Category Archives: Starring Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SPENCER TRACY & KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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