One of the most interesting things about Christopher Strong is that it is written and directed by women. The screenplay was written by Zoe Akins who is probably best known for How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953. The film’s director is none other than Dorothy Arzner who was one of the few female directors to continue working under the studio system after Hollywood had made the transition to sound. This film was Katharine Hepburn’s second film and, being a Hepburn fan, I was excited to see how this film would play out and watch the evolution of one of my favorite film actresses.
The story is about a famous aviator named Cynthia Darrington who never had a love affair because she was always devoted to her work. However, all that changes when she meets and has an affair with Christopher Strong, a member of the English Parliament who is married with a grown daughter. The two must now bend their principles to accommodate their new passion and Cynthia must reconcile her yearning to fly with her yearning to love. I appreciate how this film does not demonize anyone, not Cynthia, not Christopher, not even Mrs. Strong. In fact, Monica, the daughter of Christopher, becomes friends with Cynthia and even looks up to her. Mrs. Strong respects her as “a brave girl, not cheap or silly.” Needless to say, it is an interesting relationship dynamic. Cynthia is popular with women outside of this family as well. At some point in the film, she is approached by a girl asking for her autograph and she says to Cynthia: “You were our hero at school. We all prayed and burned candles for your safety in your flight around the world. You gave us courage for everything.” Similar to Outrage, Christopher Strong complicates the “marriage plot” by having the protagonist fall for a happily married man as well as being conflicted in her desire for flying and her desire for romance. Though Cynthia feels both desires with intensity they are not compatible and either one she chooses will end with feelings of loss. This results in the film invoking feelings of uncertainty about if Cynthia is genuinely happy.
There are several characters in the film and all of them are interesting and nicely fleshed out. Monica Strong is the first character we are introduced to in the film. Monica is fun loving and extroverted, often staying out all night at extravagant parties. She is also a bit immature and having her own affair with a married man. As the film continues, in many ways she conforms to societal gender roles, becoming judgmental and a hypocrite. As stated before, Mrs. Strong is not portrayed as someone who is despicable; she is a caring and devoting wife and mother with concern for her daughter. Christopher Strong is first seen in his study, showing how dedicated he is to his work and family. He is also dutiful to his country and believes in happiness to one woman. He is non-judgmental and indulgent of women, as illustrated when he allows Monica to drag him to a party in the wee hours of the morning. He also has a bit of an adventurous side as illustrated when he accepts Cynthia’s offer to go up in her plane with her shortly after they first meet. It is this side of him that draws him to Cynthia.
Speaking of Cynthia, she is probably the strongest character in the film. Cynthia is established first in the newspaper to illustrate her renowned flying career. When she later appears in the film, she races with someone on the road thus shown to be exuberant, competitive and very adventurous. Any circumstance she finds herself in the first instinct is competition. She has a very commanding presence and is quite frank. She is intelligent and sensible, with no real interest in romance because she has dedicated all her time and energy to flying, to doing what she loves. Unlike the extroverted Monica, Cynthia is more introverted and is very comfortable with being alone. She is a free spirit with unfaltering determination who always speaks her mind. Later in the film, when Cynthia takes a break from flying to please Christopher, she expresses deep longing to return to the skies: “I only know I want to go up again. I want to break records. I want to train hard and not eat and drink all the time. I want to get up at dawn. I want to smell the fields and the morning air, and not mind getting oil in my hair and hands. And I want to talk with the boys I’ve flown with again.” Cynthia demonstrates her determination by resisting the limitations Christopher tries to impose on her and continues to fly.
When it comes to the romance between Christopher and Cynthia, I was a bit torn. I like how their relationship was built up somewhat and I like how both of them knew societal consequences of what they were doing. On the one hand, I can completely understand why Christopher is attracted to Cynthia. She is novel, lively and adventurous, she appeals to his almost hidden adventurous side. On the other hand, I could not understand why Cynthia is attracted to Christopher. Christopher Strong is not very strong and it is actually Hepburn’s character who is a stunning pillar of strength. I personally found Sir Strong to be unlikable. He talks big but he never backs up his words with actions. The actions he does take ultimately end up hurting everyone around him. Moreover, I never liked how he constantly tries to keep Cynthia from doing what she loves.
Christopher: “Promise me you’ll never take such risks again.”
Cynthia: “I must, and you must let me.”
Cynthia: “I’m glad you said no like that. But I really can’t promise [not to fly]. I can’t.”
Christopher: “Then you don’t love me.”
Cynthia: “Darling, of course I love you.”
One could say that Arzner and Akins intentionally made Christopher Strong unsympathetic, but then again it is difficult to say with any certainty. The chemistry between the actors was great but I could not understand why this man was worth giving up flying for, or at least trying to. That is really just me, perhaps I am missing something but I just could not fully immerse myself in the romance between these two characters.
Christopher Strong is a film that has many modern themes that audiences can enjoy. Unfortunately, the plot of the film is not able to support those themes to the end, which is why the film ends the way that it does. When watched with a critical eye, the film does have some interesting things to say. Moreover, the costumes are brilliant.
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