There are certain films you come across where you know you are watching star quality, no matter what the film itself is. Marilyn Monroe in Love Happy, Audrey Hepburn in Baby Beats The Band and Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice are just three examples where the rest of the film is overshadowed as the as yet unknown star burns up the screen, and to that list you can add Katharine Hepburn’s performance in 1934’s The Little Minister.
Set in the Scottish town of Thrum, The Little Minister opens with a rendition of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, moving into Comin’ Thro’ The Rye, so the audience is no danger of misunderstanding where they are. When they are is 1840, a time when Thrum is not the happy place it seems at first.
The locals gather to welcome their new minister to the parish, and some are disappointed when they see the young age, and short stature, of the new incumbent Gavin Dishart, played by John Beal, who arrives with his adoring and deeply religious mother. He soon goes on to set his congregation’s mind at rest with his stirring sermons, and by taking on local drunk and roustabout Rob Dow, a man who soon becomes Gavin’s protector in the village both of his body and his reputation. Rob Dow is played by Alan Hale with a performance that leaves no piece of scenery un-knawed.
Hale sets the tone for most of what is on show, embracing the exaggerated acting of the silent movie and early talky era, rather than the more understated style that followed. Facial gestures and actions are made as if playing to the back of the stalls, but then The Little Minister, adapted from J.M. Barrie’s novel of the same name, could never be called subtle.
Rob Dow is only one of the characters portrayed with the broadest of strokes. There’s Lord Rintoul, the local Laird who is cast straight out of a Hammer Horror, and his elderly sister, spinster Evalina. The local policeman is called Wearyworld, her really is, and he is supposed to be the comic turn, but proves to be a more interesting character than that. He is the first policeman in Thrum, and is ostracised for it by his neighbours and former friends, openly referred to as ‘the puddin’ headed polisman’.
This distrust of authority is the most interesting aspect of the film, as this is a time when the weavers, who make up the majority of the town’s workforce, are losing work due to the closure of mills and they rise up in protest, bringing them into conflict with the army. This stand off is unfortunately sidelined in the film for a fairly straight forward romance, but there are enough points made about issues of class, religion and the destruction of communities to make the film more complex than many of the time.
These aren’t the only issues addressed. There is a public decree made that all gypsies should be kept off the land, and moved on, and there is a mistrust and simmering resentment to the travellers. Which brings me to Katharine Hepburn’s turn as the mysterious, and glamorous, gypsy called Babbie. As soon as she appears on the screen, openly singing on the Sabbath, it is as if she is not only in another film, but from another generation entirely. She radiates humour, confidence, and a lust for life, and she immediately overshadows everyone else.
This is not the only time Hepburn has tried out her Scottish accent. She also played Mary Queen of Scots in the 1936 film Mary of Scotland, and although her attempt is not the worst on show here, it’s not great either, but that doesn’t matter. Hepburn is an icon for a good reason, and even though there is no-one of the calibre of Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy for her to fire off, The Little Minster is still a film worth tracking down to see an early performance from one of the true Hollywood greats.
I couldn’t find the trailer for the Hepburn version, but my search uncovered something really special. In 1975 BBC produced their own version of The Little Minister, with a young Helen Mirren in the role of Babbie, and you can watch the whole thing right here, right now. I hope you enjoy: