Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies
This is one where I found the recipe first and then chose the movie. There are just so many great Kate Hepburn movies, but the trio of comedies she made with Cary Grant: Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story, are my favorites. So which to pick? It wasn’t hard. Both Baby & Philadelphia Story I think are more popular, while Holiday is the often overlooked as neglected middle-child. But what I really love about this film, besides Grant & Hepburn, the script, the acrobatics (both physical and verbal - check out this analysis of Grant's backflip), is because from the first time I saw it I’ve wished I could be friends with Edward Everett Horton & Binnie Barnes’ characters. I would love to spend a night playing gin rummy in their flat, to say nothing of going on a transatlantic journey to France with them. It’s that simple....
So here we go with another TV Bites featurette. You can watch Holiday online with a subscription to Netflix, on Amazon on Demand, or for free at Crackle (they have a nice print, restored by UCLA). TCM runs it regularly as well, so check their schedule.
“Retire young, work old.... Then you’ll know what you’re working for.”
Based on a hit Broadway stage play by Philip Barry (who would also go on to write The Philadelphia Story), Holiday is not a "screwball comedy" (like Bringing Up Baby), but rather falls into the subcategory of romantic comedies called a "sophisticated comedy." It tells the story of Johnny Case, a self-made working class fellow who on the first vacation of his life meets the beautiful Julia Seton and by the end of the holiday, they decide to get married. But upon returning to New York, he learns that Julia is the daughter of a wealthy financier who live in a different world than his. He soon also meets Julia’s sister, Linda. Witty and eccentric, the opposite of Julia, Linda feels trapped in her family mansion, her dreams quashed by her disapproving father until she’s given up on dreaming. Johnny, however, has a dream – of making just enough money and then take off to explore and discover the meaning of life while still young. Julia, however, sees in Johnny the kind of man her grandfather was and dreams he’ll become a captain of finance and make her and her father proud. Will Johnny give up his dream? Or will Julia join him in it? And what's to become of sister Linda?
Holiday was previously made into a film in 1930 which was a huge success, starring Anne Harding, Robert Ames, and Mary Astor. When it hit theaters, the Great Depression was full on and anti-capitalist sentiment was thick in the air on Main Street. Audiences grabbed on to its theme attacking “the reverence of riches” and flocked to see it. It was nominated for 2 Oscars that year: Best Actress for Anne Harding and Screenplay Adaptation for Horace Jackson. An interesting note is that Edward Everett Horton played Nick Potter in both film adaptations. Sadly, there appears to be only one known copy of the 1930 film in existence, stored at the Library of Congress and rarely seen. Someone should get a restored copy out there in the world for us to see (please, thank you).
So, even though it’s a beloved classic today, the 1938 version basically went off like a dud. While some claim it didn’t do well because people were weary of the film’s thematics just as the economy seemed to start to recover, it was released the same year as Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You which also featured eccentric heroes who believed there is more to life than what’s in the Wall Street Journal pitted against an über-rich family obsessed with money and status. It, too, was based on a Broadway play. But Capra’s film garnered 7 Oscar nominations and was a box office success. Though you could make the case that in Capra's film, the rich & poor find commonality and learn from each other, whereas in Holiday, the rich are completely incapable of or just unwilling to understanding the plight of the working man.
So what was it that kept audiences away? Well believe it or not, Katharine Hepburn was literally “box office poison” at the time. Holiday was even advertised with the oddly conceived tagline: “Is it true what they say about Hepburn?” The was in response to an advertisement published in the Hollywood Reporter that year by the Independent Theater Owners of America which listed her at the top of a list of stars, they felt, were “box office poison." She was also not well loved by the studio heads who found her temper and moods to be too much even for Hollywood.
Hepburn was counting on Holiday to turn the critics, the studios, and the public around. Again, as strange as it may seem, even Bringing Up Baby didn’t fare well at the box office, but both are considered classics today -- for as we know, history is a fickle lady.
Hepburn had been given the film rights to Holiday as a gift by Howard Hughes. The two had a tempestuous, as well as, public romance. (Grant was also a lifelong friend of Hughes and had introduced Hepburn to Hughes.) Hepburn had actually been the understudy for the Linda role on Broadway, but only performed one night during its run. So intent was she on playing the part and making this film, that she bought her way out of her contract at RKO (who didn’t argue too much) to do the film with director George Cukor at Columbia. David Ogden Stewart co-wrote the screenplay (who had played the Edward Everett Horton role in the Broadway production). Stewart is also remembered for being one of the members of the fabled Algonquin Round Table. Speaking of the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker once famously said of Hepburn’s acting range a few years earlier, that it “ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”
The hope Hepburn had of reviving her Hollywood career was literally “Gone with the Wind,” as the poor response to Holiday ended any chance that she would get the one part she felt was her “destiny” to play – Scarlett O’Hara. (As the story goes, she pleaded with producer David Sleznick for the role, but Selznick told her no because he couldn’t imagine Clark Gable “chasing you for ten years!”) She fled Hollywood, her romance with Hughes over, and she returned to Broadway. A few years later, however, she returned to co-star in the film adaptation of Barry's The Philadelphia Story (another play which she bought the rights to with Hughes’ help) which was a hit and the rest, is history....
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
The wealthy Setons were actually based on the real life Sanfords of Charleston, SC, who also had two daughters and a son. Linda’s character, specifically, was inspired by Gertrude Sanford who defied her given role as a socialite and became a world famous big game hunter, as well as worked for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during WWII and was the first American woman captured in France during the war.
The brownie is considered to be an American invention. While there is no definitive inventor on record, the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago lays claim to its creation. They note that the dessert was created specifically for the Woman’s Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1892. It was to be something light but enjoyable for a woman’s lunch. Their brownie is still served today at the hotel, but definitely differs from your typical brownie by having an apricot glaze.
About the same time, a second dessert was also named the brownie. This one having no chocolate, but was more of a “molasses cake.” It was included in Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook in 1896. By the early 1900's, several recipes akin to what we know as brownies began to appear, some being more fudgy and some being more cake-like, including a recipe featured and promulgated through the Sears Roebuck Catalogue.
Even the name “brownies” might come just from fact that they are made from chocolate, but is often considered to have been taken from a popular set of children’s books of the time by Canadian author Palmer Cox named "The Brownies.” Cox & his Brownies are also known for being one of the earliest modern examples of brand name merchandising. Cox licensed the name to many companies and their products, including the Kodak Brownie camera.
Another story has the brownie created by a woman in Bangor, Maine and thus the popularity of one style of brownie known simply as “the Bangor Brownie.”
Nevertheless, the Brownie became a popular American treat by the mid-1920's thanks for the availability of cheap commercially available chocolate. So, it is not surprising that Ms. Hepburn was both a fan and maker of brownies.
When Katharine Hepburn died in 2003, at the ripe young age of 96, film critic Rex Reed wrote a remembrance of her which began this way: “She had this thing about brownies. She liked 'em chewy. Hated 'em if they had the texture of cake. Like everything else that crossed her path, Katharine Hepburn wouldn't tolerate any nonsense from brownies. Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself on a rainy January afternoon in 1979 sitting on the floor of her old townhouse in Turtle Bay, after years of explaining how I was not the kind of old-fashioned journalist who asked movie stars for their brownie recipes, while she dished brownies out of a battered old pan and shared the secrets of her kitchen.”
I found this recipe at Saveur which states: “A version of this recipe accompanied an interview with the actress Katharine Hepburn in the August 1975 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal.”
Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies
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makes 9 brownies
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. fine salt
1. Heat oven to 325°. Grease an 8" x 8" baking pan with butter. (I skipped this next step as I used a non-stick pan: Line the pan with parchment paper; grease the paper.) Set the pan aside.
2. Melt the butter and the chocolate together in a 2-quart saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove the pan from heat. (I microwaved them. Make sure you watch so it doesn't boil over!).
3. Stir in the sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and stir to make a smooth batter. Add the walnuts, flour, and salt; stir until incorporated. Pour the batter into the baking pan and spread evenly. (I more minced the walnuts and instead of adding them laid them like a crust at the bottom of the pan and then covered them with the batter.)
4. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40–45 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Cut and serve. (I tossed some powdered sugar on top... why not?)
Holiday, a Comedy in 3 Acts, by Philip Barry
Analysis of Cary Grant's Backflip in Holiday
The Hughes-Hepburn Affair, CNN
TCM's Holiday Page
It Happened One Decade, What the Depression did to Culture, The New Yorker
My Personal Best: Holiday, Stephanie Zacharek, Salon
Holiday DVD @ Amazon
Katharine Hepburn Books @ Amazon
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese film about Howard Hughes) @ Amazon
The Time of My Life, by Gertrude Sanford Legendre @ Amazon
Brownie Pans @ Amazon