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Wednesday
May212014

A Year with Kate: Without Love (1945)

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 DivorcementChristopher 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.

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Reader Comments (17)

This movie is all about Lucille Ball and Kennan Wynn for me. The rest of the movie is fine, and I've enjoyed watching it more than once, but mostly because I think Ball and Wynn are so delightful.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

I don't quite think the period between WOMAN OF THE YEAR to ADAM'S RIB as wretched as you think. Certainly the next four films are not the most remembered in her filmography but there's some good aspects to ponder on in them but I'm fairly curious to see your takes on because they're such interesting stops in Kate's career.

That said, of the period, WITHOUT LOVE is the least gripping of the seven film period but it's not such rocky terrain ahead. Not flawless, but definitely intriguing.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

Who would play Tracy & Hepburn in a biopic. Streep in her later years
Would be sweet retaliation for her petty dislike of our Meryl...

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I wish there was a Tracy/Hepburn movie where SHE played an engineer, and he played her assistant. Maybe this betrays my decidedly lukewarm feelings for Spencer Tracy, but I feel like the movie wouldn't suffer half so much from the uneven footing of its leads if he played subordinate.

Your GIF game remains absolutely on point.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Mark - Oh dear, do you think she'd do it? Meryl doesn't strike me as the retaliatory type. Depending on when in their relationship this biopic takes place, what about Jessica Chastain for the early years?

Then again, this might turn into another Lindsey-Lohan-as-Liz-Taylor mess. I shudder at the thought.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I would hate a greatest hits style biopic because there's so much to get wrong, mistakenly omit or otherwise screw up, but a film about a particular year in their relationship, say, 1949, could be fascinating. And then cast Lisa Kudrow and Jason Isaacs (or Greg Kinnear).

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Not a disaster but a forgettable entry in their teaming, missing the highs of Desk Set and Adam's Rib but much better than the bizarre Keeper of the Flame. Not the pair's best but after last week's fiasco it's a vast improvement for Hepburn.

It's a shaky premise pleasing played by the pair but as others have said while Kate & Spence were not on their A game Lucy and Keenan Wynn are. In this reunion with her Stage Door co-star Lucy comes out on top.

After growing up on I Love Lucy, which of course is brilliant but based on the idea of Ball being an average housewife and therefore mostly in casual daywear it's a treat to see Lucy oozing glamour. That final outfit made almost entirely of sequins is a knockout. It seems that Irene tried to compensate for the lack of color photography by using as many fabrics and materials as possible to catch the light and brighten the film that way. In Kate's attempted seduction scene she also glitters.

But it's not just Lucy's costume that sparkles but the actress herself. She was often shunted into junk by her studios, as most golden age stars were, but when given good material as she was here she could run away with a film and grabbing Keenan Wynn's hand they proceed to do just that. They were re-teamed the next year in Easy to Wed and once again overshadowed the star team of Esther Williams and Van Johnson, of course if they could steal a film from Tracy & Hepburn those two would prove no obstacle. Since they were so simpatico it's a shame they weren't teamed more often.

Back to the Miss Hepburn, aside from her being encased briefly as Robot Monster, as I watched I was struck by her gauntness for the first time in this film. Up until now she had always been svelte but not excessively slender. In this she is thin, angular and rawboned, perhaps from the rigors of Dragon Seed. She also seems more jittery than usual, fussing with her hair and squirming uncomfortably. Maybe it was a conscious decision to show how the character had closed herself off and was struggling to come out of her shell but it was quite noticeable and somewhat distracting.

The film does have the surprising and wonderful bonus of having Gloria Grahame pop up in a brief scene as a flower seller. Patricia Morison also scores points in her small role as the brittle, haughty Edwina, one of the pleasures of the film is watching Tracy instantly take her measure and then consistently berate her whenever she wanders back into the film.

As far as a Tracy/Hepburn bio Hollywood has a notoriously spotty history of doing right by it's denizens on the screen. For every I'll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me or The Aviator there are a disproportionate number of failed attempts such as Harlow, The Buster Keaton Story, any version of Valentino's life, Till the Clouds Roll By etc. The best comparison is probably the abysmal Gable & Lombard, which if you haven't seen it spare yourself! if you have I share your pain.

Looking forward to the weird Undercurrent next week. It's a rocky one for Kate with a totally incompatible teaming with Robert Mitchum, but still fascinating in its way.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

This section upsets me: "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"

State of the Union is a gem and - the last five minutes aside - one of the finest political films ever made. You could set that script in the present day without changing a word, and Tracy and Hepburn are excellent.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I really do enjoy the last act, the most screwball part of the film, but you're right (as you ever are in this series so far, Anne Marie!), it's far too little too late. A shame the film isn't better.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Okay, here's something sort of superficial to talk about but very important (to me only I am sure). Is this the first time Kate wore her hair up? Did she do it throughout the entire movie? If so, what does it mean? What does it mean that MGM went along with it or ordered it? Is it the end of Kate's "girlhood"? Did she ever wear her hair down again? If so when? And why?

Dave in Alamitos Beach-In Undercurrent she wears her hair down most of the time but pulled back in a ponytail not loose as I recall. As Taylor remakes her image her look changes quite a bit throughout but I think the days of the lovely cascading chestnut mane have come to a close.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Dave: that's a fantastic question. At first memory, I can say it's worn down in (if I remember) key moments in THE LION IN WINTER, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, THE AFRICAN QUEEN. I say key moments because it's usually worn down to signify some key theme like Rose embracing her femininity, or Mary and Eleanor remember their younger, youthful days.

The question is rather intriguing when one considers the image of the women in film, though. I've always felt Kate was very like Jo March in the way her hair was that un-claimable aspect of her and the moment where she lets it out in THE LION IN WINTER always felt "important".

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

I think her hair "fell down" or became untied in The Rainmaker and I think that was supposed to show sexual awakening (no kidding). I can understand the hair up/hair down in later years, but why such an abrupt change in her whole movie persona?

Anne Marie, do you remember the hair stats for Kate? She wore it up in a lot of those godawful RKO period movies, but that's more based on the style of the time I'd think.

And also, if you're going to wear your hair up all the time, why not just cut it short? It seems like such an old-fashioned construct for such a "modern" personality. Hmm, did Spencer tell her that "proper ladies" of a certain age wore their hair up?

Dave & AndrewK, I have a theory about Kate's hair that I promise I'll get to. Call it acting hairography. But yes, I've noticed that starting with Without Love she wears it up as often as if not more than she wears it down. There's actually a moment in Without Love where she briefly takes it down and brushes it out, and I was completely entranced by the change. I'd say it's a few movies after this that Kate letting her hair down actually becomes an important symbolic gesture.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Curious to see what you have to say Anne-Marie (as always).

I will say, Dave I don't think it's as simple as a "proper" lady edict vs the alternative. Kate isn't playing young socialite women any more. No more Tracy Lords, no more Susan Vances, she's going to be playing "old-maids" or "lawyers" or "queens", it would be weird if Adamna Bonner went around with her hair flowing or for timid Jane Hudson to have Kate's defiant mane of auburn hair flowing down her back. Or if pro-athlete Pat did. Flowing hair would get in the way of her athleticism :)

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

Speaking as a lady who had long hair until she chopped it all off (after watching Sylvia Scarlett), it's just so much easier when it's up and out of the way. I completely sympathize with Kate on that point. I hardly ever took it down, and then only so that I could make dramatic speeches into a mirror about the future of my empire.

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Thanks to this series I am learning about films I have never heard of, and this is one. I have seen about 30 of the 52 films in this series, and I must say this sounds quite awful.
Although Tracy/Hepburn is and was a famous pairing, this seems more evidence that the Grant/Hepburn duo was the more successful.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

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