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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Tracy & Hepburn The Definitive Collection

You would have to turn to the stage to find a comparable accomplishment to the films that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together across a quarter of a century.  The movies will always have their ‘screen couples,’ from Greta Garbo and John Gilbert to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but capturing the soul of the off screen romance and transcribing it to a consistent body of onscreen character interaction is far more difficult and can often take a wrong turn, such as when the tempestuous relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor turned their movies from compelling dramas to ultra-high camp.  Other screen couples have had no off screen relationship to speak of, such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or William Powell and Myrna Loy, but their work fits more into the mold of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, succeeding with inspired iterations of a single formulaic concept. 

Most of the Tracy & Hepburn movies were comedies, but not all of them, and the pair exhibit just as much familiarity and instinctive timing in their serious films as they do in their less than serious films.  They both had prominent individual careers, as well.  She was younger, but a prodigy whose work was so well established that by the time the two did come together as film stars, they were, in every sense of the word, equals.  It is this equality that is communicated so readily in their work together.  Even when their roles veer into gender stereotypes, the sense of respect and collaboration in the nuances of their performances convey to viewers a subliminal defiance of the patterns their characters are being forced to conform with.  Often times, the plots will revolve around a rebellion against that conformity, and again it is because of the palpable strength of the emotional bond between the performers that the play of these conflicts is magnified with an unusual and unique maturity.  They are grownups, and even their silliest films and their best moments of slapstick (both were superb at the art) are tempered for the better by grownup sensibilities.

Warner Home Video has done a grownup thing, too, welcoming the contributions of several other home video companies in order to put together the aptly titled ten-platter set, Tracy & Hepburn The Definitive Collection, featuring all of the films the two stars made together.  Each movie appears on a separate platter and all are either available on DVD separately as well, or have been in the past, except for Hepburn’s documentary The Spencer Tracy Legacy, which was included in Warner’s previous and smaller collection of comedies, Tracy & Hepburn The Signature Collection.

Tracy and Hepburn were first paired in the 1942 MGM production, Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens.  Tracy is a sports columnist and Hepburn is a worldly political columnist for the same newspaper.  The 114-minute feature charts their relationship as they meet and fall for one another, marry, and then start to have troubles with their conflicting schedules and interests once the initial spark of passion has subsided.  Although seeming to embrace the idea of an independent career woman, the film, catering to the accepted wisdom of the times, tends to ridicule the ineptitude of Hepburn’s character when it comes to ‘female’ responsibilities, such as cooking.  Rescuing the film and making it an enduring classic, however, is the real electricity the two have between them.  When they’re in love, you believe it, and whey they’re mad at each other, you see that the anger comes from the frustrations of love.  If the film’s gender bashing is a little dated, its physical comedy is timeless and performed to perfection, and in place of its false lessons, there is a real understanding of the conflicts couples face when they try to merge their independent lives into a shared lane.

The presentation is identical to the earlier DVD.  The full screen black-and-white picture has some minor speckles and scratches, but is in workable shape and the monophonic sound is okay.  There are alternate French and Spanish tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a trailer.

A poor career move but still a very entertaining movie, the pair’s second film together, the 1942 MGM production, Keeper of the Flame, is a gothic mystery.  Directed by George Cukor, Tracy is a newspaper reporter looking to write the biography of a widely admired statesman after the man is killed in an automobile accident on his estate.  Hepburn is his widow, and for most of the film, she and Tracy’s character have a vaguely antagonistic relationship.  The more Tracy’s character attempts to investigate the man’s final hours, the more of a runaround he gets from the man’s family and associates.  People will look at the era-appropriate preachiness at the film’s end and dismiss the entire movie as a trifle, but while you are sitting through it, it is anything but that.  Tracy’s performance is warm and inviting, and the movie’s atmosphere is wonderful.  Running 100 minutes, you spend most of those minutes hanging on every move Tracy makes and having no idea whatsoever how the story will unfold or what will happen next.  Although the pair never have the opportunity to share their frisky interaction the way they do in the romantic comedies, it is readily apparent that the movie would be much, much worse if they were not there to keep their characters in a precise balance of attractiveness and ambiguity.

The full screen black-and-white picture looks lovely, with crisp contrasts and deep blacks.  Evidence of wear is minimal.  The monophonic sound is reasonably strong, too.  There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 10-minute MGM color Tex Avery cartoon from 1942 entitled Blitz Wolf that is a sendoff on The Three Little Pigs, and an 11-minute black-and-white MGM Our Gang short from 1942 entitled Going to Press in which the kids make and distribute a newspaper until young extortionists try to get a piece of the action.

Returning to the more trusted genre, Without Love is a romantic comedy directed by Harold S. Bucquet in which Tracy is a scientist (they call him that—he appears to be more of an engineer) working on a wartime project, and Hepburn is the widowed owner of the house/mansion where he has set up shop.  They like each other and decide to marry, even though—and this is kind of the sticking point to the 1945 feature—they’re not interested in sex, just companionship.  And then the rest of the 110-minute film is about them realizing that they want sex, too.  There are a few tired devices—Tracy’s character sleepwalks, and Hepburn does her exaggerated ‘putting on airs’ bit—that are nevertheless amusing specifically because the talented pair can deliver even the dumbest routines and make them work.  It is also clear that they bring out the best in one another.  Hepburn seems much more relaxed than she is in films where Tracy isn’t involved, and Tracy seems more confident.  On the whole, the movie is one of the weaker efforts in the Collection, but as a portion of their finitely shared resume, it provides an opportunity to savor their magic and should not be missed.

The full screen black-and-white picture looks very nice overall, with crisp details and only a few stray instances of speckles and scratches.  The monophonic sound is fine.  There are optional English and French subtitles, a trailer, an 8-minute 1945 MGM color Tex Avery cartoon, Swing Shift Cinderella, about a wolf, a hot Red Riding Hood, and a wolf-starved grandma, and a 20-minute black-and-white MGM Crime Does Not Pay short, Purity Squad, about busting a pharmaceutical company that has manipulated data in order to boost sales.  If only taking down the real pharma giants were so easy!

A western, and an Elia Kazan western at that, The Sea of Grass is the only film in the group where the two stars play characters who have deep emotional troubles with one another.  The 1947 feature is set out West, but it is really a soap opera.  Tracy’s character is a rancher and Hepburn—whose character matures deftly over the story’s two decades—begins the film as his young bride.  When farmers move into the area, Tracy’s character becomes combative and this causes a marital split that is then acerbated by other circumstances.  Melvyn Douglas co-stars.  The 123-minute MGM film contains a rather surprising plot turn for its era, and the two characters spend too much time apart from one another for the movie to really take advantage of the magic they exude when they are together.  Kazan’s direction is uneven as well, with some shots or sequences in the movie being highly dynamic and involving, while other scenes are blandly staged and unevenly executed.  Like any of the weaker films in the group, however, the movie is strengthened greatly by its inclusion in the Collection.  The scenes that Hepburn and Tracy do have together have a magnified importance that would not be there if the film were seen on its own, and so you pay more attention to the nuances and the silent exchanges, and feel the dilemmas of the characters all the more vividly. 

The plot also has a number of similarities to East of Eden, and it is questionable that Kazan would have achieved quite as much greatness on that film if he hadn’t have practiced on this one beforehand.  The full screen black-and-white picture looks very nice, and Kazan’s John Ford-like shots of the western landscapes are thrilling.  The image is sharp and wear is minimal.  The monophonic sound is fine.  There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 7-minute MGM color Tom and Jerry cartoon from 1946 entitled Cat Concerto (it won the Oscar) in which the mouse messes with the cat’s piano during a concert, and a 21-minute black-and-white MGM Theatre of Life short from 1947 entitled Give Us the Earth, about teaching Mexican peasants to farm better and use modern conveniences so they won’t be so poor.

The title, State of the Union, refers to the film’s premise, that Tracy’s character, an industrialist, is being groomed by a newspaper chain for a presidential run, but it also refers to his character’s strained relationship with his wife, played, naturally, by Hepburn.  The 1948 film, which was directed by Frank Capra, is rich with stars, including Van Heflin, Adolphe Menjou and Angela Lansbury (as Hepburn’s seemingly demonic rival, a ‘career’ woman), and that is what prevents the viewer from tuning out the populist political gobbledygook (set in the relatively real state of the early 1948 race for the Republican nomination), but more importantly, the movie is a wonderful showcase for the pair’s performance relationship.  It is incredibly natural.  At one moment, Hepburn kicks Tracy on the leg in the course of a friendly banter.  It’s a throw away action that passes unnoticed and even Tracy’s character barely acknowledges it, but it is such a free, ‘real’ impulse, it represents the essence of not only why the movie is still appealing, but why the two stars worked so well together.

A Universal title, the full screen black-and-white picture is in beautiful condition, with crisp, smooth contrasts and spotless, shiny blacks.  The monophonic sound is solid.  The 123-minute program has optional English subtitles.

The pair play married lawyers who end up on opposite sides in a criminal case in George Cukor’s delightful 1949 MGM comedy, Adam’s Rib.  Tracy is the prosecutor on a case where a woman has attempted to shoot her husband, and Hepburn is the defense attorney.  Judy Holliday, Jean Hagen and Tom Ewell co-star.  Adapted from a stageplay, Cukor keeps the pace rolling quickly, with overlapping dialog and relatively fast editing, all of which supports the marvelously witty performances by everyone in the cast.  While Holliday, in particular, comes close to stealing the show, it is ultimately the psychically timed banter between Tracy and Hepburn that cements the film’s humor and its clear but always welcome symbolism of matrimonial conflict.  Running 100 minutes, the presentation is identical to the Warner DVD, with a spotless full screen black-and-white picture, an alternate French track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a trailer.

Where Adam’s Rib holds onto a darker vision of male-female relationships even as it celebrates their spirited equality, Cukor’s Pat and Mike, an MGM production from 1952, is a frothier effort with more joviality and less symbolic weight.  There are villains, but they are a comical bunch (including Charles Bronson—Chuck Connors also shows up, as a cop) and hardly a threat to anything.  Tracy has great fun playing a sports promoter with ties to mobsters, who takes on Hepburn’s character as a client when he discovers her proficiency in both tennis and golf.  She does fall apart, however, whenever she notices her fiancé in the stands.  Hepburn tends to overplay that idiosyncrasy, but there is probably no way around it, since everything else in the film is overplayed as well.  It takes a long time for the two main characters to recognize the romantic aspect of their mutual attraction, but the friendship they develop is just as engaging and the 95-minute feature never seems to have a slow moment or an unappealing turn.  Like Adam’s Rib, the DVD is identical to the initial Warner release, again with a pristine full screen black-and-white picture, optional English and French subtitles and a trailer.

After the brisk dialog exchanges and busy screen movement in Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, much of Desk Set, a 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Studio Classics title, can feel le­thargic.  Unlike the former films, the actors actually wait for each one to fin­ish a line of dialog before reciprocating.  Directed by Walter Lang, Tracy is a computer designer in charge of installing a new machine in the research de­partment of a TV network.  Hepburn runs the department (with Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill), and Gig Young his her not-in-a-hurry-to-get-hitched boy­friend.  Despite the 2.35:1 letterboxed image, the staging is static, with little more than a couple of sets.  There are sequences where Tracy and Hepburn manage to breakaway from the shackles of conventional staging being imposed upon them, and the film’s charms pick up considerably when they do so, but outside the context of their teaming, the movie has very little to offer.

The color transfer looks gorgeous and the sound, or at least the music, has a mildly stereophonic dimensionality.  The 104-minute program has an alternate Spanish track in mono, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a nice collection of production photos in still frame, and a minute-long black-and-white newsreel promotion that presents the movie’s costumes in a ‘fashion show.’  Film scholar John Lee supplies a commentary, intercut with reminiscences by Merrill (there are longish gaps in the film’s second half).  Lee has some arcane trivia to share (“Although directors have occasionally employed real alcoholic beverages on movie sets in search of verisimilitude, more inert substances are commonly employed to substitute for liquor.  Tea for whisky and brandy, and ginger ale for champagne.”) but otherwise sticks to the basics about the backgrounds of the cast and crew, and how the film was conceived and executed.  Merrill talks about her entire career (as on her talk in What Makes Sammy Run?, she has some nasty things to say about John Frankenheimer) and shares some great stories about the generosity and work ethic of Tracy and Hepburn.  “They were so comfortable with each other.  That was the main thing, and they used to go home and stage these scenes at night between the two of them.  They’d come in the morning and say, ‘Now Walter, this is what we’re going to do.’  And he did nothing there.  He didn’t have a chance to do anything.”

It is with the freshness of all these other movies in mind that you can then turn to the 1967 Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and be totally knocked out by the pair’s presence.  You barely even notice Sidney Poitier.  What you pick up on, instead, are the little things that the two do, physically and mentally, in their exchanges.  While their performances may be exaggerated to suit the tone of something like Pat and Mike, they have a remarkable emotional realism and contemporary sensibility in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Hepburn is amazing, and you might not even notice it if you didn’t have her other performances as a context to appreciate the subtlety and realistic detail she brings to her character’s feelings and actions.  It is an incredibly textured performance, and adds so much more to a viewer’s understanding of her character than the dialog alone can hope to do.  Tracy was near dying, and yet his performance has so much energy at times you fear for his life there on the screen.  It is easily Tracy’s greatest performance, a sophisticated mix of paternalism and emotional confusion, but that is not because he got better, but because cinema itself had finally matured enough to meet his true talent.  And when the two of them are together on the screen, it is like they’ve never been apart.

The film, directed by Stanley Kramer, is an interesting snapshot of the American racial psyche just before the assassination of Martin Luther King blew things open.  In the context of the collection, the film is greatly strengthened, because it becomes less about the racial arguments and more about what it really is about, which is the parents worrying not that their daughter is marrying some black guy (who she met in Hawaii, nudge, nudge), but that she has jumped into the relationship too quickly.  While the 107-minute film works essentially as a stageplay, mixing and matching the various characters for emotional and intellectual exchanges (the parents of Poitier’s character also arrive to meet their potential in-laws), it is in far more ways a timeless exploration of the concerns parents have for their children than it is a dated representation of a specific era.  Again, the reason for that comes straight from the performances of all the cast members, who consistently find and communicate the eternal truths beneath the social decorations and manners of their times.

The film was first released by Columbia TriStar and then reissued by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a two-platter 40th Anniversary Edition, and it is the first platter of that set is included in the Collection.  The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  Not only has the stray speckling from the earlier release been eliminated, but the colors, which looked great before, have an even stronger and crisper definition.  The image looks fantastic, and brings a real sense of classiness to the drama’s proscenium.  As with the previous release, the sound is in 3-channel stereo, with slight but pleasing dimensional touches.  In any case, the audio is clear and smooth.  There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in mono, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 9 minutes of testimonials to Kramer.

The 1986 Spencer Tracy Legacy features, in a sense, a performance by Hepburn—the film is subtitled A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn—in which she uses the demeanor of her own frailty and diminishing health to emphasize how important the project of summarizing Tracy’s life and career in an 86-minute film is to her.  She also coerced—and probably didn’t have to work too hard to do so—many other normally aloof individuals into sharing their memories and insights, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Poitier, Kramer and many others.  The picture is presented in full screen format.  Clips of widescreen films are usually cropped and sometimes faded.  The interview footage, however, is fresh looking, and the monophonic sound is clear.  There is English captioning.  It is only a shame that Warner wasn’t able to grab whatever got left on the cutting room floor to include as some kind of special feature.  Nevertheless, with the stars, the marvelous film clips of Tracy’s work, and the descriptions of Tracy’s personality and presence, the documentary is a highly captivating program, and having just sat through all of those other movies in the Collection only makes it that much more fascinating and compelling.

3 Responses to “DVD Geek: Tracy & Hepburn The Definitive Collection”

  1. Jeanrobie says:

    Am I alone in finding “Woman of the Year” pretty creepy? The plot hinges on the revelation that Hepburn’s character cares more for the masses than for her loving husband, parents, or the little boy she adopts and then heartlessly abandons (the latter scenes are actually hard to sit through). A slapstick coda where she fails miserably at making breakfast doesn’t in the least redeem her awfulness.

  2. Brandy says:

    I have to totally agree with you about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

  3. Carma Sitler says:

    Howdy, I need to understand if you could supply me a few tips and hints about feminine odour. Thanks!

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