Cast & Crew
In England, at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, the vivacious twenty-year-old Phoebe Throssel eagerly awaits the proposal of her longtime admirer, Dr. Valentine Brown. Consequently, when the gentlemanly Valentine says that he has enlisted in the British army because he has no "wife, mother, or sweetheart," Phoebe and her spinster sister Susan are crushed with disappointment. Ten years later, Phoebe and Susan, who are now teachers in the Misses Throssel School for Boys and Girls, have their drab, "old maid" existence on Quality Street disrupted by the return of Valentine's troops. As soon as Valentine arrives, he calls on Phoebe to invite her to the homecoming ball, but is shocked by her tired, lackluster appearance. Humiliated by his revulsion, Phoebe sheds her unflattering clothes, styles her hair in ringlets and dresses up in a stunning gown. To Phoebe's surprise, when Valentine shows up to take her to the ball, he fails to recognize her and is convinced that she is a guest in the house. Phoebe, taking advantage of Valentine's confusion, tells him that she is Livvy Throssel, Phoebe's "niece," and accepts his invitation to the ball. There, "Livvy" attracts a crowd of young male admirers, whom she teases coquettishly, much to Valentine's dismay. After the ball, Phoebe continues her flirtatious impersonation of Livvy and causes her snooping neighbors, spinsters Henrietta Turnbull and Mary and Fanny Willoughby, to grow increasingly suspicious of her. At a second homecoming ball, Valentine scolds "Livvy" and tells her that it is Phoebe, not she, whom he loves. Although eager to return Valentine's love, Phoebe is unable to "bury" her alter ego because her neighbors insist on seeing "Livvy" in the flesh. In the end, Valentine discovers Phoebe's ruse and, with the help of a disguise, officially sends the niece away before the spinsters can uncover the deception. After a heartfelt kiss, Valentine proposes to the faithful Phoebe.
Pandro S. Berman
J. R. Crone
George D. Ellis
Robert De Grasse
Hugh Mcdowell Jr.
A. W. Newington
Maurice De Packh
Van Nest Polglase
The film was born out of Hepburn's desperate need for a hit to put her back on top after a string of box office failures, particularly the ahead-of-its time gender-bending comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Although audiences had clearly rejected her in period films like Mary of Scotland and A Woman Rebels (both 1936), and her previous attempt at a James M. Barrie adaptation, The Little Minister (1934), had fared poorly, she insisted that another Barrie play, Quality Street, would re-capture the magic that had helped make her a star in 1933's Little Women. Its tale of a small-town teacher who pretends to be her own niece in order to flirt with and humiliate a former suitor may have appealed to her sense of the theatrical. And it certainly did well by Maude Adams, who starred in its premiere production in 1901, and Marion Davies, who had made a 1927 silent version.
Hepburn asked George Stevens, who had helped her to deliver one of her best performances in Alice Adams (1935), to helm the film. At the time, he was negotiating to direct the film version of Maxwell Anderson's modern tragedy Winterset (1936). Some sources suggest she had him assigned to the film, others that she appealed to their friendship, particularly since she had rescued him from minor films to direct Alice Adams. Either way, he consented to the film but soon regretted it. Not only did he feel himself poorly matched with the whimsical material, but also he felt that Hepburn's entourage made it impossible for him to direct her effectively. Despite his efforts, they encouraged her to deliver what he considered a mannered, overly precious performance.
Stevens and RKO surrounded Hepburn with stage-trained actors. Leading man Franchot Tone had been a member of the prestigious Group Theater in New York before coming to Hollywood. Estelle Winwood was an accomplished comic actress who would not become a regular in films until the '50s and '60s, when she excelled in a series of eccentric character roles, most notably as one of Zero Mostel's amorous investors in The Producers (1968). After a few small film roles in her native England, Quality Street would mark her first major screen appearance. Also returning to the screen was Fay Bainter, who had scored on Broadway, most notably as the star of Dodsworth. After only one film in the early '30s, she returned to the screen to play Hepburn's sympathetic sister. She was one of the few performers to get good notices on the picture's initial release, though her real triumph would come a year later when she won Oscar® nominations for Best Actress in White Banners and Best Support Actress in Jezebel (both 1938), winning for the latter.
For Fontaine, her unbilled role marked the beginning of her brief time at RKO, the studio where she would learn her craft, and her first job under her new professional name. Although she would dismiss the film in later years, saying that Walter Plunkett's costumes were the only good thing about it, at the time she was charmed to be included in Hepburn's picnic lunches on the set. She also was gratified when Hepburn went to studio management and told them to give her more to do, suggesting that they develop her natural talents and build her fan following by starring Fontaine in low-budget films.
Despite the congenial atmosphere on the set, Hepburn suffered a personal setback during filming. She had been dating her agent, Leland Hayward, off and on for years. During filming, however, he married actress Margaret Sullavan, something Hepburn only learned about from a radio broadcast. She spent the rest of the shoot brooding between scenes. Nor was her mood helped when the film opened to mixed reviews and indifferent box office. By that time, she had left Hollywood to try to rebuild her career with a stage version of Jane Eyre that never made it to Broadway. She also tried to forget her disappointment over Hayward's marriage by entering a relationship with eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes. It would take a stage and screen hit with The Philadelphia Story (filmed in 1940) to get her career back on track.
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Mortimer Offner, Allan Scott
Based on the play by James M. Barrie
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Hobe Erwin
Music: Roy Webb
Principal Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Phoebe Throssel), Franchot Tone (Dr. Valentine Brown), Fay Bainter (Susan Throssel), Eric Blore (Recruiting Sergeant), Cora Witherspoon (Patty the Maid), Estelle Winwood (Mary Willoughby), Bonita Granville (Isabella), Joan Fontaine (Charlotte Parratt).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller
The play originally opened in New York on 11 November 1901.
Sir James M. Barrie's "Phoebe Throssel" was first performed by Maude Adams, who also played the character in a 1932 radio version of the play. According to a July 1934 Hollywood Reporter news item, M-G-M hired Rowland Lee to work on an adaptation of Barrie's play for that studio. However, Hollywood Reporter reported in December 1934 that RKO had purchased the rights to the play as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn. (RKO's version of Barrie's The Little Minister, which also starred Hepburn, opened shortly after this purchase.) Modern sources state that Hepburn cajoled George Stevens, who had directed her in Alice Adams, into working with her on this film, even though he had been slated by RKO to direct Winterset, a story he especially wanted to make. An August 1936 Los Angeles Examiner news item states that producer Pandro Berman had negotiated for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was working in England at the time, to co-star with Hepburn. RKO borrowed Franchot Tone from M-G-M for the production, which was Joan Fontaine's first film for the studio and the first film in which she appeared as Joan Fontaine. (Her previous stage name was Joan Burfield.)
Although George D. Ellis received screen credit as the film's sound recorder, RKO production files indicate that Clem Portman worked on the film during its first two weeks of production. Exteriors were shot at the Triumpho Canyon and Malibu Lake areas of Malibu, CA. A February 1937 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that RKO chose to delay the opening of the picture several months in order to capitalize on Hepburn's theatrical tour of Jane Eyre.
Roy Webb was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score but lost to Charles Previn for One Hundred Men and a Girl. According to modern sources, the film, which was Hepburn's third consecutive costume drama, lost $248,000 at the box office. Modern sources credit Mel Berns with the picture's makeup and add Carmencita Johnson (Student) to the cast. In 1927, M-G-M distributed a version of Barrie's play, which starred Marion Davies and Conrad Nagel and was directed by Sidney Franklin (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.4384).
Released in United States 1937
Released in United States on Video March 27, 1991
Released in United States 1937
Released in United States on Video March 27, 1991