(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) One of my working hypotheses in my Grand Unified Theory of Hollywood is that everything was invented during the 1930s, and we’ve been running variations on a theme ever since. San Francisco is another validation of that statement, as it credibly sets up the template that later disaster movies would follow closely. Set during the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco features no less than Clark Gable as an atheistic saloon owner and gambler. Then popular singer Jeanette MacDonald is the love interest, while Spencer Tracy has an early role as a Catholic priest fit to act as the protagonist’s conscience. Much of the early film is spent showcasing the city as it existed at the turn of the century and setting up the dramatic conflicts that will be settled definitively by the earthquake. For modern viewers, there’s also another kind of suspense: How, exactly, are the filmmakers going to portray the impending disaster on-screen? Is it going to look effective to our modern CGI-jaded eyes? That question is answered convincingly two thirds of the way through with an utterly thrilling sequence in which real-world sets are split apart. It’s a long and still-impressive moment in the movie as characters scream, building crumble and even the era’s limitations in special effects technology can’t quite diminish the importance of the moment. Once the disaster is over, it’s no surprise if our atheistic character had found God and his love interest, affirming San Francisco’s Phoenix-like endurance. The slightly historical nature of the film, looking backwards twenty years, actually gives it an interesting weight that the speculative disaster films of the 1970s can’t quite match. While primitive by today’s SFX standards, I found San Francisco surprisingly enjoyable when it gets on with the show, and prescient as to how it creates a template for an entire subgenre to follow.
(In French, On TV, January 2019) The 1960s were a strange time for movies, with studios chasing epic films in a decades-long fight to convince TV viewers to make the trip to theatres. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is special in that it (along with The Great Race) was a rare attempt to make an epic comedy rather than rely on oh-so-very-serious biblical or historical source material. The result is, indeed a spectacle: As a few strangers hear a dying thief give them the location of a hidden treasure, the rest of the film is a madcap, multi-character chase through the southwestern United States in an attempt to get to the treasure before everyone else. The ensemble cast is a collection of early 1960s comedy stars, even though most of them are now unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. Still, what has not gone out of style is the succession of action set-pieces, impressive stunt work, breakneck editing and far-fetched comic situations in which the characters find themselves. Where else can you witness a plane flying (for real!) through a billboard; a man destroying a service station; or characters stuck on an out-of-control fireman ladder? It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is admittedly very long—at nearly three hours (with half an hour cut from the first showings!), it would be a test of anyone’s patience, except that the laughs and the fast pacing do keep things hopping quickly: director Stanley Kramer may not have the deftest touch with comedy and specifically verbal comedy, but the result speaks for itself. While the film is easy to like, there are a few things that hold it back from unconditional love—namely, that the point of the film is a greedy chase, and so nearly every character (even the one played by the normally likable Spencer Tracy) eventually succumbs to pure old-fashioned backstabbing greed. The ending does the most of what it can with the cards it’s given, but there’s still an absence of a pure happy ending for anyone that stings a bit. Still, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a classic for a reason, and its sheer lengths and density of comic set-pieces make it a decent prospect for a rewatch.
(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 Cable TV, April 2018) From our twenty-first century perspective, we routinely complain about remakes … but the truth is that the early decades of cinema were just as rife with movies being remade. Of course, back then they did have better excuses, as the state of the art in moviemaking kept progressing at a pace that would astound us today. Take the leap between the 1920 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: One of them silent, crude and garish while the latter one being more nuanced and controlled. Spencer Tracy delivers a truly good performance in both eponymous roles, relying on sheer acting (and hairstyling, and makeup) to distinguish between the two characters. The direction is more ambitious, the story a bit more sophisticated, the portrayal of evil not quite as comically quaint as in the previous film. As a result, the 1941 version can be watched today with far fewer obstacles between the film and the viewer—sure, the colour is missing … but not much more. Where the 1941 version suffers a bit, especially when watched as a double-feature with the 1920 version, is that it has fewer surprises to offer in telling the same story. In a way, that frees the viewer to appreciate the execution and Tracy’s more impressive performance largely bereft of prosthetics.
(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.