Monday, February 27, 2017


Quality Street
Where a gentleman passerby is an event.

Miss Phoebe expects an offer of marriage.
Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone

The year is 1805 and the dashing Dr. Brown has been paying attentions to Miss Phoebe Throssel much to the pleasure and jealousy of the maiden Georgian ladies of the neighbourhood. Miss Phoebe and her older sister Miss Susan are in high hopes of the dashing Dr. Brown making an offer. After all, he did say he had something of importance with which to speak to Miss Phoebe this afternoon. Patty, the household maid even ceases visiting with the local Recruiting Sergeant to usher the dashing Dr. Brown into the garden with great haste. Alas, the news from the dashing Dr. Brown is not as wished by the Throssel sisters. The dashing Dr. Brown has followed the clarion call of the Recruiting Sergeant and, perhaps overcome with news of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, has joined the cause of King and Country.

Miss Phoebe altered by time.
Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone

The year is 1815, King George III is holding unto his crown, but the Little Corporal's ambitions have been vanquished at Waterloo. The dashing Captain Brown is returning to Quality Street. He will find the Throssel household and the inhabits within, with the exception of Patty, sadly altered. Ten years of running a school have taken the ringlets from Miss Phoebe's hair and the weariness of her lot weighs on that face once so beloved. This reaction Miss Phoebe can see in the dashing Captain Brown's face which both saddens and annoys her. Why is it that 30 is so much older than 29?

Miss Livvy makes her entrance.
Cora Witherspoon, Fay Bainter, Katharine Hepburn

Attempting to prove something to herself, Miss Phoebe dons her finest gown and arranges her hairstyle as of old. She is young again and dances around the parlour. The dashing Captain Brown, as a close friend of the family, has returned with cards for an evening's ball and happens upon the rejuvenated Miss Phoebe. He begs the young woman's pardon and remarks on the resemblance to his old friend Miss Phoebe. A flustered Miss Phoebe easily falls into the housemaid Patty's announcement that this is Miss Phoebe's niece, Miss Livvy. The dashing Captain Brown escorts Miss Livvy to the ball where she is an immediate hit with two debonair Lieutenants. The dashing Captain Brown gallantly overlooks Miss Livvy's allusions to his grey hairs and age.

The Sisters Willoughby on the job.

Miss Phoebe keeps up the Miss Livvy pretense after the night of the ball for two reasons. The first is that she enjoys being young, being lively and being a flirt unconstrained by the society of Quality Street. The second is that she intends to get an offer from the dashing Captain Brown and laugh in his face. Three gossipy neighbours, the Willoughby sisters, are an obstacle to the success of Miss Phoebe's plan. Never having heard mention of a niece previously and never having seen Miss Phoebe and Miss Livvy together, they are suspicious and set out to prove their suspicions.

Patty and her confused beau.
Cora Witherspoon, Eric Blore

Has the dashing Captain Brown fallen for Miss Livvy? Will he make that offer? How will Miss Phoebe react or, rather, Miss Livvy? Will she be able to keep her characters straight? What about the poor Recruiting Sergeant? The household maid Patty has enlisted him in a plan to maintain the secret, but he can't figure out what, precisely, is the secret.

Ellaline Terriss, Seymour Hicks
Quality Street

These are the questions leading up to the finale of James M. Barrie's Quality Street which was his first great theatrical success. The play premiered on Broadway in 1901 enjoying only a scant 64 night run. Certainly not a flop, but not the roaring success it would have when it opened in London in 1902 starring the married team of Ellaline Terris and Seymour Hicks (Scrooge). The show was a sensation, running for 459 performances. Several revivals on both sides of the Atlantic followed and a musical version Phoebe of Quality Street was produced by the Schuberts in 1921 with Max Steiner as the musical director.

Barrie's comedy-of-manners is a masterful play set in the early 19th century. The formal and stylized language of its characters is expansive enough to allow for much wit and many truths about how people cope with their stations in life. Miss Susan has resigned herself to the life of an old maid. The household maid Patty still holds out hope for a sweetheart despite lowly station and the fact that she is not "handsome".  Miss Phoebe wants to kick over the traces and have her revenge despite the constraints of society.

Sidney Franklin directed a 1927 film version of Quality Street starring Marion Davies and Conrad Nagel. A 1949 television version on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse starred Marsha Hunt and Alfred Drake.

Costume sketch, Walter Plunkett

George Stevens directed the 1937 film version of the play at RKO. He was assisted in creating the appropriate feel for Quality Street by costumer Walter Plunkett, set decorator Hobe Erwin, cinematographer Robert De Grasse and Roy Webb's Oscar nominated score.

The Sisters Throssel
Fay Bainter, Katharine Hepburn

The exemplary ensemble beautifully interpreted the style of the play. Katharine Hepburn as Miss Phoebe/Miss Livvy is touching and funny as both characters. We understand immediately the softness of her heart and the steel in her backbone. Fay Bainter is adorable as the timid Miss Susan, placing her lost hopes of happiness on those of her sister. George Stevens would direct both actresses later in Woman of the Year starring Katharine Hepburn as an independent journalist and Fay Bainter her feminist mentor/role model.

Young Joan Fontaine takes her moment.

Franchot Tone is the dashing Captain Brown and this thoughtful and intelligent actor portrays the charms of the character while also subtly conveying the nuances of the script. The comic second leads Cora Witherspoon as Patty and Eric Blore as the Recruiting Sergeant are a joy. The Sisters Willoughby are our laughable villains, led by the brazen gossip played by Estelle Winwood. An uncredited Joan Fontaine plays a young society belle whose popularity is usurped by Miss Livvy. She would work with George Stevens again as the ingenue in 1939s Gunga Din and by the following year would receive an Oscar nomination for Rebecca.

The immense popularity of the play led the candy manufacturer Mackintosh, established 1890, to package their chocolates and toffees under the label Quality Street in the late 1930s. Illustrations of Miss Phoebe and the dashing Captain Brown adorned the tins and paper advertisements for decades. It would be pleasant to indulge in the confectionery treat soon.

TCM is screening Quality Street on Monday, March 13th at 1:00 pm in a day (6:15 am to 8:00 pm) devoted to Katharine Hepburn with 7 feature films and 1 documentary.

J.M. Barrie
May 9, 1860 - June 19, 1937


  1. Great review and history of the Quality Street productions Caftan Woman. My great aunt worked on the costumes of the RKO production with Katharine Hepburn, being her fitter, and Plunkett's pattern-maker. It was a well-made film. She was also at MGM in Wardrobe when the Marion Davies version was made.

    1. Wonderful! Your aunt did cross my mind when I found that costume sketch for the post. The care put into the production really shows in the final product. I haven't seen the earlier film yet, but it is high on my "get to it!" list.

      Thank you for reading and for the lovely compliment.

  2. How do you pronounce "Franchot"?

  3. The opening scenes remind me a little of GREEN DOLPHIN STREET...except it's not a comedy, of course. QUALITY STREET sounds like a lot fun and I always enjoy Eric Blore (whether supporting Fred Astaire or starring alongside the Bowery Boys).

    1. Eric Blore is always a treat. When my son hears his voice coming from a Lone Wolf movie or an RKO musical, he stares at the screen and then puts in his Wind in the Willows DVD. For some of us, Blore is always and forever "Toady".



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