Not only were Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn two of Hollywood's biggest stars, their illicit offscreen romance was the stuff of legend. Together, they kept their fans, the public, the critics, and the gossipmongers occupied for decades, all the while making nine classic movies together. Now, the folks at Warner Bros. have collected all of these films (some from WB, some from other studios) in a single box set, each film on a separate disc, for "Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection." Let me briefly outline the first eight films and then go into a little more detail on the couple's final movie together.
From 1942, their first film as a team, "Woman of the Year," is a breezy, witty comedy with Tracy as a sports writer married to Hepburn, an international journalist. It's not only their first, but one of their best movies. George Stevens directed it, with Roscoe Karns and William Bendix as co-stars. B&W, standard screen, 112 minutes.
"Keeper of the Flame" was next, also released in 1942, a drama with Tracy as a reporter writing about the death of a supposedly great man, whom Tracy discovers was a fascist, and the man's wife, Hepburn, maybe could have saved him. George Cukor directed and Forrest Tucker, Richard Whorf, and Percy Kilbride co-star. B&W, standard screen, 100 minutes.
The 1945 comedy "Without Love," like many of Hepburn and Tracy's movies together, is light and amusing, with an emphasis on the light. Very light. But still fun. Harold S. Bucquet directed and Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Carl Esmond, and Patricia Morrison co-star. B&W, standard screen, 110 minutes.
"The Sea of Grass," 1946, is an earnest affair that can't quite hold one's attention for the duration, as Tracy plays a Westerner fighting to keep New Mexico together, with Hepburn a society woman from the Midwest. Elia Kazan directed, with Robert Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, and Melvyn Douglas co-starring. B&W, standard screen, 123 minutes.
"State of the Union," 1948, was a Universal picture that couldn't quite make up its mind if it wanted to be a straight drama or a satire. Tracy plays an upright businessman persuaded to go into politics, big time, with Hepburn his dedicated spouse. Frank Capra directed, so you know it's going to be heavy on themes, and Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Lewis Stone, Margaret Hamilton, and Adophe Menjou co-star. B&W, standard screen, 123 minutes.
From 1949 we get "Adam's Rib," which got the pair back into business with maybe their best collaboration of all. Tracy is an attorney prosecuting a woman accused of attempting to shoot her husband, and Tracy's wife, played by Hepburn, is defending her. It's funny and clever, directed again by George Cukor and co-starring Judy Holiday, Tom Ewell, and David Wayne. B&W, standard screen, 100 minutes.
Why stop when you're ahead. In 1952 the team made another comedy, "Pat and Mike," about a professional golfer, Hepburn, a sports promoter, Tracy, and, of course, romance. George Cukor directed once again, with Aldo Ray, Jim Backus, and a young Charles Bronson co-starring. B&W, standard screen, 95 minutes.
After a lapse of five years, Tracy and Hepburn did the Twentieth-Century Fox comedy "Desk Set" in 1957, the two going head-to-head with Hepburn as the reference-department manager of a broadcasting company and Tracy as the efficiency expert assigned to clean things up. Comedy and romance was always their strong suit. Directed by Walter Lang, with Gig Young, Dina Merrill, Neva Patterson, and Joan Blondell as co-star. Color, widescreen, 103 minutes.
Finally, from 1967 came Columbia Pictures' "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," probably remembered today as more of a Sidney Poitier film than anyone else's. It was the last time Tracy and Hepburn would appear together in a film, and, indeed, the last film Tracy would make, his passing away shortly after the film wrapped.
Stanley Kramer directed what was a fairly daring message picture of the day, but one that seems rather tame and superficial by today's standards: a gentle, sentimental comedy on the subject of interracial marriage. Kramer was no stranger to controversial subjects, having directed films like "On the Beach," "The Defiant Ones," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Inherit the Wind," and "Ship of Fools." This time, however, he seemed determined to introduce the subject lightly and get all preachy at the end. Watching it again after forty-odd years, it seems a lot less inspired than I remembered it; but a lot has happened since then.
Sidney Poitier plays a thirty-seven-year-old doctor, John Prentice, whose wife and child died in a tragic accident some years before. Now, he has fallen in love again, this time with a very pretty twenty-three-year-old woman named Joanna "Joey" Drayton (Katharine Houghton). The trouble is, he's black and she's white. At the time, quite a few states still made interracial marriage illegal. Fortunately, they're both in California, which had no such law, and they plan to marry as soon as they can.
The real problem is their parents. Her folks, played by Tracy and Hepburn, and his folks, played by Roy Glenn, Sr. and Beah Richards, are not keen on the idea, to say the least. The filmmakers intend the major conflict to be with Tracy and Hepburn because they're so liberal and all. In fact, Tracy's character is so liberal he has a picture of FDR on his desk. Could he possibly be against his daughter marrying an African American after all the crusading he's done in his newspaper against racial prejudice and bigotry?
But here's the thing: The filmmakers stack the deck. Dr. Prentice is no common doctor; no, he's a handsome, charming, world-famous doctor, author, and university professor fighting disease all over the planet. He's practically as important as Dr. Albert Schweitzer and as saintly as Mother Teresa. The only real question is why this guy would fall for someone as shallow and seemingly airheaded as Joey. Love knows no bounds, I suppose, and she is a cute little thing. And Tracy and Hepburn? Joey's father is a wealthy San Francisco newspaper publisher, and her mother is a successful art-gallery owner, both parents living in a Pacific Heights mansion. These are not your ordinary people.
Another weakness of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is that it's a one-gimmick movie. Once you get the idea that the parents are going to disapprove of the marriage, there isn't much left. Then, too, because of the time period, the late Sixties, it looks dated to the era. The film opens with a sweet, light, syrupy song we've all heard a thousand times, "The Glory of Love," sung by Jacqueline Fontaine in a sweet, light, syrupy manner; and to punctuate the lightness of the song (and, consequently, the movie) the filmmakers repeat it two more times in the picture. And speaking of dated, the first time we see Hepburn she's wearing an awful-looking little hat, very fashionable, no doubt, for the day but now looking terribly cutesy. Another thing that dates the film: Never do we hear the words "black" or "African American" mentioned in the story. Poitier is either a "Negro" or a "colored person." How times change.
Nevertheless, we still have Tracy and Hepburn, and both of them are delightful. The look on their faces, in separate scenes for maximum effect, when they learn their daughter is going to marry a black man is priceless, as only talented, seasoned, charismatic actors can pull off. Hepburn won the Best-Actress Oscar for the role, and the Academy nominated Tracy posthumously. What's more, the Academy awarded the Oscar for Best Writing to William Rose for his original story and screenplay. Do I think they deserved the honors? Not really, but I'm never too pleased with the Academy selections.
A trivia note, courtesy of John Eastman in "Retakes" (Ballantine Book, 1989): "White supremacists picketed the movie in the South, while left-wing groups condemned it as a tokenist effort in the North, and many blacks disliked the film. As Poitier said later, however, 'Hollywood was incapable of anything more drastic in 1967.'"
Another trivia note: Look for a scene at San Francisco's famous old Mel's Drive-in, the last scene the filmmakers shot with Hepburn and Tracy because of his illness. About two weeks after the movie wrapped, Tracy died.
The black-and-white films in the set are crisp and clean, with good contrasts and reasonably solid black levels. The films in color, like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," show a slightly greater degree of noise and grain, particularly in outdoor shots, but otherwise they look fine upscaled. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" exhibits especially lifelike colors, bright in a realistic way, and better-than-average definition for a standard-def product.
Most of the films come with Dolby Digital 1.0 sound, like that on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." They display a smooth, quiet midrange but little else. Frequency extremes and dynamics are restricted, and, of course, there is no surround. "Desk Set" is the only soundtrack in stereo, and even that is quite limited by today's standards.
Each of the films comes on its own DVD, with its own set of bonus materials. Some titles include introductions, like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which gets brief comments by director Steven Spielberg, broadcaster Tom Brokaw, composer Quincey Jones, and Stanley Kramer's wife, Karen; some get a full audio commentary, like "Desk Set"; and the others get various short subjects, classic cartoons, vintage newsreels, production notes, still galleries, theatrical trailers, and scene selections. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language choices; with English, French, and Spanish subtitles on most of the films.
In addition to the nine movies, the set includes a tenth disc, the documentary "The Spencer Tracy Legacy," 1986, eighty-six minutes, twenty-four scenes. In it, Hepburn narrates, a host of stars pay tribute to the actor, and we see clips from his films. It's a loving tribute to Tracy by those who knew him best.
The ten discs come housed in a single, plastic keep case with inner sleeves, the case further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover.
Sure, the set has its ups and downs, but that's the way it is with any collection that tries to put together a definitive look at a whole group of films. Not even the great Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn could hit winners every time. Nevertheless, for any fan of the performers and any lover of older films, the box seems like a must. These were quality actors in quality movies with quality casts and crews. You can't ask for much more.