Review: Undercurrent

Katharine Hepburn plays an intelligent, but dowdy and somewhat insecure unmarried daughter of professor Edmund Gwenn. It’s not long before she meets wealthy industrialist Robert Taylor, though and after a seemingly short romance they are married. Here she must deal with her own insecurities in mixing with high society-types with their judging looks, but more importantly she finds herself having to deal with her husband’s mood swings and refusal to talk about his past, especially as it pertains to his brother (Robert Mitchum). Things get exceedingly heated when the couple visit Taylor’s family home, and the past just refuses to stay in its place.

One poorly miscast actor and another not given much to work with are just two of the issues with this thoroughly underwhelming 1946 star pic from director Vincente Minnelli (“The Bad and the Beautiful”, “Lust for Life”). I’m far from a Robert Taylor fan, but he shows here and in the later “The Last Hunt” that the darker the role, the better fit it is for him. He has an interestingly dark and tortured character to play here, and he doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of his best-ever performances for sure, and along with the well-chosen title, he’s the best thing about this film. Edmund Gwenn is also his usual rock-solid best, but unfortunately he’s out of the film fairly early on never to return.

Our main star here is Katharine Hepburn, and in addition to not being my favourite actress, she’s completely out of her element here. In a role that Barbara Stanwyck, Teresa Wright, or Jane Wyman would’ve been a much better fit, Hepburn just doesn’t have it in her to play insecure and naïve. Sure, Stanwyck could play smart and strong too, but she was much more versatile than Hepburn, and obviously would have no issues with her leading man, either. I also find it rather insulting that Hepburn at this point in her career was often playing spinsters, old maids, or unmarried women. Why? Because she’s got a wilful independent streak and wears trousers? I get it, but it’s annoyingly outdated. Hepburn actually does wear dresses in this film at some point, and looks rather lovely if you ask me.

The third star of the film, and indeed he deserves billing below the other two, is Robert Mitchum. Like Hepburn, he’s not especially well-cast in this one. He’s playing a pipe-smoking poetry reader for fuck’s sake. Max Cady? Rev. Harry Powell? I don’t think so. That’s more Joseph Cotten, Hume Cronyn, or Hugh Marlowe territory if you ask me (According to the director’s autobiography, Mitchum was indeed uncomfortable in the role). To be honest, for all the screen time Mitchum gets, he might as well not have turned up at all. He’s thoroughly wasted here. Meanwhile, the whole rift between the two brothers here is such 1940s B-movie nonsense thoroughly beneath its stars. It also doesn’t help that the opening 20 minutes in particular are horribly rushed. Hepburn meets Taylor, and the next scene they share is their wedding ceremony! WTF? Who thought this script was worthy? Aussie viewers might do a double-take when they see a Christopher Pyne-lookalike named Dan Tobin as Hepburn’s would-be suitor Joe Bangs. Positively fruity, he even wears a bow-tie. Yeah, that’s a guy who’s gonna get the girl by the end of the picture if ever I’ve seen one. Poor Marjorie Main is a solid character actress seemingly in a thoroughly and monotonously foul mood. What the hell was her problem here? One of the definite plusses is the music score by Herbert Stothart (“The Yearling”, “The Three Musketeers”), with occasional use of Brahms throughout.

This isn’t a good film at all, it’s pretty shoddy stuff. Melodramatic, miscast, and there’s just not a whole helluva lot to it, either. Robert Taylor and the music score try, but can’t work miracles here. It’s not even worth the novelty of seeing noted liberal Hepburn being romanced by staunch Republican Robert Taylor and fellow Republican Robert Mitchum. Based on a novel by Thelma Strabel, the screenplay is by Edward Chodorov (“The Hucksters”, “Kind Lady”), George Oppenheimer (“A Day at the Races”), and Marguerite Roberts (“Ivanhoe”, “True Grit”). What was everybody thinking here?

Rating: C


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