Claire Kenny: I’d seen this one before, ages ago, though I was surprised at how much I forgot. The premise is entirely goofy—Tracy’s gruff absentminded professor/mad scientist Pat Jamieson, burned by love and plagued with somnambulism, takes over the basement of well-heeled widow Jamie Rowan (Hepburn)’s gracious D.C. townhouse to carry out a top-secret military project; they decide to get married, “without love,” to protect his cover—as is the execution, but really, what’s not to like? You’ve got a script based on a play Philip Barry wrote for Hepburn, so there’s lots of madcap privileged-class fun. A great cast, obviously (love pre-television Lucille Ball, and especially love that the film’s two female leads were both redheads. What up, redheads?). Another fabulous fantasy country house, as in Woman of the Year. And couple-pushed-prematurely-into-a-serious-relationship-who-belatedly-discover-they’re-in-love is one of my personal favorite rom-com setups. It obviously strains credulity in more than one way (has anyone in the real world ever recited “The Waste Land” as a seduction tactic?), but that mostly just adds to the overall charm. The major problem for me was that there weren’t enough real obstacles—since it’s a romantic comedy, a happy ending is a foregone conclusion, but the tension here never gets quite high enough for even superficial suspense. Was this worth overlooking, you think, or did it kind of spoil the whole thing for you?
Glenn Kenny: I actually enjoyed the lack of hurdles; it gave the movie a relaxed, albeit arguably aimless feel that just allowed you to enjoy the characters and the settings. And when I say “the characters,” I actually mean “the cast,” which, as you pointed out, is full of period interest. Aside from the saucy Lucille, there’s also young (not quite yet 30) Keenan Wynn, playing an oft-tipsy goofball (this was his eighth film), and also-young Gloria Grahame making an impression way out of proportion to her role, and screen time, as a flower girl. (The fellow between Tracy and Hepburn above, incidentally, is Felix Bressart, who you may remember from The Shop Around The Corner and To Be Or Not To Be, as Professor Ginza.) As for the straining-credulity part, it begins right off the bat, with Tracy’s scientist character engaged in a seemingly-not-particularly-determined hunt to find an anonymous basement he can convert into a lab, and just happens to land in the manse of Hepburn’s socialite…is THAT what her character is? Truth to tell, as amusing as the film can often be, I can’t say that its scenario struck me as all that focused. Which is odd, because once again we have the redoubtable Donald Ogden Stewart adapting a play by Phillip Barry. Don’t know the play, but I can’t say from the film that it necessarily had the same sense of forward motion you get in Holiday or The Philadelphia Story. In point of fact, I have to say that it certainly does take its time getting around to what’s ostensibly its central premise, relative to the title. Tracy’s dispassionate scientist character believes that the conceit known as “love” is an actual impediment to human improvement, but enters into marriage with Hepburn’s character anyway because man needs a helpmate. This leads to some of the film’s funnier scenes as the two experiment with the breathing contraption Tracy’s working on for the war effort (these scenes make it look like Hepburn’s in some kind of Robot Monster-ish sci-fi film) but of course the whole thing leads to you-know-what, and Tracy’s character gets a relatively sweet comeuppance. One problem, such as it is, is that Tracy’s too warm a screen presence to credibly pull off a dispassionate character. A stronger director—this film was helmed by Harold S. Bucquet, best known for the Dr. Kildare pictures, and this was actually his last completed feature, he died in 1946—might have been capable of putting the proceedings on more solid ground. But in the end it doesn’t seem to matter much. If I understand correctly, part of the film’s charm is that you don’t particularly hook into it as a narrative, but rather as a couple of pleasant and sometimes slightly odd hours spent with its stars. No?
Claire Kenny: Yes, absolutely. For that reason, I think it’s a very good film to watch if, say, you happen to be home in bed with a fever (I realize that sounds like damning with faint praise, but Flu Appeal can be a hard cinematic sweet spot to hit, and every collection needs a few of these movies). We seem to be coming away from these with very similar impressions; I think the closest we’re going to get in the way of lively disagreement is on minor points, and in that spirit, I have to dispute the idea that Tracy is too warm to pull off the Pat Jamieson character. He’s no Mr. Rochester, but he’s prickly enough—his persona in this kind of movie is usually on the curmudgeon-to-teddybear spectrum, and if anything, I think he goes light on the teddybear notes, here. In fact (brief digression) this reminds me of the only non-Beckinsale-related issue I had with the cast of Scorsese’s The Aviator, which was Kevin O’Rourke as Spencer Tracy. To be clear, I think O’Rourke is a terrific and underutilized character actor, and in principle I was really happy to see him get that kind of showcase. But he reads as way too much of a smoothie for me to see any of Spencer Tracy’s rough edges and lumpy bits* in him. All of which is to say: Spencer Tracy in Without Love—not too warm, not too dispassionate, but just right as far as I’m concerned. But…yeah, besides that, I think we completely agree here. Not much more to say about the aforementioned breathing contraption, though its silliness really cannot be overstated. Viewers would do well not to get too mired down in questions of what it’s actually supposed to be doing, which I’m not convinced made any sense even in the context of the time. Otherwise I’ll just say again: what’s not to like?
*Spencer Tracy’s Lumpy Bits is a limited edition flavor, made with organic, fair trade ingredients. Not recommended for children under the age of 18.
Glenn Kenny: Yours is as good a last word to pronounce on the film, so I'll let you have it, except to note, as you predicted I would, that I was very pleased to see that one of the few extras on the DVD, which was originally a stand-alone Warner release, is Swing Shift Cinderella, which is one of my all-time favorite Tex Avery cartoons and which reminds me how bad I'd like a DVD (or Blu-ray) collection of Avery stuff to surface some time. Here's a particularly nice image, prelude to a classic Avery male discombobulation:
And speaking of discombobulations, I see that our next film is Elia Kazan's The Sea of Grass, a problem picture if there ever was one. And that it's my turn to lead off the discussion. I'll need to gather my thoughts...