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Tag Archives: Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib (Nov. 18, 1949)

Adam's Rib
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Directed by George Cukor
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I haven’t seen all the movies Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together, but of the ones I have seen, Adam’s Rib is easily my favorite. It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for their talents.

In Adam’s Rib they play a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, who are both lawyers. The Bonners have a loving marriage, but they’re both prickly and opinionated, and when they end up in the same courtroom on opposing sides of an attempted murder case, their quietly simmering battle of the sexes becomes a full-blown war. (Tracy and Hepburn were a couple in real life, but they were never married. Tracy was separated from his wife, but his Catholic faith precluded a divorce.)

Hepburn and Tracy

Before Adam’s Rib, Hepburn and Tracy had appeared together in George Stevens’s Woman of the Year (1942), George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame (1942), Harold S. Bucquet’s Without Love (1945), Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass (1947), and Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948).

The director of Adam’s Rib, George Cukor, directed one of my favorite films from 1947, A Double Life. He is probably most famous for directing The Philadelphia Story (1940), which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.

Adam’s Rib was written by the same husband-and-wife team who wrote the screenplay for A Double Life, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. (Ruth Gordon also acted, and had memorable turns as an older actress in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude.)

Kanin and Gordon

I loved A Double Life, but it’s a dark psychological drama about murder and madness, and couldn’t be more different from Adam’s Rib, which is an effervescent comedy, so it was fun to see the same writers and director making an equally good film about a completely different subject.

Adam’s Rib is not just a yuk-fest. While I laughed a lot, its take on gender relations is thought-provoking stuff; not only because it’s so different from most other Hollywood movies of the time, but because so much of it is still relevant.

Society may be less forgiving of male infidelity nowadays, but double standards are still rife. There’s a great scene early in the film in which Amanda Bonner asks her secretary, Grace (Eve March), why infidelity is “not nice” if it’s a man stepping out but “something terrible” if a woman does it.

Her secretary shrugs and says, “I don’t make the rules.” Hepburn responds, “Sure you do, we all do.”

The acknowledgement that we are all complicit in creating standards of “male” and “female” behavior is rare in motion pictures today, and was even rarer mid-century.

I also loved all the subtle bits in the film, like when a shot of the exterior of the courthouse implies that Amanda Bonner’s client may not — as a woman — get a fair trial.

Equal justice

The woman in question is Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a ditzy simpleton who emptied a revolver in the general direction of her husband, Warren Attinger (Tom Ewell), and her husband’s mistress, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). She wounded her husband, and is on trial for attempted murder.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner pulls the case and prepares to prosecute Mrs. Attinger, but his wife, Amanda Bonner, begins to needle him about the specifics. When he decides he’s had enough and tells her he hates it when she gets “all cause-y,” it’s the last straw, and she offers her services as a defense attorney to Mrs. Attinger.

One thing I loved about the film was how well Tracy and Hepburn were able to convey their physical tenderness toward each other even when they were arguing. The Bonners are an extremely believable married couple, which is rare to see in the movies.

The supporting cast are all good, although David Wayne’s performance as the Bonners’ amorous across-the-hall neighbor was a little campy and over-the-top for my taste.

Still, this is a great film, and a truly funny and highly literate comedy. Adam’s Rib is a sure bet for my list of the best films of 1949.

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State of the Union (April 30, 1948)

Sixty-four years ago there was a Democrat in the White House facing reelection in the fall, and there was no single heavily favored Republican candidate as the days marched on toward the Republican National Convention.

That Democrat was, of course, Harry S. Truman, and he had faced a bitter rebuke two years earlier when the Democratic Party lost 11 seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1946 midterm elections (a landslide for Republicans similar to the 2010 midterm elections). I’m tempted to keep drawing parallels to the present day, but I’m afraid that if I do it’ll devolve into me spewing a bunch of meaningless facts, like how the 1948 Summer Olympics were held in London, just like the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Suffice it to say that this was a good time for me to watch Frank Capra’s State of the Union for the first time. And if you’ve never seen it before, then it’s a good time for you to watch it, too.

Adolphe Menjou plays a brilliant Republican party strategist named Jim Conover, who works with the young but equally brilliant Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) to split the Republican primaries in order to get their own dark-horse candidate the nomination for the presidency. Kay is the ruthless publisher who owns the Thorndyke Press, which was bequeathed her by her equally ruthless father.

Van Johnson plays campaign manager “Spike” McManus, a devil-may-care sort who’s happy to tell anyone who will listen that they have no hope of unseating Truman. Instead of coasting on his million-dollar boyish charm, Johnson engages in some “acting” in State of the Union, which didn’t always work for me, but it didn’t ruin the picture either. (And we have to cut Van Johnson a little slack, since in State of the Union he’s acting opposite four absolutely brilliant film actors who are all at the top of their game.)

In response to the assertion that there’s no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, Conover exclaims, “There’s all the difference in the world. They’re in and we’re out!”

With this “win or die” attitude, Conover, Thorndyke, and McManus approach the plain-speaking Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) to be their candidate. Matthews is a wealthy and successful airplane designer who has a “hang the politicians” attitude and thumbs his nose at political divisiveness with statements like, “Either we all pull together or we’ll be pulled apart.”

On the other hand, he’s in the midst of a long-standing extramarital affair with Kay Thorndyke, and when he launches his campaign for the presidency, it’s the first time he’s seen his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) in four months.

I’m not sure why this film isn’t talked about as much as Capra’s earlier films, like It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Despite its cynical view of our two-party system, I think State of the Union is every bit as hopeful about humanity as Capra’s earlier films.

It’s also a very funny film, which I wasn’t expecting. Even when movies about politics are labeled “comedies” I usually find them more depressing than funny, but State of the Union features a cast of characters who are genuinely interesting and likable (and when they’re unlikable, it’s done in a natural and believable way). Capra’s direction is smooth and assured, with shot constructions that are occasionally brilliant, but there are a lot of jump cuts, too, as though Capra cared more about getting the right flow and combination of dialogue takes then setting up his shots seamlessly.

State of the Union is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that ran on Broadway from 1945 to 1947. The dialogue in the play was changed slightly from week to week to reflect the current political reality, which is obviously not something that can be done once a film is completed and released into theaters.

It could be this “trapped in amber” quality that has led to State of the Union being relegated to second-tier status among Capra’s films. If that’s the case, I think that’s sad and short-sighted. Despite the fact that State of the Union is entirely about the 1948 election for president, its depiction of our two-party system, the personal and moral compromises a presidential candidate must make, and the corrupting influence of big money in politics is just as relevant today as it was 64 years ago.

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.