Now this is a pure movie magic. There has never been an on- and off-screen romance like the nine-movie pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. When writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn, who was wearing special heels that added several inches to her slender frame, said, “I’m afraid I’m too tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Mankiewicz said, “Don’t worry, he’ll soon cut you down to size.” And thus began a movie legend. She was never as natural and playful on screen with anyone else. And his love for her just shone from him, always.
Their first movie together was “Woman of the Year.” They work for the same newspaper. He’s a sportswriter and she’s an expert in international affairs who writes an influential political column. They meet when he she says something dismissive about sports on the radio and he writes a column telling her off. He’s called into the publisher’s office and as he walks in, the first thing he sees is her lovely leg as she leans over to adjust her stocking. He offers to take her to a baseball game and she goes, in a preposterous outfit, and completely charms everyone there. I’m not wild about the movie’s last half hour, but it is one of the great pleasures of movie history to watch these brilliant performers fall in love. Their best movie is probably “Adam’s Rib,” the story of married lawyers on opposite sides in a murder case. And their most heart-felt performances are probably in their last film, completed just before Tracy’s death, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The speech Tracy makes about his love for his wife is clearly straight from his heart. Their weakest film is the all-but-forgotten “Sea of Grass,” understandably omitted from this new collection, which also leaves out “Keeper of the Flame,” a flawed but intriguing film about a reporter who visits the widow of a respected statesman to write about her late husband that raises some powerful issues about how and when certain information should be made public.
I am delighted that seven of their films are now available in the splendid Tracy & Hepburn: the Definitive Collection. It includes their best-loved and best-remembered films and some that may be new to fans. “State of the Union” is their only Frank Capra film, a surprisingly timely (if talky) story about an industrialist turned Presidential candidate and his estranged wife. Real-life actor-turned Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan borrowed one of his best lines on the campaign trail from this film. I especially love “Pat and Mike,” the story of a sheltered athlete (you can see Hepburn, a superb athlete herself, playing golf and tennis) who meets a street-smart promoter (look for a young Charles Bronson in a small role) and “Desk Set” (she runs the information resources division of a broadcast network and he comes in to install the first computer — it’s about the size of a dozen refrigerators). And I am very fond of “Without Love,” set in my home town of Washington DC during the World War II housing shortage. He’s a scientist and she is a young widow. They impulsively decide to get married “without love” so that they can work together and you can guess the rest. Lucille Ball in her pre-Lucy days appears as Hepburn’s sophisticated friend who has a way with a wisecrack.
I have one copy of this treasure to give to a lucky reader. Send me an email at email@example.com with “Tracy-Hepburn” in the subject line and tell me which is your favorite of their films and why. Don’t forget to include your address. A week from today I will pick one entry at random. Good luck!