Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TRACY & HEPBURN: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (Warner,Fox Sony, Universal 1942-1967) Warner Home Video

Hollywood's dream merchants of the golden age were savvy businessmen to be sure. But they were also blessed with intuitive creativity; an essential in the industry then and one almost entirely, and regrettably, lacking from the movie making subculture now. One of the most enduring ghost flowers from that mythical age was the creation of magnificent ‘screen teams’; pairing gifted talents together that became iconic touchstones of our shared movie going experience. Audiences looked forward to seeing these familiar faces do familiar things, but always in new and interesting stories. Over the years there have been many such alliances; Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Gable and Lana Turner, and, of course, who can forget Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. But if you had to pick just one team to exemplify this legacy of screen pairings, I have a feeling the vote would be unanimously cast for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
By the time they made their debut together, each had already been working steadily - if unevenly - in the industry for more than 10 years. Their respective bodies of work apart from each other made their faces easily identifiable. Both had cache at the box office, although Tracy's was more secure than Hepburn’s by 1942. If, apart, they held their own, then together they were nothing less than dynamite; the quintessence of martial perfection seen in 9 movies between 1942 and 1967, the year of Tracy's death. The truth, of course, was far removed from this idyllic on screen portrait. Tracy, a devote Catholic, was already married to Louise with two children of his own, while Hepburn had managed a string of highly publicized affairs – including one with Howard Hughes - that, like her movie career seemed to have more downs and ups.
Once labeled 'box office poison', Hepburn had managed to claw her way back to stardom after appearing in both the stage and screen versions of The Philadelphia Story (1940). The clout Hepburn acquired from this film earned her the right to choose her next screen property, Woman of the Year (1942) and with it her choice of leading man. Hepburn chose Tracy. It was the beginning of a memorable partnership. In retrospect, George Steven's Woman of the Year (1942) seems the ideal vehicle to debut Tracy and Hepburn as two relentless go-getters who desire one another but have to choose between their respective careers and true love. In real life, there was never any question as to what came first. But in the screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, newspaper political analyst, Tess Harding (Hepburn) is not at all certain she prefers the company of crass sports columnist, Sam Craig (Tracy) to her work on the newspaper.
On the surface, Tess fits quite nicely into Sam's world, though he remains an affront to her cultured set, particularly Tess's ever-present male secretary, Gerald Howe (Dan Tobin). Despite their obvious differences, Tess and Sam are married and adopt a refugee child, Chris (George Kezas) whom Sam takes to with a genuine affection, but whom Tess regards merely as another fashionable appendage to her already overwhelmingly busy social life. Realizing how unfair this is to Chris, Sam returns him to the orphanage while Tess is out on one of her political rallies. Infuriated, Tess is told by Sam that their marriage is over. At the same time, Tess receives a phone call from Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), the aunt who raised her. After years of sacrificing her own happiness in the service of causes, Ellen has decided to marry Tess's father (Minor Watson). As a result, Tess also comes to realize that a woman of influence must make the inevitable choice between love and having a career.
To prove her love for Sam, Tess sneaks into his apartment the next morning, determined to remake herself into ‘the good wife’ by cooking him breakfast. But this menial task becomes a hilarious disaster. Nevertheless, Tess’ genuineness at attempting domesticity strikes a chord with Sam and they are reconciled. Although no one probably knew it at the time, Woman of the Year was to become the template for most Tracy/Hepburn movies that followed. With few exceptions, the two played variations on this sparing couple formula for the rest of their careers. The first exception to this rule however became their next film, George Cukor's Keeper of the Flame (1942); a dark and brooding mystery/thriller with political undertones, based on Donald Ogden Stewart's best-selling novel. In retrospect, ‘Keeper is an ill fit for Tracy and Hepburn, though it did moderately well at the box office at the time of its release. She plays Christine Forrest, the youthful widow of a nationally revered elderly political statesman who drove his car over a bridge one dark and stormy night. But was it suicide or murder?
The rest of the I.A.R. Wylie screenplay plays fast and loose with a stack of red herrings. These include the possibility that Christine killed her husband after he learned she was having an affair with her cousin, Geoff Midford (Forrest Tucker), or perhaps was toying with Robert's social secretary, Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf). After surveying the outpouring of public grief at Robert's funeral, Reporter Steven O'Malley (Spencer Tracy) begins to suspect Christine of all sorts of wickedness, particularly after he has a brief tete a tete with Robert's insane mother (Margaret Wycherly) who suggests that her son's marriage to Christine was a destructive doomed union. Eventually, the real truth emerges, that Robert was a fascist working from his time-honored political connections within the government to secretly destroy the United States. In retrospect, Keeper of the Flame is a nonsensical espionage thriller. Hepburn doesn't do the haunted femme fatale thing well at all and Tracy seems more lugubrious and lumbering as the investigative reporter. That Tracy/Hepburn spark of chemistry and magic so potent in Woman of the Year is entirely absent herein.
Perhaps because of this, Hepburn and Tracy would not make another film together until 1945's Without Love, a charming minor programmer based on Philip Barry's smash stage hit. This film returns Tracy and Hepburn to their romantic comedy roots. Tracy is Patrick Jamieson, a brilliant scientist who takes a room in the mansion of a young spinster, Jamie Rowan (Hepburn) to conduct his vital experiments for government research in her basement. After an initial misunderstanding, a gradual friendship blossoms between these two and Jamie suggests that they marry 'without love' to conceal the true reason for his staying at her home. Patrick is reluctant on the subject, having had nothing but bad luck with relationships. Nevertheless, the two are married and agree to a platonic understanding that eventually gives way to genuine feelings of romance.
The next film, Elia Kazan's Sea of Grass (1947) is a rather breath-taking melodrama set against the vast expanses of the western frontier. Based on Conrad Richter's novel, the screenplay by Marguerite Roberts and Vincent Lawrence is a battle of wills. Hepburn is Lutie Cameron, a prim St. Louis bride who marries New Mexico rancher, Colonel Jim Brewton; a man who uses intimidation and force to keep settlers off the unspoiled plains. Jim's arch enemy in town is Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas), who eventually becomes an elected judge and thereafter launches a full scale attack on Jim's interests in the name of the law.
After Jim's stake in preserving the plains leads to a near fatal bludgeoning of homesteader, Sam Hall (James Bell) and the miscarriage of his wife, Selina's (Ruth Nelson) child, who just happens to be Lutie's good friend, Lutie realizes that her husband is the aggressor, not the hero of the west that she has imagined for herself. This revelation begins a rift in their marriage, one that leads Lutie into an affair with Brice in Denver. The result of this fleeting moment of passion is a son, Brock (Jimmy Hawkings as a child, Robert Walker as an adult) that Lutie reveals is not Jim's while she is in labour. Loyal friend, Doc J. Reid (Harry Carey) vows to keep Lutie's secret, but eventually the town's folk begin to suspect the affair and Jim's marriage to Lutie crumbles. Lutie leaves her children in Jim's care but eventually returns to his side, the years having mellowed the differences that once divided them.
I didn't expect to enjoy Sea of Grass as much as I did, especially when I read that director Kazan hated the finished film so much that he encouraged his friends not to see it. Yet, the final product is a considerable masterwork with a sweep and grandeur that only a studio like MGM could pull together during its heyday. True enough, this isn't the Tracy/Hepburn chemistry that fondly or even immediately comes to mind but the two deliver competent performances that are faithful to the source material. The Roberts/Lawrence screenplay manages to bring believable concision to the expansive novel and, as a result, we get a generational narrative that only occasionally seems mildly rushed.
The next film in the Tracy/Hepburn cannon remains one of their very best; Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948); produced independently for Capra's Liberty Films production company and distributed by MGM. Once again, Tracy and Hepburn are cast as an established married couple; Grant and Mary Matthews. Grant is a U.S. Senator whose pureness of heart in the political arena is about to be corrupted by wily publicist Jim Conover (Adolph Menjou) and newspaper maven, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). In fact, Kay and Grant have been having an affair for some time in Washington D.C. while Mary has remained back home. Convinced by Conover that Grant has a real spot at becoming President, Grant is also informed by Kay that to have a real shot at the office he must patch things up with Mary before embarking on the campaign trail as a viable 'family oriented' candidate.
After some reluctance, Mary returns to Grant's side, partly because she truly believes in him as a strong and honest man who is right for the job. Cynical press agent, Spike McManus (Van Johnson) starts out on Grant's side with his own misgivings but gradually comes to respect Grant as Mary does. All the more reason for Mary and Spike to suddenly find themselves bitterly disillusioned when Grant starts to take his cues from Conover and Kay, who suggest that the only way to win the party's nomination is to lie, steal and cheat. State of the Union is Capra's most inspired, politically themed film since Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Hepburn and Tracy are superb together as a married couple torn apart by external forces that threaten not only their marriage but also the very essence of who they are as people. Anthony Veiller and Myles Connelly's screenplay, based on the stellar stage play from Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse is as slick and fast moving as the political machinery that threatens to destroy an honest man. This is a great film!
Tracy and Hepburn move on to what is today probably considered their most fondly remembered sparring, in George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949); a fascinating battle of the sexes made fashionably funny long before the ‘60s rise of feminism and sexual revolution. They play Adam and Amanda Bonner, two halves of the legal system. He is a prosecuting attorney. She is a defence lawyer. Both find themselves on opposite ends of the same case when a woman named Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) is charged with attempting to murder her philandering husband, Warren (Tom Ewell).To prove her point in the courtroom - that women are judged inferior to men by a patriarchal society - Amanda is willing to place her relationship with Adam on the line, even encouraging the flirtatiousness of song writing playboy, Kip Lurie (David Wayne). Once seen, few can forget the iconic moment when Adam, who is giving Amanda her rubdown in their apartment midway through their case, decides to slap her behind instead to silence her from singing Kip's song. When challenged by Amanda, who suggests to Adam that his reaction is 'typical masculine brutality', Adam replies "What do you have back there? Radar equipment?"
Adam's Rib is delightfully astute in its critique of the unique qualities that separate male from female and masculinity from femininity. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's screenplay is as poignant as it is hilarious, taking an exceptionally rare and deft excursion that rings more than a few 'true to life' bells along the way. Tracy and Hepburn chew up the scenery with galvanized performances that are as relevant as ever. After a hiatus of nearly 3 years, George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952) proved - as though proof were required - that the Tracy/Hepburn chemistry was as vital as ever. Once again Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin provide a stellar screenplay, this one casting Hepburn as Patricia Pemberton, a superior all around lady athlete who can withstand any adversary except the condescending stare of her stuffy academic fiancée, Collier Weld (William Ching). To ease her anxieties, Patricia enlists the help of Mike Conovan (Tracy) who is currently involved in training brain dead pugilist, Davie Hucko (Aldo Ray) for the heavyweight championships. Unable to quantify that elusive quality that makes Pat so proficient an athlete, Mike knows too well what her downfall is. To the purpose of securing Pat's own successes for the newspapers and provide himself with a perennial meal ticket, Mike becomes Pat's full time trainer, keeping Collier at bay. Narrowly rescued by Pat from having his legs broken after a bet goes sour, Mike decides that Pat is the only gal for him.
In retrospect, Pat and Mike is the last truly great Tracy/Hepburn film. It also happens to be the final movie they made for alma mater, MGM. Their next endeavor, Walter Lang's Desk Set (1957 at 20th Century-Fox) is an atypical retread of themes already explored elsewhere. Leon Shamroy's cinematography is much more concerned with celebrating the expansive rectangular layouts of Cinemascope (that I must confess, are grand), than it is in re-interpreting the old Tracy/Hepburn intimacy for the widescreen. The screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron isn't bad, per say, but it does tend to meander somewhat, losing focus on the increasingly romantic friendship between efficiency expert, Richard Sumner (Tracy) and research analyst Bunny Watson (Hepburn). To a large extent, the old Tracy/Hepburn chemistry is blunted by the intrusion of Gig Young as Mike Cutler, Bunny's soon to be ex-fiancée and, strangely enough, by Hepburn's performance that attempts to balance the strong savvy archetype she helped to create in films like Adam's Rib with a more giddy school-girlish fascination for Mike that seems grossly out of character.
The final film to star Tracy and Hepburn also proved to be the last for Tracy who died at the age of 67 a scant two weeks after filming Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Viewed today, the film's 'love is color blind' social critique - then timely in a country struggling with race relations in the middle of the civil rights movement - seems moderately clichéd and occasionally heavy-handed today. Nevertheless, the screenplay by William Rose makes the attempt to take an honest - if gentile - look at the subject of racism from both sides. Tracy and Hepburn are Matt and Christina Drayton, a forthright older married couple whose liberalism is put to the test when daughter, Joey (Katharine Houghton, who is actually Hepburn's niece) announces she is engaged to be married to Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier) - a man whose skin colour obviously does not match their own. Christina is at first shocked, but then accepting of their union. Matt, however, is challenged by a spectre of emotions and feelings he probably never realized he even had until this very moment.
The family's close friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) is dismayed at Matt's inability to overcome his prejudices. Yet, even these pale to the intolerances exhibited by John's own father (Roy E. Glenn) who is discouraged with his son's decision to marry a white girl. Meanwhile, Christina attempts to win over Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards). The film is most fondly remembered today for a brilliant summation delivered by Tracy during the final moments, where he equates John and Joey's love for each other with the depth of mutual admiration, respect and sincerity he and Christina have shared throughout their years together. Yet, in this abridgement of love's great story there also seems to be a blurring of the lines between reality and fiction; the very public relationship Tracy and Hepburn shared for so many years just as meaningfully embodied and on display in this penultimate poignant declaration.
Warner Home Video has at long last collected the works of these two formidable icons of the screen into one deluxe box set, aptly titled 'Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection'. And although 'definitive' it most certainly is, at least in the essence that every movie from their tenure is represented herein, the quality of these transfers hardly lives up to that moniker.
In fact, with the exception of Keeper of the Flame and Sea of Grass, the rest of the transfers included in this box set are identical to those previously released from their respective studio catalogues. This is a regrettable oversight, since Woman of the Year, Pat & Mike and Adam's Rib (arguably the most iconic Tracy/Hepburn movies in this set) sport problematic digital transfers that date all the way back to 1997 and the infancy of DVD mastering.
None of the transfers are terrible, but Woman of the Year, Pat & Mike and Adam's Rib contain a considerable amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details that this critic had hoped would be eradicated for this new 'definitive' release. Overall, the gray scale has been exceptionally preserved on all of the B&W movies in this set. Keeper of the Flame seems to suffer from contrast levels that are just a tad lower than expected. The transfer on Sea of Grass occasionally suffers from more prevalent grain than one might anticipate.
On the whole, however, the image quality is adequate and will surely not disappoint. The best looking B&W transfer of the lot unquestionably belongs to State of the Union - released by Universal Home Video. It's the same transfer as released in 2002, but remarkably smooth, sharp and full of fine detail throughout. Only Desk Set (from Fox) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (from Sony Home Entertainment) are in color and widescreen. These are also the same digital transfers as before, Desk Set from 2004 and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? from its reissue in 2006. Both contain beautiful looking transfers, the Cinemascope offering on Desk Set supporting slightly more refined and richer colors, though ironically a little less fine detail than is evident on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Extras are limited to a few short subjects included on Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame. There are also audio commentaries on Desk Set and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The last extra worth mentioning is Kate Hepburn's personal tribute documentary to Spencer Tracy, housed on a separate disc. The quality of this transfer is, frankly, terrible. The film clips included are often blurry, grainy and out of focus. For a definitive collection like this, it would have been nice to have new masters on all of the titles, but particularly on Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib, plus audio commentaries on each film and, at least chapter stops included on State of the Union, Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame!
For the price point of $49.99, I suppose I can recommend this collection to someone who has yet to have purchased any of these titles as they originally appeared one separate discs. But if you already own all but Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame, my advice is to simply buy these two titles as they are sold separately and add them to your collection. You get nothing new in this set that would warrant a repurchase.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Woman of the Year 4
Keeper of the Flame 2.5
Without Love 3
Sea of Grass 3.5
State of the Union 5+
Adam's Rib 5+
Pat and Mike 5
Desk Set 3.5
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 3.5
Woman of the Year 2.5
Keeper of the Flame 3.5
Without Love 3
Sea of Grass 3.5
State of the Union 4
Adam's Rib 3
Pat and Mike 3
Desk Set 3.5
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 3.5

No comments: