Spencer Tracy was fond of telling a story about his first
encounter with Katharine Hepburn. It was 1941, and the two MGM
stars had tentatively agreed to co-star in a movie, "Woman of the
Year." The 5-foot-7 Hepburn was wearing platform shoes that added 4
inches to her already formidable height when she met the 5-9 Tracy
outside the studio commissary.
After producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn
said, "I'm afraid I'm a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy." They shook
hands, Tracy smiled, and he replied, "Don't worry, Miss Hepburn.
I'll cut you down to my size."
Tracy and Hepburn fell in love while making "Woman of the Year"
and remained lovers until his death, shortly after they completed
their final film together, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in 1967.
All nine of their films have been packaged for the first time in
"Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection," a 10-disc set
released this week (Warner Home Video, $59.92, not rated). The
collection also includes the Hepburn-narrated Emmy Award-winning
documentary from 1986, "The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by
Katharine Hepburn," in which Hepburn gives her own, slightly
different version of their first meeting. Two of the films, "Keeper
of the Flame" (1942) and "The Sea of Grass" (1947), appearing here
on DVD for the first time, are also available as single releases
On screen, the duo usually portrayed either a married couple or
a pair of opposites who gradually attract. As a couple, they often
had to go through a certain amount of conflict, even separation,
before eventually working out their problems. It's the conflict and
its resolution, whether played for laughs or for high drama, that
remains most compelling about their screen performances.
Tracy and Hepburn never married, largely because Tracy, a
Catholic, would not divorce his wife of many years, Louise, the
mother of their two children and a well-respected philanthropist
who founded the John Tracy Clinic for deaf children in Los Angeles.
(The Tracys' son, John, was born deaf.) Tracy and Hepburn were
always discrete about their relationship, and the times allowed
them to maintain it without scandal or exposure.
As Hepburn biographer Anne Edwards points out, they were
protected by their powerful studio, MGM, which was usually able to
control press coverage of its stars, and by Louise Tracy's stature
in the community, which further prevented negative gossip from
appearing in print.
(These days, news of the sparks flying between Tracy and Hepburn
on the set of "Woman of the Year," accompanied by smuggled
cellphone videos, would have appeared the same afternoon on
As many film critics and historians have noted, Tracy and
Hepburn are best in their comedies, whether playing an assistant
district attorney who battles in court with his wife, a defense
lawyer, in "Adam's Rib" (1949); a crusty boxing manager/promoter
who takes on as a client an outstanding female golfer and tennis
player in "Pat and Mike" (1952); or as a technocrat whose new
computer may replace the work of a research librarian in "Desk Set"
(1957). Hepburn's characters embody the modern, emancipated woman
whose intelligence and independence is respected, even admired, by
Tracy, a confident, stable yet vulnerable man. The problems in
their relationship invariably occur when one of the characters
crosses a line, tipping and unbalancing their 50-50
"Adam's Rib," written by the couple's close friends, the
husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and directed
by frequent collaborator George Cukor, is the best of the
Tracy-Hepburn films. (Following Tracy's death, Kanin wrote the
best-selling "Tracy and Hepburn," an "intimate memoir.") As lawyers
who find themselves on opposite sides of a murder case involving a
distraught woman (Judy Holliday, in a star-making performance) who
attempts to shoot her philandering husband (Tom Ewell), their
battle of the sexes moves from the courtroom to the bedroom. The
film, which seems far advanced for its time, raises some serious
issues about male-female differences and the difficulty of
maintaining a relationship between two career-minded people. Yet it
remains a terrific comedy.
"Without Love," a shallow comedy-drama from 1945, features Tracy
as a scientist and Hepburn as a widow who agree to a marriage of
convenience but later discover -- surprise! -- that they really
love each other.
Among the dramas, "Woman of the Year" is the best, "Keeper of
the Flame" the murkiest, "Sea of Grass" the soggiest, "State of the
Union" (1948) the most disappointing and "Guess Who's Coming to
Dinner" the most obvious.
Hepburn portrays a character modeled after the well-known
journalist Dorothy Thompson in "Woman of the Year," well-written by
Ring Lardner Jr. (later a blacklisted member of the Hollywood 10)
and Michael Kanin (Garson's brother) and expertly directly by
George Stevens. In opposites-attract manner, she falls in love with
another journalist, a sports columnist and regular guy who's not
used to the international circles his new wife travels in and
expects a more wifely wife. Despite an unfortunate ending tacked on
by the studio heads, in which Hepburn's character can't manage the
appliances of a modern kitchen, it remains a good film.
"Keeper of the Flame" doesn't live up to its potential. Released
in the early days of American involvement in World War II, there's
some compelling material about a popular figure who promotes
"Americanism" while actually being a clandestine fascist. But the
story lacks urgency or bite, despite fine performances by Hepburn
as the widow of a popular, renowned businessman and Tracy as a
reporter who wants to write about his life.
Elia Kazan once described directing "Sea of Grass" as his most
"miserable experience" in Hollywood. The movie, about a wealthy New
Mexico cattle rancher who marries a woman from the East, was
actually shelved by MGM upon completion, only to be released a year
later. The movie was harmed by MGM's insistence that Kazan shoot
the entire film on studio sets, using stock footage of grasslands
as a backdrop. In addition, Tracy and Kazan clashed over their
respective styles of acting, with Tracy denigrating Kazan's
"Method" acting as "a lot of high-flown mumbo-jumbo."
Director Frank Capra's "State of the Union" tries to be
up-to-date politically. It's about the run-up to the 1948
presidential election and tosses in references to current issues
like the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. But the film never gets to
the heart of the political controversies of the day. Hepburn plays
the estranged wife of a successful, self-made industrialist (Tracy)
who is being groomed for a presidential run by two wheeler-dealers
-- a ruthless newspaper publisher (Angela Lansbury, presaging her
role more than a decade later in "The Manchurian Candidate"); and a
conniving politician (Adolphe Menjou). In a film that doesn't ring
true, the best scenes involve the cunning Lansbury and the
confrontations between Hepburn's character and Menjou's. (Hepburn,
like Tracy, was an ardent supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and
the New Deal; a devout liberal, she despised the right-wing Menjou,
who had testified against Hepburn before the House Un-American
Activities Committee, aka HUAC, saying, "Scratch a do-gooder, like
Hepburn, and they'll yell, 'Pravda.' ")
Finally, after a decade's gap between their co-starring films,
Tracy and Hepburn made "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," directed by
Stanley Kramer. A box-office hit featuring an Oscar-winning
performance by Hepburn, the movie is progressive in content but
woodenly directed and utterly predictable. Tracy and Hepburn play a
couple whose liberal views are challenged when their daughter
(played by Hepburn's real-life niece, Katharine Houghton) brings
home her new fiance (Sidney Poitier), a brilliant doctor who
happens to be black.
Fifteen days after principal photography for "Guess Who's Coming
to Dinner" was concluded, Tracy, who had been ill throughout the
production, died of a heart attack. Out of deference to Louise,
Hepburn did not attend Tracy's funeral.
But their love for each other is apparent in the nine movies in
"Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection." It's not just