Thursday, December 08, 2011

Katharine Hepburn, Stage II: Woman of the Year, State of the Union, and Adam's Rib

This was the second leg of ArtsEmerson's three-month Katharine Hepburn retrospective, and I must admit to enjoying this program of collaborations with Spencer Tracy a bit less than the first set. In her 1930s movies, Hepburn was a force of nature that demanded people either accept her as she is or get out of the way. Even the dizzy dame of Bringing Up Baby or the woman about to marry out of obligation in Holiday was exceptional somehow, and by the end of the movie, the man she chose would have accepted that.

Then you get to the 1940s, and Spencer Tracy, and suddenly Kate's ability is something that needs to be reined in. Woman of the Year often seems especially ugly in this regard; we spend the first chunk of the movie seeing that Tess is brilliant in a number of areas and willing to learn in others; then for its finale, the old arrogance returns, and the filmmakers stumble by not playing it as Tess and Sam needing to adapt to making big decisions together marriage as opposed to the single life, but Tess just being wrong and Sam being right, with Tess having to grovel before him even though he didn't exactly put a lot of effort into trying to fix things.

Plus, there's no way I'm going to believe that a college-educated veteran reporter can't make a pot of coffee without it becoming a slapstick farce. There's not a class, but if you're a coffee drinker, that's just basic survival techniques.

Anyway, the series at the Paramount is in its final leg now, with some of Hepburn's later works, where she was able to get some of her power back because she was no longer really playing a romantic lead - The African Queen last week, Summertime this weekend, and closing out the series with Long Day's Journey on the 17th and 18th.

Woman of the Year

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

I wonder, idly, what I'd think of Woman of the Year if I saw it as part of a program of Spencer Tracy films as opposed to one focused on Katharine Hepburn. In the context of Hepburn's work, it comes after three all-time classic films with Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story) and almost seems to serve as a rebuke to them, knocking the independent and intelligent Hepburn down a peg. On the other hand, it probably seemed to loosen Tracy up - a harbinger of a relationship that would prove fruitful both on-screen and off.

Sam Craig (Tracy) and Tess Harding (Hepburn) are columnists for the same newspaper, with Sam covering sports and Tess world affairs. A comment by Tess on a radio program describing sports as unimportant kicks off a feud, though they eventually bury the hatchet at a baseball game, falling for each other and even marrying. Of course, neither of them has really changed during this whirlwind courtship, so Sam's old-fashioned values and Tess's imperious nature will inevitably lead them to clash again.

Hepburn and Tracy would later go on to have a long-running relationship, but this is where they met, and the on-screen chemistry, at least, is visible from the start. Like all good movie newspapermen (and women), they're never at a loss for well-chosen words, but they still miss a step when they first meet, and a sequence of Tess attending her first baseball game does a nice job of putting the initial conflict to rest and letting the audience see her as potentially more than an all-business grump.

Full review at EFC.

State of the Union

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

Get this: In 1948, a successful businessman making a run to be the Republican Party's nominee for President against an incumbent Democrat but having to finesse his way around an extramarital affair or two was the subject of a Frank Capra film, with the candidate and his wife sympathetic characters. Really! They were played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn! And it was charmingly idealistic and kind of funny no matter which party you supported!

The would-be candidate is Grant Matthews (Tracy), a self-made millionaire in the aviation business being urged to run by his lover Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), who recently inherited her late father's newspaper empire. He's reluctant, but Washington operator Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) convinces him he's got a shot. The catch, obviously, is that it won't take the other papers long to dig up the connection between Grant and Kay, so they make sure that Grant's estranged but still loving wife Mary (Hepburn) travels with him on a cross-country speaking tour - with reporter "Spike" McManus (Van Johnson) along to serve as Kay's eyes and ears.

State of the Union is, like many Frank Capra films, a combination of cynicism and idealistic aspirations and cynical reality, with Capra and his writers (Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, from a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) not opting to use one to disguise another: The film is pretty clearly set up as a battle between the two women in his life for Grant's soul, with Mary believing he would make a good President despite his faults and Kay perhaps finding him an electable proxy for her own ambitions. It's a facile-seeming setup, perhaps, but the underlying concept rings sadly true sixty years later; it maps to a number of disappointing real-world candidates in recent decades.

Full review at EFC.

Adams' Rib

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Kate the Iconoclast, Katharine the Icon)

Adam's Rib opens with a darkly funny sequence, as wronged wife and mother Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) follows her husband Warren (Tom Ewell), trying to work up the nerve to shoot him. The outcome is not much in doubt - if no-one gets shot, there's no reason for the rest of the movie - but it's arguably the high point of the movie, even though enough jokes still work for it to amuse.

The story of the Attingers is front page news in New York City, and the district attorney assigns one of his best men, Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy), to prosecute it. It appears to be open and shut, at least until Adam's wife Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) inserts herself. Sympathetic toward Doris, she points out that society has often looked the other way when cuckolded men take their vengeance, and attempts to secure the same sort of treatment for Doris, even if she has to turn the trial into a circus to do it.

It's possible to do a "battle of the sexes" movie that doesn't come off as unfair, even when appraised with a later, more progressive eye - Tracy and Hepburn actually made a decent stab at it earlier in the decade with Woman of the Year - but Adam's Rib is certainly not it. Sure, Hepburn's Amanda is perhaps played as the more capable of the Bonners, but it's a rare moment when Amanda is the one making the reasonable argument or doing the reasonable thing while Adam goes too far. That's not inherently a bad thing, but the script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin often crosses the line from madcap to mean. This is meant to be a romantic comedy, but the antics on display do less to demonstrate why they love each other than to indicate that they must, because otherwise why put up with this?

Full review at EFC.

1 comment:

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Not my favorite Hepburn-Tracy film either. I'm in the minority among classic film fans, but I like GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. Yes, it treats its potentially controversial theme in a naive way, but the film is rife with good intentions and Hepburn, Tracy (especially), and Poitier are all wonderful.