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The Late, Great Kate: A Centennial Tribute to Katharine Hepburn

“The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower . . .” So peaks Stage Door, the near-perfect 1937 blend of firecracker repartee and deftly modulated melodrama that follows the hopeful inhabitants of a ladies’ theatrical boarding house. Delivered by Katharine Hepburn, the speech is iconic, but not long after, there’s another moment that speaks more concisely to the actor’s perennial star power. In one quick shot, almost a throwaway, a lawn mower passes over the grave of a Broadway casualty, an actress whose talent couldn’t overcome her too-sensitive constitution. Director Gregory LaCava, a screwball sourpuss whose flair for madcap comedy was tinged with bitterness, tosses it in with morbid precision — if you haven’t the mettle, it says, here lies your fate.

If anyone did have the mettle, it was Hepburn. Too much damn mettle for some, which is the crux of The Philadelphia Story (1940), the opening entry in LACMA’s centenary Hepburn tribute. Based on the play that Philip Barry wrote expressly and knowingly for the star, and directed by George Cukor, the film is a radiant, nimble ensemble piece in which Hepburn plays a society bride to be who’s forced to chip away her marble mantle and lay bare her foibles — a fate to which Hepburn herself was submitted after her my-way-or-the-highway hauteur got her labeled box-office poison. The film is required viewing, and as deeply pleasing as any golden-age Hollywood comedy; but if you can’t get past the icky sexual politics (or even if you can), try the film’s 1938, Barry-based, Cukor-directed companion piece, the gorgeously melancholy ode to free spirits, Holiday.

Otherwise, LACMA’s four weeks of double features and matinees offer the usual suspects — the mystifyingly beloved Woman of the Year (1942), John Huston’s pleasure cruise The African Queen (1951) — along with infrequently screened treats like Morning Glory (1933), featuring an unbridled and exciting young Hepburn, and Undercurrent (1946), an offbeat thriller unlike any other Hepburn film, directed by Vincente Minnelli and charged with the sleepy-eyed eroticism of Robert Mitchum. (LACMA; thru Tues., Aug. 21. www.lacma.org/events.)

—Hazel-Dawn Dumpert

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