The New York Times, reviewing A Woman Rebels in 1936 said Katharine Hepburn‘s title character “is crusading in a cause that was won before she was born.” The movie is nostalgically set in Victorian England, thus the grandparents’ era for those watching this film in the 1930s. So contemporary audiences, like that Times‘ reviewer, could feel smug knowing they were so much more progressive and advanced than the narrow-minded people portrayed in this movie.
Likewise, we may feel superior to the heavy-handed melodrama, silly comedic interludes, and trite ending that Pamela (Hepburn) is subjected to as she tries to make her way as an unwed mother (pretending her child is actually her dead sister’s) and an journalist. The novel this was based on, Portrait of a Rebel, written by Netta Syrett in 1930, really is telling tales from the author’s childhood era, as Syrett was in her 60s at the time of publication. But at least Pamela shows agency and has a relatively independent through-line — her story starts when she’s a rebellious teen and ends when she’s a mature women, and her character is committed to making her own decisions and living with the results of her own choices. While it feels dated in 2017, A Woman Rebels does what it says on the label, it shows a portrait of a woman who rebels against her time.
And the costumes are better than average. Designed by Walter Plunkett in his heyday, the gowns are, of course, beautiful, and they give a vague run from the 1860s through 1880s to the 1890s. It’s in the last scenes where the contemporary 1930s influence is most strongly felt, and Pamela’s niece/daughter Flora wears some “Victorian” gowns that look very ’30s, along with totally ’30s hair and makeup.
Despite some faults, A Woman Rebels is a decent vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in one of her typical “feisty rich woman” roles, and she always looks good in historical costume. I don’t know why her late ’30s films were such box-office flops at the time because they’re some of my favorites.