Tracy & Hepburn — Now There Was Chemistry!

A new 10-disc set collects their entire onscreen affair; here they are from best to worst

Classics are classics for a reason and the new 10-disc set honoring one of Hollywood’s greatest movie couples, “Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection,” out this week, defines that reason. 

Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy just outside the Thalberg building on the lot at Metro before shooting George Stevens’ screwball classic, “Woman of the Year.” Noting the difference in height, she commented, “I’m afraid I’m too tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Joseph Mankiewicz, who was standing nearby, responded, “Don’t worry, he’ll soon cut you down to size.”

The iconic couple went on to make nine movies together, all of which are included in this collection. Why should you care? Because when people talk about Tracy-Hepburn, they talk about chemistry. No onscreen couple has ever had it they way they do. Off-screen they were a couple too, and their familiarity and passion for one another is present in every movie they did together, good or bad. 

Best to worst, they are as follows:

1. "Woman of the Year" (1942): With “The Philadelphia Story” revitalizing her tepid career in the thirties, Hepburn went from one classic to another, “Woman of the Year.”  She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Tess Harding, a hard-driving New York City reporter.  Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sports reporter who falls for her.  Tess’ non-stop career is a bit too much for Craig who finds himself overwhelmed and outwitted by his over-achieving partner. This picture stands out for its portrayal of gender politics, one that seems revolutionary compared with what we often see in rom-coms today. However, “Woman of the Year” has a disappointing ending tacked on by the studio in which Hepburn attempts to fill the traditional role of wife by trying and failing to fix her husband a decent breakfast. 

2. "Adam's Rib" (1949): George Cukor directed the pair in a career high as a married couple of lawyers on opposite sides of a court case. The Tracy-Hepburn chemistry is on full display here, helped by a crackerjack script from Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. Gender politics again are the driving subtext of “Adam’s Rib” as Hepburn’s savvy, rebellious modern woman faces off against Tracy’s easygoing but stubborn old counselor. 

3. "Pat and Mike" (1952): Pat is Pat Pemberton, college phys. ed. teacher and gifted athlete. Mike is Mike Conovan, conniving sports manager. He sees in Pat the making of a phenom, but she is hamstrung by her fiancé whose mere appearance on the sideline takes her off her game. Another proto-feminist classic by the duo, “Pat and Mike” focuses on a woman who is hobbled by a man who envisions her as a happy little homemaker despite her talent and ambition. It takes Conovan to recognize her intrinsic strengths and nurture her potential. Hepburn did most of her best work with George Cukor, who helmed this and other unimpeachable screwball classics. 

4. "State of the Union" (1948): Regarded as a classic, Frank Capra’s, “State of the Union” is a bit of a disappointment but is still worth a look. Tracy plays Grant Matthews, a dark-horse candidate drafted by the Republican party to run for President. His wife (Hepburn) joins him on the campaign trail where the two encounter marital strife in the form of a comely newspaper heiress played by Angela Lansbury. Included are familiar Capra tropes about American ideals thwarted by political expediency, leaving “State of the Union” longer on message (one that’s still relevant today) than on comedy.

5. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967): Here's a classic that was no doubt impactful in the Civil Rights era but has lost much relevance since then. Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of Christina Drayton who, with her husband, Matthew (Tracy) meets her daughter’s fiancé for the first time only to discover he’s, (gasp) black! This character piece by Stanley Kramer was the first hard look at race relations on the big screen with Sidney Poitier playing an impossibly over-qualified fiancé (he’s a doctor with the U.N.) to their ineffectual daughter, (Katherine Houghton).

6. "Desk Set" (1957): I know people love this movie and some will insist it deserves higher ranking, but “Desk Set” is kind of unwatchable save for the dynamic duo in the center of it.  Nora Ephron’s parents, Phoebe and Henry wrote this stale rom-com set in a high-tech office. Efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Tracy) introduces a room-sized computer to help modernize the Federal Broadcasting Company, a TV network where Bunny Watson (Hepburn) works. Efforts to simplify procedures lead to the usual unintended results:  heads roll and the ‘human touch’ goes by the wayside. Anamorphic and in color, “Desk Set” lacks the intimacy and charm of earlier outings and seems keen on stating the obvious. 

7. "The Sea of Grass" (1947): Pity this western isn’t better, what with the inimitable Elia Kazan at the helm. Hepburn plays Lutie Cameron Brewton, a young woman from St. Louis who travels west to the plain states. Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) is a land owner leading frontiersmen in their claim against Jim Brewton, (Tracy) who controls every drop of water on the great sea of grass. Between them is Hepburn, whose child with Chamberlain is raised by Brewton. Rambling and dull, “Sea of Grass” is identifiable as a Kazan movie only in its superlative performances. The director had a way of making even the most forgettable parts seem vital in this, his second feature. 

8. "Without Love" (1945): In the final year of World War II, Tracy stars as a scientist working on an oxygen mask to be used in combat. Widow Jamie Rowan (Hepburn) has the perfect basement for his lab. The two enter a platonic marriage wherein Tracy will live in her basement where he develops his life-saving mask.  However, love gets in the way and you can guess the rest. Keenan Wynn and Lucille Ball help this hapless comedy in supporting parts, but weak material and the dubious hand of director Harold Bucquet put a drag on “Without Love.” 

9. "Keeper of the Flame" (1942): The screen couple followed the breezy “Woman of the Year” with the decidedly un-breezy, “Keeper of the Flame.” Tracy plays war correspondent, Steve O’Malley, back in the states to report on the passing of an American icon whose car fell into a breach following a bridge collapse. Tracy befriends the widow, (Hepburn), who could have warned her husband but chose not to. Director George Cukor reunites with Hepburn to tell this slow and dreary tale interwoven with hard-hitting political commentary. 

On the 10th disc is “The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn” in which an aged and nearly incomprehensible Hepburn recalls Tracy’s life and their career together.  

Many of these movies have been on disc for a few years, but it’s convenient to have them all together in one package. The three romantic comedies that head the list are text-book cases of how to do the genre right. They have strong female characters who don’t make men the center of their existence. They are witty without being intellectual and they include enough broad humor to reach audience members from jail to Yale without ever condescending to them.

“Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection” is chemistry done right.


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