Over the course of nine films, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn formed a relationship typified by a paradoxically conservative brand of progressivism. His genially staid but infrequently galvanizing Joe Six Pack complemented her stubborn and decidedly undomesticated sophisticate. Ultimately, however, Hepburn’s bull-headed tenacity may have been the motor of their relationship, but he was almost always in control. As a screen couple, their quarrels often resolved with her acquiescing to his wishes, or at the very least deferring to his better judgment.
Woman of the Year, Tracy and Hepburn’s first on-screen appearance as a couple, set the pace for their later collaborations. Sports reporter Sam Craig (Tracy) butts heads and falls in love with enterprising international correspondent Tess Harding (Hepburn). Her headstrong tendencies almost immediately manifest on their first date, which adjourns after she invites him into her bedroom and he absconds from her apartment, smiling to himself about the crazy broad that he now knows he wants to marry.
Craig accepts living in Harding’s shadow to a point; he doesn’t even raise an objection when “Mrs. Harding” is honored with the eponymous award. But Craig’s saint-like patience has its limits: He refuses to be the surrogate father to a young Greek refugee that Harding adopts in order to keep up appearance and he eventually leaves her. “The outstanding woman of the year isn’t a woman at all,” he complains, a charge that trumps the praise Harding gets from a stately emcee at the awards ceremony, who calls Harding the embodiment of the “glorious emancipation of womanhood in this country.” Tracy always gets the last word: When Harding kittenishly admits that they probably didn’t have “the perfect marriage,” he counters, “I don’t think it was either: perfect or a marriage.”
Eventually, Harding does acquiesce to her husband’s needs and tries to be a better wife. When her parents decide to remarry, she’s inspired by the priest’s vows and gains a newfound reverence for the institution of marriage that Craig’s ultimatums indirectly defend. Woman of the Year director George Stevens films Hepburn’s conversion in a single, quasi-Dreyer-esque close-up: The priest, off camera, calls marriage “...an honorable instituted of God, and therefore is not by any to be entered unadvisedly or lightly,” to which Hepburn reacts by raising her down-turned eyes and tearing up, as the priest finishes, “reverently, soberly in the fear of God.” After this scene, Harding decides to surprise Craig with breakfast in bed, but she doesn’t know how to operate a toaster or a double-boiler coffee pot and she puts yeast in the waffle batter. She’s a hopeless wife, but he likes her anyway.
As a resigned man for his perpetually changing times, Tracy had to temper Hepburn’s idealism, keep pace with her, and, in the case of Keeper of the Flame, protect her public image. In the film, war reporter Steven O’Malley is the only one with the integrity, compassion, and reputation to reveal to the world who Robert Forrest, a mysterious but world-renowned philanthropist, really was. Forrest’s over-protective widow, Christine (Hepburn), accepts that she can only do so much to protect her dead husband and admits that if anyone’s going to let her husband’s skeletons out of the closet, it should be O’Malley, not her. “Nothing can stay as we leave it,” she speechifies matter-of-factly. “All we can hope is that someone who loves us will put away our playthings tenderly.” O’Malley adds, “And our follies and our failures, too.” The freakish end that Mrs. Forrest meets at the close of Keeper of the Flame in that sense only confirms that the burden of her husband’s legacy, which is also her legacy since it’s the only identity she has in the film, is now in O’Malley’s hands.
Hepburn’s death at the end of Keeper of the Flame is also a tidy way to avoid all the complications that ensue in Tracy and Hepburn’s later comedies like State of the Union and Desk Set. In both of these films, Hepburn worries about either losing Tracy’s attention or never earning it. In State of the Union, she plays Mary, the jealous wife of Grant Matthews, Tracy’s self-made man and aspirant presidential candidate. This is exactly the way that newspaper publisher Kate Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) wants it: Kate would rather not reassure Mary that there’s nothing going on between her and Grant so as to make Mary overly protective of her husband and hence look like a more attractive (i.e. fawning) wife (i.e. accessory) for her husband’s campaign. It’s a ploy that winds up backfiring later on but only once Grant figures out the extent of Kate’s betrayal of both his and his wife’s trust. It’s important to note that since Kate betrays Mary’s trust first, Grant’s rejection of Kate later reflects the fact that no matter what, the burden of proving the strength of his relationship with Hepburn always falls on him.
Desk Set similarly gives Tracy the power to decide the fate of their relationship but the key difference is that the source of the couple’s disconnect is not nearly as direct as in many of the other film’s. Tension in the film does not stem from a political disagreement as it does Adam’s Rib or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but rather a general inability to communicate. In Desk Set, Tracy and Hepburn initially bond over an intelligence test that he naturally administers; the session ends with him calling her a “tropical fish,” a compliment whose lack of sustainable context is its own punchline.
That battle of wits is one of the more refreshingly purely broad-minded, if sarcastic, scenes in Tracy and Hepburn’s shared career. There are several more peppered throughout Desk Set, including a sit-down rendezvous among a private reference library’s stacks and a dinner date where Mike (Gig Young), her long-standing boyfriend of seven years, walks in on them with Spencer garbed only in a bathrobe.
That misunderstanding makes the ending’s otherwise token acknowledgment of Hepburn’s character’s advanced intelligence feel somewhat earned. She tells Mike off during that dinner scene, blurting out in a brooding rage that “…there’s a constant stream of men in here, day and night, I can’t get them out of my hair.” Tracy settles this dispute, but in that moment, and throughout the rest of the film, Hepburn proves she has voice that could potentially survive independently of her relationship with Tracy. In that sense, Desk Set more fully realizes the couple’s largely nominal give-and-take power dynamic and proves that their skill at confirming traditional values both during and after WWII.
The picture quality of the films featured in Warner Home Video's Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection box set is uniformly pristine, which is surprising considering that a couple of the films are just repackaged versions of other studio's prior DVD releases. I'm especially surprised that there's little to no grain on the State of the Union disc, considering that's a Universal release and the studio often does nothing to restore picture quality on their DVD releases of older films. The only disc whose picture quality is not all it could be is Woman of the Year, which has some visible grain but not enough to be overwhelming. The films' flat 1.0 monaural soundtracks are fine but understandably un-nuanced.
Warner Home Video has included an abundance of special features in this box set, including great serial shorts, like the delirious Purity Squad, cartoons, and even entertaining introductions for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from Tom Brokaw and Quincy Jones. The one perfunctory and sort of disappointing feature is the Katharine Hepburn-narrated documentary "The Spencer Tracy Legacy," which is meant to be taken as an uninspired tribute by Hepburn to her deceased co-star even though it was scripted by John Miller.
The Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection box set is a great reminder of why the screen couple has long endured as one of the most attractive romantic duos to ever come out of Hollywood.