshot of post-World War II America is much more interesting than the movie’s story or any of the performances. I’m particularly disappointed with Katharine Hepburn’s role and her casting here.
Hepburn plays Ann Hamilton, a woman hovering close to becoming an “old maid”, a term given to single women who were “in danger” of never getting married and already past a “prime” marrying age. My, how times have changed, as many parents are fortunate to get today’s children out of the house by the time they hit 40…Anyway, Ann is supposed to be a free spirit who routinely avoids marriage and who makes a habit of spurning her erstwhile milquetoast/suitor-professor Joseph Bangs (Dan Tobin), a colleague of Ann’s father, Professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn), who comes over every day just to be rejected by the disinterested Ann, who just happens to dress like the real Kate Hepburn, including those hideous sandals with thick white socks and ever-present slacks; so much for “disappearing” into a character.
The first fifteen minutes of Undercurrent has the kind of saccharine-laced material that often plagued MGM during the Louis B. Mayer reign, and is too cutesy-poo for words. Ann runs around after her little dog—yes, another one, just like in Without Love (1945) and spars with the family housekeeper, Lucy (Marjorie Main) over poached eggs and “old maid” issues.
After that deli-ham-thin slice of
things take on a different tone when Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) shows
up. He’s a colleague of Ann’s father and
a celebrity of sorts, as Ann describes him.
He’s the inventor of a “Distance Controller”, which “practically won the
war—single handed.” Garroway is a Great American who’s in all the magazines. Alan is in town to see Professor Hamilton,
who’s passing on the burden of tetradite, a name anyone watching this film will
grow to hate. Americana
As was common during this period of films, our two lead characters quickly court in the most wooden manner imaginable, though at least Kate gets twinkly on occasion to sustain some level of interest. In a hilarious scene, Ann’s father demonstrates “chemistry” between two people—using tetradite, naturally—and the cut is made to Alan and Ann’s nupitals! Her small-town girl gets whisked away to big, bad Washington D.C. with new hubby Alan. Ann now functions as a society wife, attending dull parties and wearing beautiful clothes as well as some truly bizarre ones. Knowing the excesses of Forties styles, it’s unlikely that it was done as a commentary on the Washington, D.C. political social scene, though there is scathing dialogue that portrays such people in a most-deserving light.
Alan seems like the ideal husband, lavishing Ann with gifts and promises of their life together...until the first mention of his never-before-discussed brother, Michael (Robert Mitchum), who Alan makes out to be a criminal and family black sheep.
Without spoiling the rest of the film, Hepburn’s character is supposed to be a homey, small-town girl whisked away into a dark, sophisticated world. She’s much better than I initially gave her credit for, but certain things just don’t work. The laziness of just having her wear her real-life “rags” is a huge distraction for an avowed Katephile like me. It reeks of a star throwing their clout around and not submitting to the character. She’s also too old for the part. I had a hard time buying her as Edmund Gwenn’s daughter despite their actual age difference (Gwenn b. 1877; Hepburn b. 1907) Perhaps the filmmakers knew that too, as she never refers to her father as “Dad”, instead addressing him as “Dink”! (I can’t imagine giving my father a nickname: “Hey Dink, how about an increase in my allowance?”)
I also never truly accept Hepburn as a frightened shrinking violet. There’s a particularly unintentionally comic scene that’s supposed to instill fear and suspense, but dies on screen thanks to production issues…you have to see it yourself.
The Hitchcockian elements of Undercurrent also fall short of expectations. I admire director Vincente Minnelli as much as anyone, and he does some creative things in terms of artsy shots, using reflective surfaces and clever edits, but the material and the performances just aren’t there. Robert Taylor, whom I liked so much in Johnny Eager (1941), looks less than eager to play this role. He’s a subtle actor, but he could have been more forceful.
Robert Mitchum can do no wrong, and his career is Hollywood Dreamland proof. I mean, just look at this guy smoke unfiltered cigarettes! How could anyone find fault with this guy’s “Smirnoff Method”?
I realize I'm being tough on Undercurrent, but being an unapologetic sycophant is something I only do at work or at church*. I can only be completely honest when it comes to Hepburn and other matters of the heart.