(On Cable TV, February 2019) As an Information Technology professional, I have a bigger interest than most in the place of computers in movies, and Desk Set manages to bring together that interest with another one—seeing Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in a romantic comedy. Set at the dawn of corporate IT, this film takes the burgeoning anxieties of the era and recasts them as fuel for a workplace comedy with a big dose of romance. As the story begins, Hepburn is the manager of a research library for a TV network—her staff can answer any question anyone could have. But in walks Tracy as a mysterious eccentric eventually revealed to be an “efficiency expert”—tasked with bringing a computer in the building to complement the work of the research staff. This being a comedy from the early days of computing, madness ensues. In one of Desk Set’s funniest scenes, the quasi-magical computer ends up firing everyone in the building, something swiftly ignored as the staff learns to get along with their computerized assistant. Said computer ends up taking over most of the set and the plot, leading to a high-energy finale. In the meantime, we do get some good romantic sparring between the whip-smart Hepburn and the ever-affable Tracy. It’s not a great movie, nor is it a great romance, but it does work well enough as a comedy. The dialogue is nice, and the increasing absurdity of the film does work in its favour as it hits its finale. The romantic plot is never surprising, but the bits and pieces along the way are fun. This is later-day Tracy/Hepburn (she wears her gray hair consistently pinned back), but the first of their movies shot in colour. Still, Desk Set is fun and fun is what it aims for. Contemporary IT professionals should get quite a kick out of the mid-1950s look at the potential and perils of computers in the workplace.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Oh boy—at a time when we talk a lot about cultural appropriation, it’s worth remembering that once upon a time Hollywood had no qualms about using the whitest of white actors to play other ethnicities, and so I suspect that Dragon Seed will forever live in infamy as the movie where Katharine Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant. That’s right: New England exemplar Hepburn as an Asian woman, in grotesque makeup. Oh boy. Beyond sharing a common literary origin in Pearl S. Buck’s novels, there’s a clear line from The Good Earth (with similar Caucasian casting) to Dragon Seed, and the film is trying to make heroes out of its Chinese characters … just as much as it’s trying to make despicable villains out of its Japanese antagonists occupying the village. But do remember that the film was made at the height of WW2, and designed to be a propaganda piece as to why the United States should fight Japan. Still: the miscasting here is astonishing, and while the black-and-white of the film makes it just slightly more convincing … it’s still incredibly gauche. There’s a small consolation in that this allowed Chinese characters to be made accessible to American audiences and in that light the idea to use a strong-willed actress such as Hepburn to present a female character with a strong agenda feels just a bit more acceptable. But there’s no denying that the film takes and gives racism—this is a war film, and it’s meant to whip up anti-Japanese fervour. The wartime focus of the film does make it more interesting than the similar The Good Earth, but also more offensive as well: while some scene do offer a warm and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese couples in love, it also makes for an infuriating portrait of the Japanese occupation. Dragon Seed is clearly a film of its time, but I feel better knowing that it would be unacceptable these days.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) When you’re Kathleen Hepburn and have remained a star through six decades of Hollywood history, the least you can be given is a feature-length documentary during which to comment your life and career. This is exactly what Katharine Hepburn: All About Me is about: Hepburn welcoming us home, leaving the camera running as she putters around the house and gives us the highlight reel of her career. Hepburn fans will note that the film came shortly after Hepburn’s 1991 autobiography and so offered her a complementary opportunity to cement her legacy even further by offering a movie-length trailer of the image she wanted to portray. In fact, you could argue that Hepburn here had a better vehicle for legacy summation than a book—after more than sixty years in show-business, the 85-year-old Hepburn remained an actor even when talking about her own life. Here we have poignant recollections, a few laughs, a warm portrait of Spencer Tracy (at a time when Hepburn was free to talk about their relationship without fear of being contradicted or annoying Spencer’s wife). This is all supported by great archival footage (including home movies) and Hepburn’s still-distinctive speaking style. This is Hepburn on Hepburn—much as I like her (and I really do like her a lot), there isn’t any place here for critical commentary on her life and work. This being said, All About Me remains quite a fascinating document for Hepburn fans—a 70-minute whirlwind tour of a career that could have sustained a much longer film, but also the portrait of a screen legend in her last few years. Perhaps her last great performance as well.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) If you’re even a casual fan of classic cinema, The African Queen is a must see, even for no other reason than it features Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn playing off each other in familiar roles—Bogart’s kind-hearted rogue, and Hepburn later-career matriarch. The story takes place deep in Africa during World War I, as a Canadian adventurer (Bogart) rescues an English nun from German attack. Escaping to friendly territory is not a certainty, especially when their tiny boat is faced with the threat of a German warship blocking their way. The adventures build up to a pretty good finale. While the innovation of shooting much of The African Queen on-location deep in Africa has paled a bit for today’s audiences, the results are clearly appreciated on-screen with a film that looks quite a bit more realistic than many of its studio-shot black-and-white contemporaries. (Legend has it that most of the crew suffered greatly from the shooting conditions, except Bogart and director John Huston who mostly drank alcohol rather than water.) Bogart got an Academy Award out of the film (a lifetime achievement reward in all but name) while Huston and Hepburn got nominated for their efforts. The result is a product of its time, but The African Queen has aged rather well and significantly better than many other films of the time.
(On DVD, June 2018) Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are back on-screen as a warring couple in Adam’s Rib: As a prosecutor (Tracy) takes on an attempted murder case set against a love triangle, his wife (Hepburn) takes on the case for the woman accused of trying to kill her husband while he was having what looks like an affair. Courtroom hijinks ensue, followed by further fireworks at home when pillow talk becomes legal talk. Like many screwball comedies of the time, Adam’s Rib does depend on a somewhat caricatured premise—not only that a wife would deliberately take on a case opposite her husband without having some serious conflict-of-interest professional issues, but that a judge would allow circus-like antics in his courtroom. The point of the film, obviously, is to see Tracy and Hepburn play off each other, and provide a satisfying climax right after being brought to the brink of divorce. It has certainly aged, but it’s still generally effective largely thanks to the lead actors. Hepburn is fantastic, and you can see that her role in the film is on the inflection point that brought her from floppy-haired ingénue roles to the matriarchal characters that would dominate the rest of her career. Tracy is less flashy but no less effective—the ending would have flopped with countless other actors, but he manages to sell it. Together, in this sixth film starring both of them, they have fantastic timing—so much so that at time, director George Cukor simply records their banter without moving the camera or cutting to different angles. David Wayne does shine in a small role with a few very funny moments. While some moments of the film don’t play particularly well today, the charm of the production generally overcomes those weaker moments—and the happy ending does redeem an increasingly darker third act. As a romantic comedy, Adam’s Rib is blunter than what we’re used to, but still remarkable in its own way.
(On DVD, June 2018) There’s a particular pleasure in seeing Katharine Hepburn take on a role described as a superwoman, and there are no credibility issues in seeing her incarnate a 1940s polyglot media superstar, hobnobbing with the ruling elite and wielding a position of considerable influence thanks to her newspaper column. It’s also not so much of a stretch to see Spencer Tracy as a likable everyday man working as a sports columnist, proudly speaking for the masses. Once you’ve got those two characters well-defined, the rest of the film goes by quickly: Of course, they meet, fall in love and then have to deal with their own issues. While Woman of the Year must have been fairly progressive for its time, parts of the movie have not aged well at all. For all of her wonderful introduction, Hepburn’s character is badly treated by much of the screenplay: Unable to actually engage with the idea of a strong powerful woman, the film is often reduced to making fun of a caricature she’s meant to represent. There’s an awful subplot about adopting a child that leads to complications that no decent human being would ever cause. The ending—despite a few chuckles—is quite clearly an attempt to bring her down to a relatable level for much of the audience through something that has since become an unbearable cliché: the ultra-competent woman who can’t cook. There are two things behind the scenes of the film that do soften up its unpleasant edge: For one thing, the film was written almost to order for Hepburn, who contributed to the script—except for the ending, rewritten and reshot against Hepburn’s wishes when test audiences balked. Today’s test audiences would almost certainly prefer the far more egalitarian original ending, which is described on the film’s Wikipedia page. The other thing to keep in mind is that this is the film where Hepburn met and began a decades-long relationship with Tracy (not to mention nine other movies together, all the way to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Despite its missteps, Woman of the Year remains relatively funny, features Hepburn at her best and clearly shows the chemistry between the two leads. Recommended with a few strong warnings attached.
(On DVD, June 2018) The great things about digging deeper and deeper in a hobby is that the digging eventually produces its own rewards. In my case, I’ve been watching older and older movies, and discovering new favourite actors. To have The Philadelphia Story pop up on my pile of films to watch at this point is a gift: A movie starring Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and Cary Grant? What have I done to get such a treat? Even better: it’s a screwball comedy, fast establishing itself as one of my favourite bygone genres. I was primed for a good time and got exactly what I wanted: A fast, witty, fun romantic comedy featuring Hepburn at her most alluring, Stewart as his usual sympathetic self and Grant in a plum comic role. The script provides witty lines, great characters and a savvy understanding of the mechanics of the genre, while director George Cukor keeps things moving even as the film multiplies small subplots on the way to a satisfying conclusion. Among supporting players, Ruth Hussey is surprisingly fun as a no-nonsense photographer, while Virginia Weidler is a discovery as a sassy young sister. Still, this is a picture that belongs to Hepburn, perfectly cast as a woman struggling with goddess-hood. Both Stewart and Grant also play to their strengths, helping to make The Philadelphia Story a definitive statement about three screen legends. It still plays exceptionally well today.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s not a failure if some social-issue films don’t work as well now than at the time of their release—sometimes, the world moves in the direction advocated, and as a result the film looks as if it’s been outpaced by the future. So it is that the central conceit of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a white girl bringing back a black fiancé home for her parents’ approval) doesn’t quite have the same charge fifty years later. And that’s quite all right. This being said, let’s not take this for a condemnation of the work from director Stanley Kramer, or by Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn. After all, the film finished shooting six months before Loving v. Virginia actually legalized interracial marriages across the United States. But it does feel a bit stuffy, all the way to a conclusion that boils down to an intensely paternalistic “Father has thought about it and will let you crazy kids do whatever you want” conclusion. It’s not quite fair to dismiss the film in such a way (and indeed, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s ending gets far more potent once you read about how Spencer Tracy died two weeks after shooting his final scene and final film with long-time co-star Katharine Hepburn) but it is definitely a reflection of its time, and time has moved on.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) As I suspected, revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner after watching a handful of Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movies has significantly improved my opinion of the film. This was a partial re-watch, focusing on the scenes featuring Tracy and Hepburn, and it affirms that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a terrific victory lap for Tracy, whose kindly-father persona here acts as a capstone to a career that saw numerous pairings with Hepburn at various moments in their careers. It’s easy to imagine a shared backstory for their characters that includes bits and pieces of Woman of the Year or Adam’s Rib, and that’s when context can become crucial in seeing what the fuss is about a particular movie. If you de-emphasize the racial message and focus on the Hepburn/Spencer couple, this film becomes a satisfying epilogue to a shared on-screen career, well worth watching if you’re familiar with the rest of the Hepburn/Tracy filmography.