Without Love (1945) was the first Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movie I saw when I began my classic film phase and I loved it upon first viewing. Unlike a lot of the romantic comedies made today, I thought it was sophisticated and funny, with just enough drama to keep me wondering how it was going to all turn out. Of course the great supporting performances by Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn helped, but after Without Love, I was hooked on the Tracy/Hepburn pairing. Who wouldn’t be? They had incredible chemistry together. Even when their characters weren’t in love, they looked at each other with such love and adoration in their eyes. It’s hard to resist a pairing like that.
Like a lot of classic movie fans, I favor Tracy and Hepburn’s romantic comedies. Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike and Desk Set are my favorites, while the aforementioned Without Love and the rarely seen State of the Union follow closely behind. I’m not too big on their dramas, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is just okay. It’s depressing to see Tracy in his final film, and I’m not too big on social message pictures either.
One of the last Tracy/Hepburn movies I saw was oddly enough, their first pairing: Woman of the Year (1942). I was ecstatic to see it scheduled on TCM because I figured I would love it.
I was wrong.
Maybe I should correct myself: I loved it until that final scene where Tess Harding (Hepburn) makes a total and complete fool of herself in that kitchen. It’s absurd and infuriating that such a smart, brilliant woman would be a total disaster. I can understand Tess’s inability to cook, because I’ve encountered some people like that in my life. But when they close up on the scene of an overflowing waffle maker? Forget it. They lost me. Anyone would be smart enough to know that the batter was overflowing. But not Tess Harding! She’s absolutely incompetent! And boy, does George Stevens want you to know it.
The original ending was to be Tess and Sam Craig (Tracy) at a baseball game, where her enthusiasm for the game overpowers his. She begins yelling and screaming at the players on the field, overshouting Craig. Test audiences hated it. As the producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz put it: “The average housewife was going to look up at this beautiful, brilliant accomplished goddess up there on the screen and well, hate her guts.” I’m not sure why they would, although perhaps housewives would feel threatened at seeing someone ‘have it all’. Thus, the new ending was written and filmed, causing test audiences to go nuts for the picture. Hepburn hated it. She hated seeing how the strong woman finally “got hers” and I have to agree. As someone who broke the mold and –gasp!– wore pants, Hepburn had to be dying inside at seeing her character made such a fool of. And it bothers me to see such a strong, confident woman being reduced to something that should be laughed at. How dare Tess become an enthusiastic baseball fan! Who does she think she is?
The whole ending shows you how different society was in those days. Nowadays, most guys I know love it if their girlfriends/wives are interested in sports. It’s sexy, not threatening. But in the 40’s, the woman’s place was in the home and kitchen and to have Tess become a sports fan whose love for the game overshadows her husbands? Well, that certainly wasn’t ladylike!
How times have changed.
So you don’t get me wrong (and I have to phrase this carefully, so it doesn’t come out sounding wrong), I have no problems in making a man happy. In my past relationships, I’ve always gotten a kick out of doing something good for a boyfriend. That’s part of the give and take in relationships. So maybe that’s why my perfect Tracy and Hepburn relationship is summed up in Pat and Mike (1952). Ten years later and now she’s the star athlete. The tide was already turning.
What I love about this movie is that Tracy doesn’t look down at Pat because she’s into sports. If anything, that’s what interests him–granted, it’s because he can make money off of her, but without the sports, Pat would just be another woman. It’s her domineering fiance, Collier, that makes her uncomfortable. Just one glance at him and Pat is suddenly losing at every single game, whether it be golf or tennis. I also find it interesting that while being an athlete, Hepburn’s Pat is much more feminine than many of her other characters–love is a big deal for her. She doesn’t give Collier any sort of big, feminist speeches–even when she jumps off the train, it’s more free-spirited than an act of major defiance.
The gender balance shifts when Pat beats up the thugs that are harassing Mike– while an entire audience watches, of course. It’s one thing to be a great female athlete, it’s another to turn the tables and have a woman defend the man. How humiliating!
Even in the jail scene (featuring a hilarious Charles “Buchinski” Bronson as one of the thugs), Pat’s vocal manner is soft and delicate, almost as though she’s describing a play she had just watched. Since Mike’s ego has been bruised, Pat now knows it’s up to her to make things right. And this is why I love the ending: Mike has to be her savior, her knight in shining armor, her man, just to make him feel better. It lets him know that she really does love and respect him and it’s really sweet. Hepburn’s Pat just wants to make him happy, just like Tess in Woman of the Year. Only this time she gets to keep her dignity intact.
I write this because Woman of the Year was playing on TCM this weekend and I tried to give it another chance, only to get all riled up at the ending. The best I can say about the infamous kitchen scene is that without it, the public probably wouldn’t have wanted to see anymore Tracy and Hepburn films. And that? Would have been a tragedy. Hepburn’s dignity was traded in for better stories, such as Adam’s Rib and Desk Set, which allowed her to be smart and succumb to Tracy’s masculine charms. Sure, the public loved to see Tracy stick out his big bear paw and smack Hepburn down. I like to see it too. That’s what made their films so charming. I just don’t like to see it at the expense of someone’s dignity, no matter how funny it may seem, that’s all.