Episode 21 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.
When a star’s career is as long-lasting and iconic as Katharine Hepburn’s was, there are going to be dramatic highs and lows in terms of quality. Mapped out on a timeline, it would resemble a mountain range. The glittering Mount Holiday would stand tall on the horizon, dwarfed on either side by Bringing Up Baby Peak and The Philadelphia Story Summit. Behind it would be the dark valleys and caves of RKO. However, the most treacherous topographical feature on our Atlas Hepburnica would be the Seven Year Desert, stretching seemingly endlessly from Woman of the Year Peak to Adam’s Rib Ridge. The Seven Year Desert is a vast sea of grass that barrages a traveler with its unending, monotonous mediocrity. Woe to the weary wanderer who gives up, rather than trudge through another undistinguished Hepburn vehicle.
Faithful readers, you and I are currently in the middle of the Seven Year Desert, so forgive my heavy-handed metaphors as I attempt to mine our next few movies for something, anything to talk about. Currently, we’re stuck in Without Love, a serviceable comedy reteaming Kate with Spencer Tracy. Tracy plays an engineer designing a new helmet for the US Air Force. Kate is a widowed heiress who volunteers to be his assistant. They marry out of convenience with the agreement that they absolutely will not fall in love. Three guesses how that turns out. Your first two don’t count.
There’s a wealth of supporting talent in the film. Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn, both in top comedic form, threaten to steal the film out from under Tracy and Hepburn almost every time they appear as the bickering B Plot romance. The script is by Donald Ogden Stewart, adapted from Philip Barry’s play. It’s the same writing combination that produced The Philadelphia Story, which had established Kate’s star image even as it celebrated and teased it. However, the insight and wit that had defined The Philadelphia Story lacks in Without Love, as does the understanding of how to best use the at-odds chemistry of its two stars.
Tracy and Hepburn are the prototypical case of Opposite Attract. As such, they work best in an arena where they can be evenly matched as they joyfully joust with each other in perpetual games of one-upsmanship. Unfortunately, in Without Love, Kate is stuck as Spencer’s subordinate, sitting--sometimes literally--at his feet. Without Kate’s charm to keep him in check, Spencer barks and lectures, and tends to be a boor. There are some cute moments of physical comedy with Kate testing the helmet, and their chemistry remains sweet. Otherwise Tracy and Hepburn remain complacently cooperative until an erratic third act wherein Kate and Spencer attempt in increasingly ridiculous ways to get a rise out of each other. Alas, the slapstick climax comes too little too late, and seems haphazardly tacked onto a film that can’t decide if it’s a propaganda piece, a romcom, or a screwball comedy.
Incidentally, Kate sitting at Spencer’s feet is the image most biographers ascribe to the real relationship between Hepburn and Tracy. She’d dote on him, clean up after him, and sober him up, while he’d grumble and snap. If that’s so, then their dynamic is another of example of fiction being stranger--or at least more interesting--than truth. Rumors continue to circle about a possible upcoming biopic about Kate and Spencer. Ultimately, I think that’s a mistake. Any retelling of their lives could never match the peculiar magic Spencer and Kate mixed onscreen. Of this I’m certain: if that Hepburn/Tracy biopic ever gets made, it won’t be better than Without Love.
What are your thoughts on a biopic about Tracy and Hepburn?
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, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame, Stage Door Canteen, and Dragon Seed.
Next Week: Undercurrent (1946)- In which Katharine Hepburn’s terrible fashion sense almost kills her.