Hepburn and Tracy features:
Woman of the Year (1942)
While not perfect, without Woman of the Year, the iconic duo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn may have never been formed, for this is the film that brought them together. George Stevens’ screwball comedy is centred around the classic ‘opposites attract’ premise. Here Tess (Hepburn) and Sam (Tracy) work for the same newspaper and slowly fall in love despite being pole opposites in temperament, class, experience and education.
While the film is an interesting take on gender roles in the 1940s, its message has aged poorly. Here Sam is by far the more likeable and noble character out of the two, to the extent where Tess feels cold-hearted and opportunistic – she is well educated and speaks several languages, yet mysteriously is unable to make a simple breakfast. Here the film almost suggests that an independent woman must have at least one area of life where she fails miserably and needs a man. However, thankfully due to Hepburn’s talent and charisma, Tess remains a full-bodied character, even though her journey is problematic by modern standards. While problems persist with Woman of the Year, it is wrapped in the excellent comedic timing of both Tracy and Hepburn, and it’s here that their on-screen chemistry would wow a whole generation for the first time.
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Keeper of the Flame (1943)
Just a few months after the release of Woman of the Year, the couple teamed up again, but this time it was for a mystery war drama titled Keeper of the Flame. Directed by George Cukor, a lifelong friend of Hepburn and her most frequent collaborator, he would go on to direct three out of the nine films Hepburn and Tracy were to star in.
Keeper of the Flame is the only film in the pair’s filmography that does not revolve around a romantic couple. Here Tracy plays a journalist O’Malley who plans on writing a book about the national war hero Robert Forest before being informed of his sudden death. Seeking answers surrounding the death, O’Malley reaches out to Forest’s widow (Hepburn), who initially agrees to cooperate. But it’s not long before O’Malley uncovers a series of unanswered questions.
Keeper of the Flame is notable for its poor reception on release, with MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer allegedly storming out of the cinema, enraged by the film’s themes. Often described as leftist propaganda, the film is possibly the most disappointing Hepburn and Tracy film ever produced, and even Cukor would describe it as one of his worst movies. Apart from the propaganda debate, this is a film that lacks any pace. Here the mystery is kept rolling for too long while the long-awaited twist falls flat.
Without Love (1945)
A lesser-known film in Hepburn and Tracy’s filmography is the final film from British director Harold S. Bucquet, Without Love. Hepburn plays a lonely widow, Jamie, who helps the war effort by marrying Patrick (Tracy), a research scientist who has set up a lab in her house. The two have no feelings for each other and are still not over their former partners. However, as time progresses, Jamie and Patrick slowly fall in love. With some similarities to The Philadelphia Story, also written by Donald Ogden Smith based on a Philip Barry play, Without Love emphasises Jamie’s transformation from an isolated widow into a new woman.
Unlike the popular screwball comedies of the period, Without Love relies far more on its dialogue than any physical comedy. What is more, it often uses ellipsis as a narrative technique, leaving out bits of information and not showing scenes that take place behind closed doors. This encourages the audience to use their imagination. The result is one of the lesser-known yet most enjoyable films featuring Hepburn and Tracy as Bucquet combines comedy with a light touch drama.
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Sea of Grass (1947)
As with Keeper of the Flame, acclaimed director Elia Kazan was reportedly unhappy with his film, actively discouraging audiences from seeing it. Kazan’s film is a strange mixture of western and melodrama. Taking place in a frontier town of New Mexico, the film fails to combine the main elements of both genres, ending up disjointed as two different stories run parallel to one another. Here we have cattle rancher Brewton (Tracy), a local tyrant who runs his cattle on government-owned land. Meanwhile, Brewton’s new wife, Lutie (Hepburn), cannot adapt to the rough frontier life and eventually has an affair with local judge Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas).
While the film has enough action to keep punters entertained, the collision of western and melodrama feels forced and ultimately ruins the film’s pace. It is evident early on that Brewton loves the prairie much more than his wife; however, Lutie’s love for him is never explored or explained as the characters lack any depth.
State of the Union (1948)
Frank Capra’s faithful adaptation of Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s satirical play about a fictional Republican presidential candidate allows Hepburn and Tracy to enter the world of cutting social satire. Explicit political commentary in classic Hollywood almost exclusively sits within the realms of comedy, for example, Duck Soup (1933), The Great Dictator (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Here our story follows aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Tracy) as he enters the presidential race backed by his Republican newspaper magnate Kay (Angela Lansbury). Kay plans to be the power behind the throne upon his election from the outset, but when his estranged wife Mary (Hepburn) reunites with Matthews as a facade for his campaign, things get complicated.
This is the first film in the Hepburn and Tracy filmography where they play a long time married couple, and some palpable melancholy surrounds their mutual scenes. Hepburn and Tracy had a 25-year relationship; however, they never married due to Tracy’s Catholic beliefs about divorcing his long-estranged wife. Therefore they could only ever appear as a married couple on screen, and this sense of realism pervades State of the Union. Compared to Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1938), State of the Union is sharp satirical, cynical and even pessimistic in tone. Yet, it still has a pinch of the director’s trademark idealism.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Written by Hepburn and Tracy’s longtime friends Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Adam’s Rib is perfectly tailored to the strengths of its lead actors, the movie’s battle of the sexes screwball comedy more assured than any other movie of the time. Here we meet Adam (Tracy) and Amanda (Hepburn), married New York lawyers assigned to the case of a woman who shot her husband on discovering his affair. Adam argues she is guilty of attempted murder, while Amanda takes her side, noting the double standards for men and women.
Gordon and Kanin’s brilliantly witty and fast-paced screenplay elevates Adam’s Rib to become one of the best screwball comedies of the decade while never shying away from a sprinkling of more emotional moments. Adam’s Rib is undoubtedly progressive for the 1940s, especially in Hepburn’s depiction of a successful female New York lawyer. Her willingness to argue with and defy her husband professionally makes Hepburn’s performance all the more powerful.
However, the film also falls into the same trap as Woman of the Year, as Hepburn’s independent and competent character is never far from the confines of male control. Still, Adam’s Rib remains one of the most enjoyable and iconic Hepburn and Tracy films, showcasing their outstanding comedic timing and chemistry, with an excellent supporting cast including Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen.
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Pat and Mike (1952)
Following the critical and financial success of Adam’s Rib, the Gordon-Kanin duo teamed up again with George Cukor to make another lighthearted comedy starring Tracy and Hepburn. But this time, the resulting movie would showcase Katharine Hepburn’s athletic abilities. Pat (Hepburn) is a great athlete who decides to hire the sports promoter, Sam (Tracy), to help her deal with the frustrations of her overbearing fiance. But Sam has some shady business dealings from his past that Pat quickly gets dragged into.
As a romantic comedy, Pat and Mike is of less significance within the Hepburn and Tracy canon than many of the previously mentioned films, primarily due to its simplistic storyline. This is a film that too often feels like an archive celebration of Katharine Hepburn playing tennis and golf. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun, but it feels like a documentary about her love of sports. Again, Cukor’s film has aged poorly since its release. Yet, several hilarious scenes include Pat’s rising anxiety during a tennis match and a very young Charles Bronson getting his butt kicked by Katharine Hepburn.
Desk Set (1957)
Following a five year break after Pat and Mike, Desk Set, directed by Walter Lang, is the second to last film within the Hepburn and Tracy filmography. Here the plot centres around a powerful computer brought into a reference library to help the employees research facts and answer questions from the general public. Yet comedy quickly ensues when the workers believe the computer called EMERAC has been installed to replace them.
The film opened to mediocre reviews but has since found more favourable praise from critics, more than likely because it still feels relevant today. Desk Set has simultaneously managed to age poorly and well in many ways. The size of the computer used in the film is laughably enormous and appears to be far more challenging to operate than any collection of reference books. Yet, at the same time, the film provides a fascinating discussion on emerging 1950s tech and workforce concerns, and here it remains relevant despite the technological progress made. However, at its heart, Desk Set is not some meta-science fiction film that wants us to ponder technological evolution. Instead, it is a charming and harmless love story of two middle-aged people thrown together, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Following a ten year break after Desk Set, Hepburn and Tracy would come together one last time in Stanley Kramer’s, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kramer’s movie was groundbreaking, introducing a positive interracial relationship in an era where such marriages and relationships were still illegal in seventeen US states.
Released the same year as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that fired the starting gun of the late 60s and 70s Hollywood Renaissance, Kramer’s film feels like a defining endpoint of one era and the start of something new. But it also signalled the final outing of two iconic classic Hollywood actors as leads. Many now point to the flaws in Kramer’s movie, from the internal conflict in John (Sidney Poitier) to the treatment of the family’s black housekeeper, Tillie (Isabel Sanford). But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner needs to be viewed through the lens of racial inequality in 60s America.
The outstanding performances of Pointer, Hepburn and Tracy and the film’s defiant willingness to challenge racism in American society make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a must-watch movie. As a result, the film remains one of – if not the – most important Hepburn/Tracy film of the collection and a perfect swan song for Spencer Tracy, who would die seventeen days after the filming was complete.
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