May 30, 2011

12 The Films of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Part 4

Desk Set (1957)
Director: Walter Lang

In Desk Set Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, head of the reference department at a national television network, an all-female department staffed by Hepburn and her three coworkers (Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, and a delightful Joan Blondell). When their territory is invaded by an absent-minded "methods engineer," Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), who shows up unannounced one day and begins measuring the office space, Bunny assumes Sumner is some sort of efficiency expert hired to reorganize the layout of the office. But nobody knows for sure what he is up to until twenty minutes or so into the film, when he drops a bombshell. He is actually a computer engineer whose job is to install a giant computer (or "electronic brain," in the jargon of 1957) to store all the information currently held in the department's archives of print sources. Bunny, who has an absolutely retentive memory for all sorts of minutiae organized according to her own idiosyncratic method, is intellectually offended by the prospect of being replaced by a machine. "I'd match my memory any day against any machine," she boasts. The other women in the office have a more practical concern: they can't afford to lose their livelihood.

As you might expect, romantic complications soon arise. For seven years Bunny has been dating an executive at the network, Mike Cutler (Gig Young), in the expectation that a proposal of marriage is forthcoming, but to no avail. After she and Richard are caught in a rainstorm, she invites him to her apartment, where they slip into bathrobes and enjoy a comfortable dinner (fried chicken prepared by Richard) while their clothes dry. When Mike shows up unexpectedly, he jumps to the wrong conclusion and leaves in a huff. Things reach the crisis point during the drunken office Christmas party when Mike finally proposes—but on the assumption that Bunny will give up her career and life in New York and follow him to his new job in California—and the entire office learns that the new computer is to be installed the next day. The rest of the movie explains how Bunny's romantic dilemma and the department's uncertain future are ultimately resolved. (Happily, of course, for this is a comedy.)

This was the first Tracy-Hepburn movie shot in color. It was also the first not made by MGM, but instead at 20th Century-Fox, by Fox house director Walter Lang. The British film critic and historian Leslie Halliwell calls him a "director of competent but seldom outstanding entertainments," and I would say that is a fair summation of this film. When the plot begins to drag, you can sit back and admire the elaborate production design and the chic wardrobes of Hepburn and her female costars. Or you can always direct your attention to the imaginative ways Fox house cinematographer Leon Shamroy applies the CinemaScope screen ratio typical of the studio's output in the 1950s to the intimacy of a romantic comedy. Especially interesting is the way he treats the reference department as a sort of stage (the movie was, in fact, based on a play), spreading the actors and props across the screen and using dollops of color to break up the monolithic shape of the frame.

Desk Set is a bit slow to get started, the exposition of its first section more functional than engaging. The situations and characters surrounding Tracy and Hepburn have the slightness of a sitcom, although a very smoothly engineered and not unintelligent sitcom. When the focus settles on Tracy and Hepburn, however, things immediately pick up. Their interactions are quite well written, especially the scenes in which they are the only two characters present, and form the core of the film's appeal. By the time Desk Set was made, these two were so comfortable with each other onscreen that they could have taken turns reading the telephone book and made us believe it was as witty as the dialogue in a play written by Oscar Wilde. There is no doubt that their personal charisma and their star power are the things above all else that put this movie over.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Director: Stanley Kramer

In Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's last film together—and Tracy's last film ever—they play a married San Francisco couple, Matt and Christina Drayton. He's the editor of a newspaper and she owns an art gallery. When their 23-year old daughter Joey (played by Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton) returns from a vacation and announces plans to marry after a whirlwind romance with a man she has known only a few days—a widower nearly fifteen years older than herself—her mother is alarmed. She is in for an even greater shock when she meets the man and finds he is black. He is Dr. John Prentice, a medical researcher played by Sidney Poitier. As political liberals, the Draytons claim to have no objection to the marriage on racial grounds. It's the reaction of society and the problems they believe their naive daughter will encounter as part of a mixed-race marriage that trouble them. Christina quickly comes to accept the idea but realizes that the greatest obstacle to the marriage will be her husband.

Prentice further complicates matters when he proclaims to Matt that he won't marry Joey without her father's approval, and moreover that since he will be leaving for Geneva the next day, Matt has twenty-four hours to make up his mind. An additional complication ensues when Prentice's parents suddenly announce they are flying up from Los Angeles and plan to come to dinner at the Draytons' home. As the film builds to its long climactic scene, the dinner party, the women have agreed to support the marriage, but sparks are still flying between the men—Matt, Dr. Prentice, and Dr. Prentice's querulous, disapproving father—and the question of Matt's final decision in the matter is still up in the air.

Director Stanley Kramer got his start in the late 1940s as a producer of social issues movies and, after becoming a director in the mid-1950s, directed a series of issues movies of his own. But by 1967 Kramer's once-daring liberalism was beginning to look ponderous and tired. His attempt to make a serious statement about the contemporary state of race relations in the U.S. in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner seems hopelessly dated and unrealistic, and I mean dated not just in today's terms, but in the context of its own time. In the year that Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, even In the Heat of the Night were released, the sensibility of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner seems just plain out-of-step with the times. And Kramer's direction of the film, with its obviously fake backdrops of San Francisco and long didactic conversations, is as outdated as his take on its subject.

The movie has two huge flaws that make its central conflict ring false. Reviewers of the time criticized Poitier's character as being such a paragon that it made the Draytons' agonizing over the engagement seem implausible. But I find his behavior quite passive-aggressive. The "choice" he offers Matt seems more an ultimatum. He says that knowing how much Joey loves her mother and father, he couldn't bear it if a marriage without their approval caused a rift between Joey and her parents. But what does he expect to happen if he refuses to marry Joey because her parents object? Can he honestly believe such an outcome would be likely to preserve good relations between parents and daughter? Another major problem with the picture is Matt's ambivalence about the marriage. He says he only wants to protect his daughter from the unhappiness of being shunned by society. But come on. Never mind that the Draytons live in San Francisco, the most liberal city in America. Just consider that Prentice is a world-famous expert on infectious diseases and a consultant to the World Health Organization. Not only does he mix with highly educated, cosmopolitan people for whom interracial couples would hardly be unheard of, but he could choose to work and live anywhere in the world, in cities and countries where such couples were accepted even in 1967.

Then there is the strangely inconsistent tone of the film. William Rose's screenplay and Kramer's direction waver between treating the film's issues seriously and presenting them almost in sitcom trappings. Cecil Kellaway plays a friendly priest who serves as Matt's speaking conscience, urging him to greater tolerance. Kellaway starts out like a priest from a Leo McCarey picture of the 1940s, complete with Irish brogue and blarney-laden platitudes, then midway through the movie unaccountably loses both the brogue and the leprechaun personality. Isabel Sanford, as the Draytons' outspoken housekeeper haranguing Poitier for the brashness of his designs on Joey, whom she considers a surrogate daughter, comes off as a cross between Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind and Thelma Ritter. Still, she steals every scene she's in. Then there's the cringe-inducing sequence where Kramer attempts to deal with the generation gap by contriving to send Christina and Matt to Mel's drive-in, where they have an unpleasant/humorous encounter with a carhop and a pair of middle-aged-looking youths in a jalopy who seem to have strayed in from an Andy Hardy movie. And this is supposed to be San Francisco in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love!

As a finale to the Tracy-Hepburn collaboration, this film seems in every way a mistake. Tracy might have had success earlier in the decade in movies directed by Stanley Kramer, but Kramer's preoccupation with weighty political and social questions and his obvious discomfort with comedy strike me as a terrible mismatch with Tracy and Hepburn, who were at their best in pictures that concentrated on the personal relationship between their characters and leavened any serious issues underlying the plot with airy comedy. There's just no way around the fact that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a disappointing end to one of the great acting partnerships of the movies.


  1. It's some time since I saw 'Desk Set', but I remember enjoying it a lot - as you say, Hepburn and Tracy are so comfortable with one another and that really comes across in this film. I also found the actual computer an amazing creation, and the way it looks forward to the internet, with the sorts of questions it will answer! Looking back at my own review of this one, I see that I enjoyed Joan Blondell's performance as Hepburn's colleague, as well as Gig Young, and I really liked the gentle, understated feeling of the whole movie. I especially liked the scene where Tracy and Hepburn have a picnic together while he fires questions at her.

    I haven't seen 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', but it is coming up on TV here in the UK next weekend, so I will aim to catch it then and return to look at your review again. Sounds as if I shouldn't hold my breath too much about that one. Anyway, this is a great series of reviews of Tracy and Hepburn's movies together. Which is your own favourite of the lot, R.D.? I'm thinking probably 'Adam's Rib'?

  2. "The situations and characters surrounding Tracy and Hepburn have the slightness of a sitcom, although a very smoothly engineered and not unintelligent sitcom." I think your line here sums up "The Desk Set" very well. It is entertaining enough without ever reaching the level of greatness. Of course, having Joan Blondell in the cast is always an added treat. One of the things I find most engaging in the film is the computers themselves and how far we have come in the more than fifty years since. Today, all that fire-power is now pretty much inside a laptop! The company I worked for in the 1970's had an entire secured floor dedicated to computers. It was off bounds to most employees unless you had a special I.D., and this was an insurance company, not exactly national security. Key punch cards were fed into the monster and it would spit out massive amounts of computerized information to be reviewed, corrected and force fed back.

    "Kramer's once-daring liberalism was beginning to look ponderous and tired." This sentence and the following that you write say it all about the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" misfire. Kramer was out of touch in 1967, yet there are plenty of people who loved it then and some who still love this hokum today. They see Tracy/Hepburn and fall in love. Poitier is charming and all too perfect, which was probably the only way they could make the film acceptable to some elements of the audience in those days. Kate's niece, Katherine Houghton was just a terrible waste adding to the mess. Nothing worked yet the film raked in millions on the star power of the three top names. I have not seen the film since, but from your review here, it does not seem to have gotten better with time.

    A great series you did here, R.D. sadly, the final Tracy/Hepburn film was disappointing but there are plenty of others to look back on with fondness.

  3. Judy, you're right about "Desk Set" being such a gentle movie, and that makes it a very easy one to like. After a slow start, it gets better as it goes along. That picnic lunch on the rooftop is my favorite single scene in the whole movie (well, along with the fried chicken dinner at Bunny's apartment), largely, I think, because there are no distractions from Tracy and Hepburn--just an interesting situation, some terrific dialogue, and those two wonderful actors. The supporting players are always a big part of this kind of movie, and Blondell especially stood out for me. She had some of the best lines in the film. You're correct that "Adam's Rib" is my favorite of the Tracy-Hepburn films. Others have their charms, but for me it's the best in every way and also simply the most enjoyable. I think that with the exception of "Keeper of the Flame" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" they're all worth watching. Those two are for completists.

    John, I had always avoided "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" because of what I had read about it, and I found it a difficult movie to watch, not just because of its strange serious-frivolous treatment of its subject, but because it was sad to see Tracy and Hepburn go out in something that seemed so inappropriate for them. I've read how Hepburn propped up the failing Tracy during the filming, and you can see her deferring to him in their scenes together. He does a laudable job considering how frail and worn out he seems. As for Houghton, the mystery to me is what Poitier's character saw in her. She comes off as a spoiled, headstrong bubblehead of no apparent charm. As you and Judy both pointed out, that gigantic computer in "Desk Set" was a fascinating element that might have been the brunt of jokes in the movie, but today seems prescient. I had a professor who told us the same thing as you said. He installed a computer in a company in the late 50s or early 60s that took up an entire floor of a high-rise office building, yet its memory would fit in a desktop today--and that was 25 years ago!

  4. I don't think I've ever seen "Desk Set" but it sounds like it would be worth a viewing. I can't get over the fact that Hepburn plays a character named Bunny. That seems so odd to me.

    I don't think I've seen "Without Love" either, so I need to see that one too. From what I've seen it would be a neck and neck tie for first place between "Adam's Rib" and "Pat and Mike", with the former winning by a nose.

    Can't argue with any of your points about the Kramer flick.

  5. Kevin, thanks for your comment. I would rank "Desk Set" and "Without Love" pretty evenly--intelligent light entertainment that don't achieve greatness but don't disappoint either. My own favorite, as I told Judy, is "Adam's Rib." Then come "Pat and Mike" and "Woman of the Year." These two are pretty much neck-and-neck for me. The latter has more substance and is more serious overall, but the former has the edge for sheer entertainment.

    I found that my library has "A Woman Takes a Chance" and have requested it. It's on its way, so I'll be watching it before long. It sounds similar to "Without Reservations" with John Wayne and Claudette Colbert (like Jean Arthur, another favorite comedienne of the studio years), which I saw last week and enjoyed. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. R.D., I know I'm in the minority, but I prefer the latter pairings of Tracy and Hepburn over their earlier ones. There's a relaxed--almost intimate--connection between them (and, as a result, their characters) that seems more natural than in their earlier performances. I can't disagree with the flaws you highlighted in GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, but it remains one of my favorite films in spite of that. I've spent some time trying to analyze why it appeals so much more than, say, ADAM'S RIB and I keep coming back to the natural warmth and ease beween the stars. I must confess, though, that GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER was not always a fave. It has grown on me over the years, so perhaps my own maturity (what maturity I have) has influenced my perception of the film.

  7. Rick, I did notice "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" on one of your recent favorite films lists at the Cafe. I also noticed that it gets a very high rating at IMDb. So there's no doubt it has its fans. I think you pinpointed the film's appeal when you referred to the rapport between its stars. This did seem to grow in their later films. I felt it pretty strongly in "Without Love" and then from "Adam's Rib" on. In those films their joint personalities seem to dominate the material, which of course does tend to smooth over any rough spots. One of the problems I have with "Guess Who" is that it's hard to tell what's supposed to be in the foreground, their personalities or the larger issues. I don't get this sense of confusion of emphasis with the other films, which seem to have a clearer stress on one or the other. But I think I agree that (with the exception of "Guess Who") I prefer the later films for that very reason, in the sense that if I were to choose one to watch tonight it would be one of the later ones. Their personalities shine so brightly in the later movies that those are the people I'd like to spend an evening with.

  8. R.D.: I'm no real fan of either film, but the latter would fall under the category of "guilty pleasure." There is real chemistry between the two, even in this dated and sometimes embarrasing racial piece, and one is always moved by the knowledge that this was their swan song. For all it's unabashed hokiness, it's still an exceedingful entertaining film, and Sidnet Poitier lends very fine support. Kramer's late career has always been debated, and there was a few instances where time seems to have validated him (ex. BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN) I always found DESK SET narratively pedestrian, but as you rightly note in this wonderful final installment, the two personas rise above the material.

  9. Sam, thank you for your compliment on this series and thank you for directing traffic my way with the mentions at WitD. I'm glad I finally watched "Guess Who," but I can't share the enthusiasm of its admirers for this film. Maybe it's my associations with the screen personalities of Tracy and Hepburn as a team, but the two pictures they made together that don't work for me are the two "message" movies, the Kramer film and "Keeper of the Flame" in the forties. At least in "Guess Who" they played a couple and that gives something appealing to focus on if you don't find the film's treatment of the issues compelling. Haven't seen any Kramer films made after this one, but I do have one friend who also rates "Bless the Beasts" highly. I certainly agree about Tracy and Hepburn's ability to make less than stellar material seem to shine.

  10. I've now had a chance to watch 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', and returned to reread your review, R.D. I think you are right on the nail - the movie falls uneasily between sitcom and drama, and I also agree it does feel dated even for the period. (I recently saw Poitier's film 'Paris Blues', made several years earlier, in 1961, which also tackles the theme of racial prejudice, and to me that feels a lot more modern.) The scenes with the maid and the comic priest (who, as you say, suddenly stops being a comic character halfway through!) are particularly cringe-making.

    The situation of everything having to be decided in a few hours feels fake and constructed for the movie, and some of the more interesting emotional complications are lost. We're told that Poitier's character lost his first wife and child in a tragedy, but he never gets a chance to say anything about this. There isn't much sight of what he has been through, except for a very brief flash of emotional depth in a scene with his mother, where he holds her hands (the way Poitier moves his hands is wonderful) and says "I've come alive again."

    Ironically, there also seems to be little recognition of women's liberation in this film - there's a scene where Hepburn talks about how the greatest thing for her daughter will be to serve her husband in his great career. Hasn't Joey studied at college for any career herself?

    All the same, I think it is worth watching for the three leads (Katharine Houghton can't remotely hold her own opposite Tracy, Hepburn and Poitier, even if she does look and sound a bit like her aunt). For me there are some occasional good moments in between all the hokiness - Tracy and Hepburn do have that warmth and easiness between them. And I rather liked the bit where Tracy is dreamily trying to remember which ice cream flavour he ate last time, which reminds me a bit of the mood of the scenes in 'Woman of the Year' where he and Hepburn go to the football game.

    Really enjoyed this whole series of postings about the Tracy-Hepburn movies - a great analysis which makes me want to revisit their best films very soon.

  11. Judy, thanks for returning to this post to leave such a detailed and insightful comment. I can't really think of much to add to what you said. For me Tracy and Hepburn are always worth watching even in their lesser vehicles, if only to see how they handle the situation. An interesting comment about the lack of awareness of women's lib in the film--although to be fair, this was a subject just getting off the ground at the time. Hepburn's character is clearly an intelligent, independent woman. Houghton's character seems in comparison quite sketchy. She doesn't seem particularly intelligent or aware. It's hard to believe she has graduated from college, and considering their wealth, it would have been a good one. She seems less independent than just stubborn and self-centered. I thought Tracy had the best role in the movie and did a great job, especially considering how physically frail he seemed. Interesting you should mention "Paris Blues." I saw this a few years ago and quite liked it. Its attitudes might seem quaint today, but I think they were pretty forward-looking for the time, and like some of the Tracy-Hepburn movies, the four stars make it more worth watching than it might be with other actors.

  12. Yes, GWCTD was and remains a major misfire, however, the closing speech by Tracy re "...old and burnt out?..." is a gem --- especially one portion of it with Tracy in profile and a tearful Hepburn slightly out of focus in background as he proclaims his enduring love for her --- it is deeply moving.