This month has been a down sort of month. Finals are enough to choke every last bit of energy I have left. Life has become an overwhelming barrage of things, one right after the other. I’m out of time. I really don’t have time to be writing this blog post.
Oh well. I’ll make time.
For the past week or so, I have developed an extremely strong obsession with Katharine Hepburn – arguably the greatest actress to ever grace the American silver screen. Kate Hepburn has been like a friend to me in these difficult past few weeks, particularly because I’ve spent the past four or five days watching nine of her films. That’s right, nine of them.
Not just any nine, though. No, these particular nine were the films she did with Spencer Tracy, with whom she had a famous relationship, both on-screen and off. These nine films, most of which I had never seen before, are the best, clearest example we have of their sizzling chemistry and deeply complicated relationship.
Through the entire journey, I made sure to take plenty of gifs of Katharine’s best moments, because I love her so. And while I certainly can’t say I loved every film they did, I never didn’t love Katharine. She gave a fantastic performance every time. So did Tracy, whom I now have an immense respect for as a film actor.
So…let’s get started. This is my week with Kate and Spence.
Here be spoilers.
Woman of the Year (1942)
Woman of the Year is by far the most romantic of Kate and Spence’s films. The film is all about finding new love, and boy do these two find it. If you watch it with the knowledge that the two actors got together sometime during or after the filming of this flick, it makes the experience of watching it even better. You can just see how deeply, genuinely intrigued they are by each other.
Why do I say it’s the most romantic? Well, it’s definitely the most physical. They have a total of – and I may be miscounting here – seven or eight full-on kisses, some of which barely get away with the 3-second rule (during the time this was filmed, kisses could be no more than 3 seconds long). And, well – I don’t know how else to say it, it’s just sexy.
I have a major problem with this film, but I’m willing to postpone discussing it in order to gush about Katharine’s outfits. Can we just talk about this for a second?
Okay…done being distracted.
Apart from the last fifteen minutes of the movie, which is what I have a serious problem with, Woman of the Year is wonderful to watch, mostly for the scene at the bar/taxi/Tess’s apartment. It’s the most romantic part of the film, and it features the most kisses. One thing I really love doing when watching old movies is looking for implications of sex – not in a dirty or creepy way, but because I love seeing how much they try to imply without being totally out there because they can’t be totally out there.
In Woman of the Year, for instance, there’s a scene where Kate’s character Tess has Spencer’s character Sam take her home. They have a very romantic taxi ride and then they walk into her dark apartment, and the music swells very romantically but with a hint of foreboding. Watch the scene closely – he knows where this is going and she knows where this is going and it’s only because Sam’s “a bundle of nerves” that it doesn’t happen.
I think Woman of the Year is looked down upon in modern times, at least the last fifteen minutes are, because it’s the story of a remarkably strong and independent woman who feels guilty for being strong and independent and by the end resolves to quit her job so she can clean and cook for her husband. It was a different time, of course, but it still bothers me. This movie could have been very progressive and if I remember correctly, they changed the ending at the last minute because Tess Harding was just too powerful for a woman. This was apparently against Katharine’s wishes, though, so console yourselves with that.
Keeper of the Flame (1943)
Keeper of the Flame is a strange one. I haven’t quite put my finger on how I feel about it yet. For one thing, it’s the only Tracy-Hepburn film that doesn’t feature a romance of some sort, and it’s a drama. It’s also incredibly slow. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely more dialogue than action.
In Keeper of the Flame, Katharine Hepburn plays a recent widow of a man named Robert Forrest, who was a national hero to many people. In a lot of ways, the film is about Robert Forrest, or uncovering the man that was Robert Forrest, without actually showing Robert Forrest because well, he’s dead. It’s Spencer Tracy’s character’s job to write a bio on Forrest, and he meets with Forrest’s widow (or tries to) to gather information. Eventually he discovers that Robert Forrest was not a very good man at all but a member of some sort of fascist cult. He died by driving over a busted bridge – a bridge that his wife had seen and neglected to tell him about, because she hated the fact that he had betrayed his country but was too ashamed to ruin his public image.
Oh yeah, and she dies. It’s kind of gruesome, actually. I was not expecting that.
Keeper of the Flame is so radically different from, well, most of their other films (well, apart from The Sea of Grass but we’ll get to that one later), that, like I said, I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it. It certainly isn’t bad, but it is a little slow and I can definitely see a lot of people finding it quite boring. Spencer Tracy is the real star of the show here, playing what I must say is a really noble and genuine character. I felt that Robert Forrest’s secret was revealed much too late and all at once. I felt the movie would have benefitted from maybe fifteen or twenty more minutes of snooping around by Tracy’s character.
Without Love (1945)
Without Love is my least favorite of their comedies. That being said, I still liked it very much. I suppose its crime is that it’s too predictable; we all know how it’s going to end the minute the formula is set in motion. Katharine plays a(nother) widow whose husband tragically died in a horseback riding accident. A strange scientist, played by Tracy, randomly moves into the basement of her house to work on a secret experiment for the military. They decide to team up and get married “without love” because of the benefits marriage offers – though in the process they end up falling in love anyway.
Without Love is definitely benefitted by the presence of Lucille Ball, who plays a terrific supporting character, and there’s some funny comedic moments between Kate and Spence as they get ready for bed (in separate rooms). There’s a hilarious scene where Tracy’s character sleepwalks and he gets into her bed by mistake. Katharine comes back and falls out of the bed in surprise when she realizes there’s someone there. Tracy’s dog – whom we now discover is a service dog supposed to prevent him from sleepwalking – rushes into the room, and Tracy delivers my favorite line of the entire film – “Where were you in my hour of need?”
Katharine sometimes gets accused of playing the same character over and over, but I don’t see how anyone can say that, at least not judging by these nine films. In Without Love her character has a subtle naivety that Tess Harding didn’t have and certainly wasn’t there in Keeper of the Flame. She’s smart, but she doesn’t really know a damn thing about, well, anybody. She’s constantly misjudging people and Kate pulls that off perfectly, as Kate often does. Not their best film, but still worth checking out.
Also it has probably the best implication of sex in the whole bunch:
Kate: Th- There… One thing though. I, um…
Spence: Madam, you would never have to give that a thought.
The Sea of Grass (1947)
It’s bizarre to think that The Sea of Grass did the most well commercially of any of their films because it is without doubt the worst of the bunch. It’s slow, cheesy, and melodramatic in the worst possible way. The director really wasn’t pleased with the final result, and as far as I can tell the film hasn’t really stood the test of time.
There’s one thing that saves the film, and that of course is Katharine Hepburn. Spencer Tracy is fantastic – I’m starting to think it was physically impossible for the man to give a bad performance – but it’s Katharine Hepburn who held my interest the most. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t enjoy it very much, because there’s a huge chunk of the film where she’s not there.
Katharine plays a woman in the late 1800’s who marries a cattle rancher, leaving the big city life she knows. She is constantly torn between wanting to be noticed, loved, and desired and her love for her husband, who spends more time thinking about his cattle ranch than he does about her. She eventually has a child with another man, causing Tracy to kick her out. Her son, the illegitimate child, grows up to be kind of a stinker and gets himself killed for it. Then she comes back and all is right with the world.
That’s a real bare-bones summary, and of course I’m leaving out a lot of subtleties and plot points. What I liked best about Kate’s performance was how naturally she pulled off a woman struggling in an environment practically alien to her. It almost reminded me of Emma Bovary (though she wasn’t nearly that despicable). And she looks gorgeous, so hey.
State of the Union (1948)
I loved Katharine Hepburn’s character, Mary, in this movie. Again, she was the best part of the film. I find it difficult to discuss this one because I just want to go watch all of her best scenes. But there are SO MANY.
Spencer Tracy’s character, Grant Matthews, is an unfaithful turd (sorry, but he is), who has cheated on his wife Mary with Angela Lansbury. This is a point that is never expressly stated but everyone knows it, including Mary. And to get back at him, she makes him sleep on the floor. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you think about how powerless women were back then, at least in terms of doing anything about their husbands’ infidelity (especially if they had children), it’s great fun to see Mary do one for herself and make Grant get on the floor.
My favorite scene is when Mary is drunk. It’s reminiscent of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, and produces some wonderful dialogue. Much to my chagrin I couldn’t find the clip on YouTube. But here’s the tweet I made watching that scene.
[tweet https://twitter.com/knifeink/status/596153749015375872 ]
All Hail Katharine indeed. OH and also – here is the world’s greatest gif, courtesy of yours truly, Katharine, and this movie:
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Ah, here’s their famous one. Most consider Adam’s Rib to be Hepburn and Tracy’s best film. I can definitely see why. Here their banter is sharpest and the premise is by far the smartest. Plus, let’s face it – they’re just adorable in this movie. When they look under the table at each other I found myself squealing out loud.
I’m going to leave the feminist analysis of this film for another day, but needless to say I loved seeing Katharine Hepburn take a stand for the woman. She does it hilariously and sincerely all at the same time. And I love (love) how they go at it in the courtroom but when they get home try and act perfectly married, like nothing has happened.
Poor Spencer Tracy. He really gets kicked in the pants in this one (literally). From dropping glasses to being lifted by strong women, you sort of wonder when he’s going to lose it. He kind of does twice, once when he slaps her and once when he threatens to shoot her with a licorice gun. What a lovable asshole.
What can I say about Adam’s Rib? It’s a classic in every sense of the word, and it couldn’t have been done by anyone else. I read somewhere online that they better not touch Adam’s Rib if they know what’s best for them, and I agree. I have to say it’s not my personal favorite of their set but I can definitely see the argument for it being the best. “Best” and “favorite” are not the same.
Pat and Mike (1952)
Move summary: Katharine Hepburn is a badass.
I mean, I already knew that, but I can’t tell you how many times I shouted “Yessss, girl!” while watching Pat and Mike. Here Kate gets to show off her athletic abilities, which she really and truly possessed. And she wears the cutest tennis outfit in the history of everything.
What I liked best about Katharine’s performance in this one was her struggle between her own lack of confidence and her self-knowledge. Let me clarify. Pat, in this film, knows damn well that she’s an incredible athlete, but is constantly doubting herself, especially when her fiance (not Mike) watches her play. I know what it’s like to be nervous performing in front of people even though you know you have the ability. It’s incredibly frustrating, and Kate is incredibly frustrated in this one, even though she can swing a golf club like a pro.
This, thank heavens, was on YouTube, so enjoy and try not to watch it on loop for an hour.
“You know what you can do with your gluteal muscle? Give it away for Christmas!”
Oh, and let’s not forget the part where she saves poor Spencer Tracy from two guys, all on her own, without even swinging a punch or batting an eye.
That’s my girl.
Desk Set (1957)
Of all these nine films, the biggest surprise was Desk Set. I absolutely LOVED this movie. It might be my favorite.
One of the things I loved most was seeing how much they could get away with in this film as opposed to the earlier ones. This film has the word “sexy” in it and no one bats an eye. Although I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t get to see Katharine in that green dress.
Katharine is older in this film but you don’t get the sense that she’s past her prime (when has anybody ever gotten that sense?) and she still looks stunning. I think what I love most about this movie is how much fun it is, and how much fun she is. Sure, she was fun in her other comedies, but comedy is tragedy, as you know, and most of her other movies have her go through a little bit of pain. There’s very little pain in Desk Set, it’s just one big fun romp. And Katharine – oh, Katharine my love. She…she has fun too. Here are some more gifs for you.
Somebody, thank the heavens, put the entire movie on YouTube, so if you just search “Desk Set 1957” you should find it (seriously, go watch before it gets taken down by the copyright gods).
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Their last film, and Spencer Tracy’s last film of his career. He died only a few weeks after it was finished filming.
This film is a lot more than Kate and Spence, but since this post is about them, I want to focus on one moment in the film. But first some background.
A lot has been speculated, and unfortunately never verified, about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s romance. It was a 26-year long “affair,” but it was an unusual affair. Katharine was completely devoted to Spencer, and he didn’t always reciprocate. Spencer had serious drinking problems and was probably depressed. His failing health was due to his years of drinking and inner struggles.
Throughout the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the cast and crew knew that Spencer was dying. Kate knew it too. They had to be very careful not to put too much strain on him, only letting him film for about three hours each day.
And even though Katharine must have been scared and grieving the whole time during filming, she still manages to pull off what is, without a doubt, the single greatest verbal middle finger in the history of everything:
Katharine always said that Spencer was a locked door, and never really let on how he felt about anything. He was married and never got divorced from his wife Louise, though they were separated for many years, before Spencer even met Katharine. He had a deaf son, John, whom Louise was completely devoted to, and had always felt guilty about John and because of his Catholic faith that wouldn’t let him divorce his wife. Katharine never asked for marriage – she knew that living was painful for him. He was a brilliant actor, and could become anybody, but outside of the studio, he drank and needed constant care and attention, which only Kate would give him. And he wasn’t always nice to her. He had affairs on the side of his affair, and there have even been reports of him drunkenly striking her once (though I don’t think that’s ever been confirmed).
But Kate never left him. For the last six years of his life, she moved in with him to make him more comfortable. It was during this period that they filmed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Here’s what Kate said about Spence in her autobiography:
“I have no idea how Spence felt about me. I can only say I think that if he hadn’t liked me he wouldn’t have hung around. As simple as that. He wouldn’t talk about it and I didn’t talk about it. We just passed twenty-seven years together in what was to me absolute bliss.
It is called LOVE.”
Excerpt From: Katharine Hepburn. “Me.”
And, because I like to torture myself, I also watched this video, of Kate reading a letter she wrote to Spence years after he died.
Knowing all this, I went into Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner looking at every interaction they had as more than acting, because it is. Especially his last speech, when both their eyes get misty. Spencer wasn’t a crier, and guess what, I’m not either…
But I couldn’t fight back tears when I watched the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where Spencer says:
“And if it’s half of what we felt – that’s everything.”
This post was made specially for Margaret Perry’s The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which I was thrilled to find out existed. Here’s a banner and a link to Margaret’s blog where you can read all the submissions.