In late April, Warner Home Video scored a coup of sorts and put out a DVD box called Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection, which puts together all nine of the films co-starring legends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in one handy-dandy package. A great number of the films they made together are not under the Warner rubric, so, like the recent Kazan box set from Fox, this is a bit of a diplomatic achievement. The thing about the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations is that, until I'd say as late as Adam's Rib, they don't look as if they were really approached as such, that is, as collaborative works by two distinctive artists; they were just films that had the two stars, who were romantically involved off-screen, working together. They didn't signify as "Tracy and Hepburn" pictures in other words.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Or I should say ourselves. When I got the box set, I proposed to My Lovely Wife Claire that it might be a fun thing for us to assess together, since she and I are so VERY much like Tracy and Hepburn themselves. But seriously. Claire did some DVD reviewing for me back in the Premiere days, and I've always been a fan of her writing, and her overall perceptiveness and sunniness and all sorts of "ness" informs my work at its best, I like to think. So, this informal project, wherein we watch the Tracy/Hepburn pictures and concoct, each week, a "dialogue" about the picture.
The first picture is the first that Hepburn and Tracy made together, of course, the 1942 Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens, in which sports columnist Tracy falls for "emancipated" highfalutin political columnist and knows-all-the-right-people gadabout Hepburn, and shows her the proper place for a...well, I don't need to say it. The movie happens to rank pretty high on our friend The Self-Styled Siren's "Ten Movies The Siren Should Love...But Does Not" list, and when we popped it in Claire, who had not seen the picture before, was curious as to why. It didn't take her long to find out, as our dialogue below attests...
Claire Kenny: This was not at all what I expected, and I’m afraid I just didn’t much enjoy it…I think you felt the same? I feel like I’m SUPPOSED to enjoy it; I know that it’s a “classic,” and obviously KH/ST have all the fabulous zesty crackly brainy interactions we expect, but there was just too much stuff I would have to overlook. This is for the obvious thematic (anti-feminist) reasons, but they manifested themselves in ways I wasn’t anticipating. I thought, if anything, it was going to be one of those things where the big fancy career girl is Just Too Uppity For Her Own Good, and he’s going to have to “tame” her, which would of course have been frustrating and off-putting. But this was really worse in a way, because it’s not just that Hepburn’s Tess is smart and ambitious and successful, it’s that she’s not LIKABLE. She’s selfish and inconsiderate and flighty, exhibited most appallingly in her surprise adoption of an orphan and subsequent disinterest in even the most fundamental aspects of his wellbeing. Meanwhile Tracy’s Sam cranks around this big beautiful apartment, pouting over being neglected and getting no time alone with his new wife, and maybe you shouldn't have gotten married after knowing someone for thirty seconds, Spence?? I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get from this—is she insufferable because she doesn’t embrace her wifely station, or are we supposed to think of her as insufferable by nature, and in turn think of this quality as essential to feminine success? I realize I should make allowances for its datedness, but it may have aged past the point of being bearable. The ending is…meh. The slapstick element of Tess’s attempts to make breakfast for Sam don’t really work—something is off with the pacing, it’s just not madcap enough—and her implied assumption of a more subservient role irks. On the other hand, I wasn’t clear what she was going to do exactly—it seemed the plan was basically “work less, hyphenate last name, leave my slick apartment behind for this townhouse complex.” Which is fine, I guess. No suggestion that Sam was going work less, but this is probably too much to expect for 1942.
I do give the movie bonus points for Tess’s father’s scrumptious country house in Connecticut. I’m a sucker for classic-movie country houses.
Glenn Kenny: You got more takeaway from the ostensible content than I did...or is it that I'm just an insensitive male? Everything you're saying about the offensiveness of the chauvinism is entirely correct, but none of that registered for me as strongly as just what a logy, dry, and leaden picture this is from stem to (almost) stern. George Stevens at his best is, as we all know from reading our copies of The American Cinema, an auteur, but damn, when I see a Stevens film that doesn't click for me I tend to ask myself, where the hell is George Stevens at his best, because this sure as hell is pretty far from it. [N.B., that's merely a quasi-rhetorical question designed to conjure my particular feeling of frustration with this movie; but for actual answers concerning Stevens' greatness, you could do worse than to check out Raymond De Felitta's pieces about him at Movies 'Til Dawn—part one is here—and/or The Siren's recent breakdown of a classic scene from Giant.]The Hepburn/Tracy "chemistry" is there but just barely...it seeps through the cracks of the cretinous plotting (man, that business with the orphaned kid is beyond crassly lame) and only really comes to life —and here's the main thing I disagree with you about concerning the film—in the finale, which, content aside, is a funny slapstick bit that harks back to Stevens' days as a director of Laurel and Hardy shorts, and underscores the teams' core talents in the comic arena. It is, admitedly, almost completely out of place here, but welcome nonetheless. If I may be so bold I'd like to speculate that had Hepburn and Tracy not wound up together romantically, they might have never been cast together again on the "strength" of this film. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!
Claire Kenny: It's not that I got more out of this than you did--I think I was having the same problems as you, and the most interesting emotional response I could find was righteous indignation. Which is really not saying much--"the only thing your movie offered me, Mr. Stevens, was enough offensive content to keep me moderately annoyed for two hours." I keep thinking about your last statement, though, and I can't decide whether or not I agree. It's of course a false exercise, because we have all the benefits of hindsight and a body of terrific joint work to look back on, but I can see why a viewer in 1942 would look at this and see the potential for lots of wonderful future pairings. Neither actor is at all like any other film actor I can think of, of any period, and the combination of their specific talents and intelligences and weird rough edges is something that doesn't make conceptual sense until you see it onscreen. Even from this weak start, I see what made people want more. And I'm still not with you on the finale. Here's why: I think that for slapstick (which I'll admit is not my favorite thing) to be really effective, the environmental obstacles almost have to take on the qualities of another character who's in active battle with the performer(s). And for THAT to work, the performer has to appear to *believe* that the obstacles have wills of their own, and might win the battle--whereas Katharine Hepburn is not believable as someone who can't master her environment. She's only effectively undone on film by some kind of emotional circumstance; she doesn't read as someone incapable in practical ways. So here, she looks like someone very good at waffle-making pretending like she doesn't know how to make waffles. Stevens compensates for this with lingering shots of the wafflemaker bubbling over, or whatever, which kills the pace.
Glenn Kenny: Touché. I can’t say you’re wrong in your analysis of that penultimate scene, Maybe I was so longing for a Laurel and Hardy short by that point in the dreary Woman that I overcompensated imaginatively. In any event, the picture itself is sufficiently dispiriting as a viewing experience (as opposed to a subject for historical study, that is) that I’m almost overeager to get to the next…
The next will be Keeper of the Flame, directed by George Cukor. Stay tuned!