Episode 17 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.
In which Tracy and Hepburn explode on screen in a dynamic maelstrom of celluloid chemistry.
What sparks great star chemistry? Katharine Hepburn, an actress who was all angles and independence, bottled that lightning not once, but twice, with two men who were polar opposites: Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. Near the end of Bringing Up Baby, Grant’s character tells Katharine Hepburn “...in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but, well, there haven't been any quiet moments.” This stuttering sentence sums up the banter-based rapport between Hepburn and Grant that played through their four films together. Watching Grant and Hepburn is watching two master comedians play a scene - glamorous, theatrical, loud, and wonderful. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are the complete opposite: authentic, intimate, sexy, and sweet.
Woman of the Year, the first Tracy/Hepburn film, is full of those “moments of quiet” abolished from Bringing Up Baby. But, oh! how loud a quiet moment can be! The electricity crackling through those moments between Kate and Spencer isn’t born of perfect comedic timing or a well-written script. It is one of those undefinable energies, like the always elusive “star quality,” that you know as soon as it hits you like a bolt of lightning.
In Woman of the Year, Kate and Spencer play newspapermen who quarrel, meet, marry, and continue to quarrel. He’s a blue collar sportswriter named Sam Craig, she’s a polyglot political pundit named Tess Harding. From the outset, Tess wears the pants in the relationship (perfectly tailored culottes by costume designer Adrian). The major conflict is over whether Sam can stomach taking back seat to Tess’s career. For most of the film, the gender roles are reversed. Tess proposes to Sam, and she’s the one who works late and misses dinner, while Sam pouts when Tess doesn’t notice his new hat.
Still, this is 1942, so in the final slapstick sequence, Tess humbles herself by failing to cook Sam breakfast in a scene that would be hilarious if it wasn’t also humiliating. (I’m speaking here as a person who has likewise ruined a waffle iron.) But once Sam has saved his little wife from the evil waffle iron, his response is not “quit your job” or “learn to be a proper woman.” He tells Tess that he loves her for the hardworking lady she is; he just needs her to make a little room for him. While the ending of Woman of the Year can be easily dismissed as an archaic bow on 1940s gender politics, it sets a standard for later Tracy/Hepburn collaborations. Kate will play variations on the Independent Modern Woman, while Spencer plays opposite as her Flummoxed American Husband. The pairing can be surprisingly sexy.
The reason this constant worked so well was because Kate and Spencer sparked. From first glance to last nod, Kate and Spencer imbue their scenes simultaneously with the easy affection of an old married couple and the giddy excitement of newlyweds. Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr.’s script is actually very good, but quotes don’t stand out in Hepburn/Tracy movies; the moments between the quotes do. Moments like when he chases her up the stairs but almost bumps into her instead, or when she interrupts her dictation to give him a quick nip on the ear. They’re almost cloyingly sweet. If they’d made films 70 years later, you could expect hundreds of heart emoticons and several thousand YouTube tributes. But somehow--most likely because they aren’t lovesick preteens, though they look at each other with that intensity--Spencer and Kate just work.
There’s little to write about Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn that hasn’t already been written. They were the perfect marriage of opposites onscreen: Kate was glamorous, theatrical, and loud, but Spencer was the kind of actor who eschewed makeup and refused more than a few takes. He was the immovable object to her unstoppable force. By the time they began working together, each already had an Oscar or two - Kate had hers from Morning Glory, Spencer his from back-to-back wins for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. As a team, they would make nine movies over almost twenty years, running the gamut in genre and quality, but one thing remained the same: that irreplaceable chemistry.
Previous Weeks: A Bill of Divorcement, Christopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story,
Next Week: Keeper Of The Flame - In which I'm not entirely sure what's going on but it seems to involve boy scouts and fascism. (Available on Amazon.)