Tag Archives: Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib (1949)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Adam’s Rib</strong> (1949)

(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.

Woman of the Year (1942)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Woman of the Year</strong> (1942)

(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.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde</strong> (1941)

(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.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner</strong> (1967)

(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 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 deemphasize 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.”