Category Archives: Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949)

Adam's Rib 2Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a total of nine films together, but, for my money, Adam’s Rib is the best. It’s a film with just about everything, from a sharp script to a great performances by the central couple as rival lawyers. It was also ahead of  its time in its trenchant querying of  the sexual double standard, a theme flagged up in the title. And there is a fine supporting cast, headed by Judy Holliday. You can see why this film was such a shot in the arm for the romantic comedy at a time when the genre was starting to struggle.

I’ve always been fond of films where couples work together, which tends to make for great dialogue as their personal relationship becomes messily entwined with rivalries and tensions in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had already made one good film where they are rival journalists, Woman of the Year (1942), though that one is marred by a cringe-making ending. In Adam’s Rib they are married colleagues again, but this time they play lawyers.

Continue reading

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)

Agnes Moorehead, Margaret O'Brien and Edward G Robinson in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes

I was looking for a different Christmas film to watch, and this gentle MGM family movie directed by Roy Rowland, set in a small Norwegian-American community in Wisconsin and released just after the end of the Second World War, fits the bill perfectly. It was recently released in Warner Archive and is also sometimes shown on TCM. (I suppose it isn’t a Christmas film strictly speaking, but a lot of the story takes place around the season.) I’m not going to write a long review but just thought I’d post a couple of pictures, a link to the amusing trailer for the film,  and a few brief thoughts – and wish everyone who visits my blog a happy and peaceful break.

Continue reading

Looking for Trouble (1934)

Spencer Tracy and Jack Oakie

Looking for Trouble must be one of William Wellman’s most obscure pre-Codes – not officially available on DVD and never shown on TV. I’m going to try to keep this piece fairly short, as it’s a good bet that almost nobody reading this will get a chance to see it. Yet it’s a highly entertaining, fast-moving comedy-drama, with a great cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, and some spectacular earthquake footage.  The reason it has been forgotten seems to be that it isn’t a Warner release, even though it has all the grittiness of the company’s films from the period, but was made by Twentieth Century Pictures. Presumably that’s why it never turns up on TCM.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get hold of a high-quality copy  and would definitely recommend this one to any fans of Tracy or Wellman. It would also be of interest to anyone who likes 1930s films focusing on people’s working lives. Tracy plays a telephone company troubleshooter (hence the title), Joe Graham, with Jack Oakie as his best buddy and workmate, Casey. Constance Cummings also stars as telephone operator Ethel, who is Joe’s on-off sweetheart. The film features the cutting edge of phone technology throughout, even showing how telephone records are used to solve a crime – something which I believe only became common practice decades later.

Continue reading

Man’s Castle (1933)

I’ve now watched the Frank Borzage pre-Code Man’s Castle, starring Spencer Tracy and  Loretta Young, three times, after being intrigued by several postings about it on the Obscure Classics site. Sadly it is yet another classic from the early 1930s which hasn’t as yet been released on DVD. I find it a powerful and yet puzzling movie, because it is such a contrast with the grittiness of Warner Brothers dramas from the same period dealing with the same realities of the Great Depression, such as the early William Wellman films I’ve been watching and writing about recently. I haven’t seen very much Borzage and really need to see more of his work, but his romanticism definitely comes across in this film.

Borzage’s film is centred on a makeshift shanty town built by homeless and jobless people in New York, but it is worlds away from the scenes of the cardboard cities around the dumps and sewers in Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road. Here the temporary community is cast in a romantic light (literally, it is made to look beautiful in a maze of soft shadows) – even seen as the “castle” of the film’s title. However, that word “castle” has an ironic ring to it – this castle  is still a shanty town. At times it is as if this movie is presenting two stories at once, the reality of the Depression and a romanticised dream version of it.

Continue reading

Dante’s Inferno (1935)

I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless  more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.

However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made.   Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.

Continue reading

Marie Galante (1934)

I was interested to see this one because it’s a pre-Code (just) and also stars Spencer Tracy, an actor who I find extremely watchable. It’s also actually out on an official DVD. However, I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the film, directed by Henry King, as it is rather slow and also has a convoluted plot which I found hard to follow.

Ketti Gallian

Ketti Gallian

  

The movie was originally intended as a star-making vehicle not for Tracy, but for French actress Ketti Gallian, who was being groomed for stardom by Fox at the time. She takes the title role as an innocent girl from a French village who is inadvertently kidnapped by a drunken ship’s captain.  He abandons her somewhere in central America, and she makes her way to the Panama canal zone, where she starts to perform in a local nightclub, hoping to make enough money to get back home – but also runs into  a variety of shady people working for different governments. The only person who believes in her is American doctor Crawbett (Tracy), who is in the area to carry out a study of tropical diseases, but gets caught up in the general plotting and paranoia.

mariegalanteThe film looks forward to Casablanca in its portrayal of a community of foreigners marooned in a small enclave where no one trusts anyone else, but the story doesn’t have nearly the same power or romance. Also, although Gallian is beautiful, she doesn’t really carry the film – partly because she has such a heavy French accent that she is hard to understand. I know heavy accents never stopped Garbo or Dietrich, but hers seems even stronger. I really want to see her acting in French, as I think she seems to come across better in the sequences where she speaks her own language, but there my problem is that there are no subtitles! I’ve now seen a number of 1930s American films with scenes in foreign languages and no subtitles, and am wondering when these started to come in. 

Tracy is good as ever, with the sort of stubborn personality he could play so well, but this isn’t one of his more memorable roles. For me the best parts of the film by far are the musical scenes in the nightclub. As well as Gallian singing, there are also torch songs from Helen Morgan of Showboat fame,  again playing a drunken singer, and there’s also a black male singer who plays the piano and sings beautifully in an all-too brief scene – unfortunately I don’t know his name, but if anyone reads this who does, please let me know.

All in all, a bit creaky, slow and hard to follow – but worth seeing for the music.  

A Swedish poster for the movie

A Swedish poster for the movie

Desk Set (1957)

Filmed in truly glorious Technicolor, this is probably the lightest of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies I’ve seen so far. ( I only have a couple of the ones they made together still to go.) This time there’s no real sense of conflict – although obviously the romantic comedy plot brings up its share of misunderstandings but more of friendship and shared humour, and sheer enjoyment of each other’s little eccentricities.

The film is directed by Walter Lang, with a script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant.As so often with movies based on stage plays, the dialogue is beautifully crisp, but this one doesn’t feel too slow and stagey.

The plot seems extremely forward-looking for 1957, with Hepburn playing the woman in charge of a broadcasting station’s reference library, who fears she will be put out of work by a computer , invented by absent-minded boffin Tracy. Fifty years on, computers have, sadly, indeed put paid to such departments in some newspaper offices – I don’t know about broadcasters, but suspect it may be the same story there too. Anyway, the computer in this movie, EMERAC, nicknamed Emmie, is a magnificent sight, huge and taking up a whole room, with lights flashing and a selection of loud noises. My teenage son was most impressed to see it, and pointed out that it would have had a lot less power than a modern calculator!
An information overload

An information overload

I enjoyed the scenes in the library over the Christmas period, where Hepburn is constantly answering the phone and saying: “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Back in the 1980s, there used to be a list of Santa’s reindeer up on the wall in the reference library at a newspaper where I worked, because this exact query came so regularly over the festive season.

In those days, and still more so in the 1950s, it seemed unlikely that a computer would ever be able to answer any random question you put to it. Now, of course, with the arrival of the internet, computers can do just that, and the science fiction has become reality.

Tracy is endearing as scatter-brained scientist Richard – wearing one blue sock and one brown one, and constantly looking as if he isn’t quite sure where he’s just been or where he should be going next. “I had a tape measure a minute ago – you didn’t see where I put it, did you?”

Hepburn provides the perfect contrast as  quick-talking Bunny, with a memory at least equal to that of his computer.She might check her engagement diary for show, but you know she has it all by heart, and probably next year’s engagements too. I especially enjoyed the scene where Hepburn and Tracy eat a picnic in the cold while he fires questions from a prepared list.

Among the supporting cast, it’s fun to see Joan Blondell in good form as one of Hepburn’s colleagues, while Gig Young is suitably infuriating as Hepburn’s on-off lover Mike, an unthinking male chauvinist who has taken her for granted for years until some competition turns up.

I enjoyed the gentle, understated feeling to the whole movie – and, especially, the scenes where everyone is running around after Emmie the computer !