A WONDERFUL ASPECT of modern life is that a group of people sitting around, say, a lunchroom table yesterday could energetically and argumentatively hash over the films of Katharine Hepburn. It doesn't matter that The African Queen was made 52 years ago, or The Philadelphia Story 11 years before that. Thanks to cable TV and the VCR, she was as much a part of our world as she was that of our parents or grandparents - perhaps even more so.
When the news came Sunday that Miss Hepburn had died, at the age of 96, it summoned up a montage of movie images that have worked their way into national memory. What were these 1930s and 1940s, anyway? For most, they are decades brought to life and given reality by, for instance, Miss Hepburn and Cary Grant in 1938's Bringing Up Baby, or by Miss Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib, from 1949. (Yes, of course her career extended well past the century's midpoint, and with distinction - but who is not drawn to the youth and spark of those great films?)
Much has been written about the way Hollywood, in its golden era, entranced Americans with its wit, its semi-mystery, its delivery of fantasies, its avoidance of stark reality, even its euphemisms. But what about the way in which that bygone Hollywood still casts its spell? It wasn't great acting so much as personality that was its trademark. The great stars had personality in bushels. And maybe none more so than Katharine Hepburn - with her long slacks and beautiful hair and evident brains and brook-no-nonsense Yankee voice.
Haul out the family scrapbook. Somewhere in there is a Depression-era snapshot of your forebears, no doubt standing stiffly in the backyard. Try showing that photo to someone else and then see if you can adequately describe them as real people. No, that's the drab and dusty reality. If you want to know the 1930s, it's better to reach for the artificial. Why not watch Holiday (1938, with Cary Grant)? Why not let that era remain young and alive forever?
American movies today have many strengths, but those strengths get lost, sometimes, amid the excess. Katharine Hepburn stood out in vibrant, memorable relief, and by living nearly a century she became, in the end, the last great survivor of a captivating time in American culture. Sixty years from now, no one will remember us with the same sort of affection and respect. Bet on it - they'll still be watching her.