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Oct 22 2014

A Year with Kate: Olly Olly Oxen Free (1978)

Episode 43 of 52:In which Katharine Hepburn proves she's not afraid of heights or bad scripts.

Look,I'll be honest with you.There is exactly one reason to see this movie.It happens around the last third of the film.No,it's not another moth gown.(Remember themoth gown?I miss the moth gown.) Instead,it's the sight of a sexagenarian,award-winning,legendary actress dangling from a hot air balloon over a cliff.I'm in my 20s,and I wouldn't do that withoutat leasta net and a shot of whiskey first.Anyway,if you want to know what it looks like,I've made a gif that you can skip to at the end of the post.I suggest you stick around for the rest of this article,though,because we have some strange stuff to address (and also some puns).

Really,of all the yet-untried genres Kate could have landed in during the later part of her career,we should have seen a children's movie coming.Olly,Olly,Oxen Free(akaThe Great Balloon Adventure) is a self-consciously sweet flick about a child named Albie with his head in the clouds (sorry) who recruits his friend and his dog to rebuild his grandfather's hot air balloon.While looking for spare parts in a whimsical junkyard (junkyards in children's movies are required to be whimsical by genre law),Albie and Company meet the grouchy Miss Pudd,our own Kate.Fortunately for the boys,Miss Pudd's threats turn out to be nothing but hot air (sorry),and she quickly becomes their confidante and benefactor.

Olly,Olly,Oxen Freeis part of that genre of children's fantasy (likePete's Dragon,The Goonies,or evenBridge to Terabithia) that sees the world of a child as a vanishing,secret thing.While the "scrappy kids in a magical world"trope is common enough,this inflated (sorry) level of preciousness seems unique to the 1970s.The movie's tone is almost mournful.The only adults who understand these boys--Miss Pudd and Albie's grandfather--are insane or dead.The rest are either absent or rude.

"Did I ever tell you about the time Howard Hughes landed a plane on a beach just to meet me?"

More balloon jokes and an impressive stunt after the jump.

It's somewhat detrimental to the story's affected quirkiness that in 2014,whenHoardersis reality TV hit,Miss Pudd's refusal to sell her junk comes off more as mental illness than mere eccentricity.Hepburn initially plays Miss Pudd as a little broken too,cowering small in a corner before ballooning (sorry) into her usual charismatic self.Miss Pudd's superpower is that she sees the world as imaginatively as the boys do.She fabricates a backstory for a broken car horn,and stores her tea leaves in a music box.Then again,Miss Pudd accidentally crashes the balloon into the Hollywood Bowl.If there's any moral to be gained,it is this: Not everyone puts away childish things,but maybe those whodon'tshouldn't be allowed to operate heavy machinery.

However,the biggest takeaway from the film is the difference between Kate's theatrical draw and her box office power.Kate madeOlly,Olly,Oxen Freein 1976,during a break from touring inA Matter of Gravityby Enid Bagnold.A Matter of Gravity--also starring Christopher Reeve--was selling out across the country.Olly,Olly,Oxen Freedidn't fare so well.First it failed to get distribution.Then it opened briefly in 1978 and 1981 before disappearing almost completely.Katharine Hepburn could pack theaters coast to coast.She was widely acclaimed as a living legend.But her name alone wasn't enough to get a film picked up for distribution.Kate was no stranger to box office drama of course.Nonetheless,if anyone had any illusions that Kate's popularity in the 1970s would translate to box office earnings,their balloon had popped (sorry).Even star power can't save a sorry film.

Here's the shot I promised.Kate,age 68,performing her own high-flying stunt:

Previous Week:Rooster Cogburn(1975) -In which Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne star inThe African Queen 2: This Time it's a Western!

Next Wek:The Corn Is Green(1979) -In which Katharine Hepburn bids farewell to her lifelong friend and director,George Cukor.

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Reader Comments (7)

The dotty old broad just isn't one that fits Hepburn well and she seems at sea throughout the movie even though she gives it her best shot.That is an impressive stunt to pull off but then she was always very athletic and active.But even an athletic person with a fear of heights couldn't have pulled it off so bravo to her.

I think the reason it had trouble getting a distributor despite Kate is that it's a crappy film.Anyone viewing it with an eye towards picking it up would see that in the first few minutes.A Matter of Gravity might not be a master work but it's certainly better than this thing and theatre audience are often very different from cinema ones.

Very excited for The Corn is Green next week!!It's my absolute favorite of her late work.

October 22,2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

43 of 52.i remain's the home stretch now.cant wait for ON GOLDEN POND and LOVE AFFAIR

October 22,2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

At least it's not The Oogieloves.

October 22,2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Anne Marie,I can't stress this point enough: this series is amazing.You've totally shed a new light on Kate for me.I've grown fond of her now which is something,because I wasn't her biggest fan to begin with.

Thank you.

October 22,2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Jay - Thank you so much!The series has given me a new perspective on Kate,too.

Nathaniel - Two weeks until ON GOLDEN POND and LOVE STORY is right before Christmas,if you want to mark your calendar.

Volvagia - I didn't know what you were referencing,so I had to look up the trailer.Why did you do that to me?Why?I'm going to have "Starships"stuck in my headall daynow.You're right.Thank god it's not The Oogieloves.*shudder*

October 22,2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

"At least it's not The Oogieloves."


Also,when I am 68 I would love to do high-flying stunts.I'm putting that on the list.

October 22,2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Though I haven't seen this,Kate's appearance reminds me of Mickey Rooney's part in Pete's Dragon,a film of which I'm quite fond apart from its quality*,where he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself and bringing the charm in a big way.Sounds like this was the case with Kate too.It's also wonderful that kids become exposed to these legendary actors,even if it takes balloon adventures or animated dragons to do it.Another great writeup,Anne Marie!

*Helen Reddy is an aural goddess

October 23,2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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