May 2, 2011

6 The Films of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Part 1

Of the many famous screen pairings of the Hollywood studio era, two stand out above all others: Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers and Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn. Astaire and Rogers made ten movies together, Tracy and Hepburn nine. All nine of the Tracy-Hepburn films have now been released by Warner Home Video in Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection. I decided to observe the release of this collection by watching the only one of their films I had never seen, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and over the next few weeks offering up my thoughts on their work together.

The thing that sets Tracy and Hepburn apart from most other famous screen teams is their well-documented offscreen romance. Other classic screen pairings were strictly professional, but when the cameras stopped rolling, Tracy and Hepburn's relationship continued in private life. This was not just a fling by two stars thrown together while making a movie, but a deep emotional relationship that lasted twenty-five years, the details of which are well known by lovers of classic cinema. The two never married because Tracy was a Roman Catholic who couldn't bring himself to divorce his wife and leave her and his handicapped son. They did often spend time together at the Malibu estate of their friend and frequent director, George Cukor, though. Tracy, who so often played easygoing, self-confident characters, was actually a profoundly tormented man, an alcoholic depressive who went on drinking binges that lasted several days and afterwards left him virtually paralyzed. The devoted Kate would play the role of his nurse during and after these binges, caring for him until he recovered.

Kate apparently developed an interest in Tracy before the two ever met based solely on her reaction to his screen personality, and when she returned to Hollywood in 1940 to film The Philadelphia Story wanted him to costar with her. (She wanted him to play Macaulay Connor, the reporter played to perfection by James Stewart. I've never quite been able to picture this myself, seeing him as better suited to the role of her manly soul-mate, C. K. Dexter Haven.) But Tracy was involved in other films (he starred in no less than four movies released in 1940), and it wasn't until Hepburn's next film, Woman of the Year, that they worked together for the first time.

Conceived by Hepburn as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy and herself, this was, like The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn's project. She commissioned the screenplay, sold it to Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and handpicked as director George Stevens, who had directed her in Alice Adams and Quality Street. Woman of the Year won an Oscar for its writers, Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr., and got Kate an Oscar nomination for best actress. (She lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver.) Its success led to a contract for Hepburn at MGM, where Tracy had been under contract since 1935, and it was for this studio that she and Tracy made their next six films.

The nine movies Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together vary in quality as well as in genre. But even the least successful of them is worth watching to see these two great actors and the way they relate to each other onscreen. I guess that's what star power and star teamwork are all about.

Woman of the Year (1942)
Director: George Stevens

The first Tracy-Hepburn film, a romantic comedy with serious undertones, is a delight, its screenplay a model of the seriocomic romantic movie. Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a political and current affairs columnist at a New York newspaper, and Tracy plays Sam Craig, the sports columnist at the same paper. A disagreement in their columns over the value of baseball leads to a first meeting in which the feuding pair are immediately attracted to each other. Before long they are in love and married. The problems begin after the marriage and revolve around the seeming impossibility of two such opposite personalities—she highly strung, he mellow—to create a life together.

The most important thing in Tess's life is her position as the country's most prominent female intellectual. Everything else, including her marriage, seems to come second. The down-to-earth Sam reacts to Tess's self-centered attitude with patience, thinking that eventually she will find room in her life for him. When Tess adopts a war orphan less out of concern for the child than as a trophy to complete her new image as working wife and mother, Sam reaches the end of his patience. Realizing that she has gone too far and is about to lose him, will Tess be able to make amends in time to save the marriage?

The characters of Sam and Tess are tailor-made for what Tracy and Hepburn did best onscreeen. As she did in Alice Adams and The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn plays an intelligent, willful woman, a perfectionist who needs to be humanized by being shown the oppressive nature of her own ego. Tracy's Sam, a tolerant and unpretentious man, is shrewd enough to realize that to attempt to do this openly would lead to automatic opposition by the headstrong Tess. True change can be accomplished only if she experiences her own epiphany by seeing what her true feelings for him are.

Some detect an anti-feminist message in this picture, but I just don't see that myself. The negative qualities in Tess's personality—her career obsession, her snobbishness, her lack of humility, her inability to empathize with other people—are undesirable ones that alienate others whether the person with those traits is a woman or a man. At the end of the movie, Sam's reaction to Tess's misguided attempt to save their marriage by becoming the perfect "little woman"—her inept efforts to cook Sam a breakfast like his mother used to make end in a series of comic mishaps—shows that this is not the kind of wife Sam wants. He's no macho man out to tame a shrew, just a man who wants an equal partner as aware, and as respectful, of his feelings as she is of her own.

Keeper of the Flame (1943)
Director: George Cukor

Tracy and Hepburn's next picture was a complete change from Woman of the Year. Shot just a few months after the U.S. entered the Second World War, Keeper of the Flame is a deadly serious political melodrama-mystery. Tracy plays Steven O'Malley, a war correspondent just back from Berlin who wants to write an inspirational biography of a famous political figure and national hero who has just died in a car crash, Robert Forrest. To do so, he needs to enlist the help of the man's widow Christine, played by Hepburn. But Christine and all of Forrest's associates are ensconced inside the fortress-like Forrest estate and aren't cooperating with the press.

When O'Malley finally gets into the estate and meets Christine, he begins to believe that she is concealing something about her late husband and determines to get to the bottom of the secrets being kept about Forrest's life and the suspicious circumstances of his death. Christine does eventually agree to help O'Malley with his book. But the more he learns about Forrest from Christine, the more apparent it becomes that the real man was far from the heroic patriot he made himself out to be in his carefully cultivated public image. Christine finally reveals the dark truth about her late husband to O'Malley in a spectacularly dramatic finale.

Keeper of the Flame, the first of three Tracy-Hepburn movies directed by Kate's friend and mentor George Cukor, is the most curious of the Tracy-Hepburn films. Hepburn gives a bizarrely ambiguous performance. Is she mad, evil, a murderess, a widow faithful to her husband's memory, part of a cover-up conspiracy, a dupe? Her first appearance, dressed in white from head to toe and bearing a bouquet of enormous white dahlias—more like a bride or vestal virgin than a grieving widow—as she glides toward an idealized portrait of her dead husband, borders on the camp. Her long final monologue, in which she reveals the truth about her dead husband to Tracy, is awkwardly declamatory and politically vague. For fans of Tracy and Hepburn, the biggest disappointment of the film is that the melodramatic plot gives the characters they play little opportunity to relate to each other on an emotional level. The movie's cautionary theme of the danger of blind hero worship takes precedence over any real relationship that might have developed between them.

Cukor and cinematographer William Daniels give the movie the full-out Gothic treatment, with obvious allusions to both Citizen Kane and Rebecca. With its high-contrast Citizen Kane-influenced lighting, its sinister atmosphere, its creepy mansion reminiscent of both Xanadu and Manderley, Forrest's mad mother in the dower house, and its hostile and secretive characters (including Richard Whorf as a worshipful male equivalent of Mrs. Danvers), the film is certainly something to behold. But as Cukor himself acknowledged, Keeper of the Flame "isn't very satisfactory as a whole." Only Tracy, who gives a consistently understated performance, and Percy Kilbride, with his incongruous comic turn as a Yankee cab driver, manage to withstand Cukor's ponderous approach. Cukor was far more successful in the two later Tracy-Hepburn films he directed with a decidedly lighter touch.

Without Love (1945)
Director: Harold S. Bucquet

In their third film Tracy and Hepburn returned to romantic comedy, and a welcome return it was. Released just before the end of World War II, Without Love concerns the problems of a scientist working for the government, Pat Jamieson, played by Tracy, trying to find a place to live in Washington during the wartime housing shortage. Through his friend Quentin Ladd (Keenan Wynn) he finds the perfect place, the townhouse of Quentin's unmarried cousin Jamie Rowan, played by Hepburn. After her initial coolness toward Pat, Jamie invites him to stay on as a boarder when she finds that he is a scientist like her father was. As the two become better acquainted, Jamie proposes marriage to Pat, but on a strictly platonic basis—a practical marriage "without love." She will be his research assistant while he gets a convenient place to live and work without the messy emotional entanglements of a marriage based on love. "You'd be safe forever from the other side of love," she tells him.

On their wedding night, the two retire to separate adjoining bedrooms. When Jamie prepares for bed with a dreamy expression on her face and the wistful strains of "The Boy Next Door" well up on the soundtrack, we know that for her at least something deeper than platonic feeling is emerging. Before long both Jamie and Pat begin to experience the very things she told him their arrangement would protect them from, emotions like jealousy and possessiveness, and it becomes clear that their feelings for each other have crossed over to the other side of love. When Jamie is pursued by another man, both are finally forced to admit the true nature of their feelings and act on them.

Like Hepburn's Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, Without Love is based on a play written by Philip Barry (Hepburn had appeared in the Broadway production in 1942) and polished for the screen by Donald Ogden Stewart. Like those earlier films, this is what I would call a concept romantic comedy. Although it is great fun, the movie does have its limitations. The concept that drives the action, the unlikeliness of platonic love between a man and woman, doesn't have sufficient heft to give Without Love the resonance of those earlier films. It's a perfectly serviceable device to base the action on and move it forward, but it's never more than a convenient gimmick. Hepburn's character, Jamie, is an appealing one and plainly the dominant character in the film, but Hepburn doesn't seem totally right for it. On the stage she might have been able to carry off the girlish behavior the role requires, but the closeness of the camera makes us aware that she is a bit mature for her character (she was 38-years old the year the film was released), and a bit too intelligent to portray such naiveté with complete believability.

The film is not without its rewards, though. Tracy acts in his customary relaxed style, deferring in the theatrics department to Hepburn, who shows a flair for physical comedy not seen since Bringing Up Baby. She even has a drunk scene—always a surefire audience pleaser—reminiscent of the one in The Philadelphia Story but in a more slapstick vein. Romantic comedies traditionally have a pair of second leads to provide a counterpoint to the romantic couple, and Without Love has a great pair of second leads in Keenan Wynn and Lucille Ball. Fans of Lucy will be especially interested in seeing her play Jamie's attractive, wise-cracking friend Kitty, the kind of role Eve Arden did so well, leaving the broader comedy to Kate. There is even a cute dog, Pat's cairn terrier Dizzy, the same breed as Toto in The Wizard of Oz. And look for a very young Gloria Grahame in the night club scene as a flower girl with hay fever. All in all, a very entertaining if not great movie elevated, as always, by the appeal of Tracy and Hepburn.



  1. Tracy and Hepburn's affection for each other comes through on the screen. Of the three films you have written about so far, I have only seen WOMAN OF THE YEAR, a well written romantic comedy, truly the kind they do not make anymore. The characters have a sense of reality about them, even though they are married they are still trying to find their way to a perfect relationship satifying to both and by the end of the film they do. A great film.

    I have to admit now that I am not fan of their last pairing, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, though I am looking forward to your take on it and the others!

  2. John, thank you for leaving a comment. Tracy and Hepburn were such a great team even in their lesser vehicles. "Woman of the Year" is one of the very best, for the reasons you point out. I'm having fun writing about these films and rewatching the ones I haven't seen in a while. I anticipate two further installments, one next week and the last two weeks after that.

  3. A great posting, R.D. - I've also seen all the movies Hepburn and Tracy made together except for 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', so am very interested to read your thoughts on these and will be looking forward to the other two instalments. It is a while since I saw 'Woman of the Year', but I remember feeling rather uneasy about it - I do love the way the couple work together, and there are many scenes I really enjoyed in it, such as the one where Tracy takes Hepburn to a football game, or the role reversal where he gets in a huff because she hasn't commented on his new hat! But I think the feeling of the film is against a woman working, and I had the impression that the whole war orphan element is intended to underline this point, suggesting that dedication to a career means being a bad wife and mother. I also didn't like the breakfast sequence, which I've read that Hepburn herself couldn't stand, though I did like Tracy's comment to her at the end of it, which you point to at the end of your review, about wanting an equal partner.

    I agree with you that 'Keeper of the Flame' is very strange, and am interested in your comments about its Gothic quality and the similarity with 'Rebecca'. I remember enjoying the scenes with the press pack in this and feeling they added a bit of light relief, although, as you say, the whole is deadly serious. I don't remember 'Without Love' in detail, but did enjoy the scientific experiments and the gentle feeling of it, plus the casting of Lucille Ball as Hepburn's friend.

  4. Judy, thanks for contributing your thoughts on these films. I haven't heard from you in a while. I know that others see "Woman of the Year" as dated in its attitudes to women working, but I don't interpret it that way myself. Hepburn's character is inseparable from her work. She just wouldn't be the same without it. The problem is her careerism--not in wanting a career, but in letting that desire dominate her life and relationships--a trait I find off-putting in men too, where it is (or was) considered more acceptable. I saw the problem with the war orphan as her attitude toward the boy, that she sees him as just another part of her public image and chooses not to make time for him because he's not that important to her as a human being. In other words, a criticism of her personality, not her role as a working mother.

    You are not alone in disliking the breakfast sequence. I've read that it was added after the original ending (whatever it was) tested poorly with preview audiences. It does almost feel like it belongs in a different movie. Maybe Stevens wasn't the right director for this kind of comedy. He doesn't seem to have a good grasp on the pacing that makes this kind of comedy work. I always think how much less flat the sequence would feel if someone with more of a background in comedy like Leo McCarey had directed it. The point it makes at the end, which Tracy enunciates, is its raison d'etre, but I have to agree that aside from that it's a bit of a mismatch with the rest of the film.

  5. There was also an unconsumated affair between Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, but Tracy and Hepburn stand tallest in fame and public fascination. I had indeed known many of the facts here R.D., including Tracy's manic depression, alcoholism and resistance to marriage because of his religion and handicapped son. But you entire lead-in is terrific, as are your ensuing capsules on the first group of pairings. Only WOMAN OF THE YEAR stands out in this group as you so apt note. Look forward to the continuation!

  6. Sam, your comment is greatly appreciated, as always. I didn't cover more in the lead-in because, as you say, so much of this is already known to those who are interested. Whole books have been written about these two. The lead-in was actually the easiest part to write. The capsule reviews are the hard part because it's so difficult to keep them concise and still cover the salient points!