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That Old Bryn Mawr Accent

If Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were going to be a couple today, onscreen or off, we’d be forced to give them a catchy combined-name nickname like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina.” Trayburn? Hepcy? Both sound like venereal diseases. Now talking about American film’s greatest onscreen/offscreen love affair in these terms may seem crass but, film production code aside, the nine films Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together are incredibly sexy. Sexy in a way Brangelina or Bennifer have never been.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie needed guns and skin to turn up the heat in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Jennifer Garner needed a leather catsuit and whip to get Ben Affleck’s motor humming in Daredevil. All Katharine Hepburn needed was an artfully worded quip and maybe a flick of her hair to get Spencer Tracy’s attentions. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes she needed several artfully worded quips. Hepburn and Tracy never needed partial nudity or violence to seem sexually appealing.

The first time Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were paired on film was George Stevens’ Woman of the Year in 1942. It was also the first time they met. In a 1993 documentary about her life and career, Hepburn recalled their first meeting onset. She was wearing high heels, putting her a few inches taller than the 5’10” Tracy. “I’m afraid I’m a bit tall for you,” she said. Tracy responded, “Don’t worry. I’ll cut you down to size.” And so began one of the silver screen’s most enduring partnerships, although I remain unconvinced that producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz didn’t write this bit himself.

Having recently indulged myself in the Hepburn/Tracy canon, I can tell you this: their films, remarkably, stand the test of time. Not just because of quippy dialogue or the stars’ chemistry but because their films tended to be about the clash between personal ambition and personal relationships, something that men and women haven’t really been able to reconcile in the sixty-five years since Woman of the Year premiered. This battle-of-the-sexes, can-we-have-it-all theme is already on display most prominently in that first pairing Woman of the Year pairing and in Adam’s Rib in 1949 (arguably their best work), and 1957’s Desk Set.

Woman of the Year is the story of Tess Harding and Sam Craig, warring reporters at the fictional New York Chronicle. He’s a sports writer, and she writes about current events. Soon animosity turns to passion, and they marry. That’s when the trouble starts. Tess has no intention of giving up her writing and speaking career for domesticity and, initially, Sam’s okay with this. But when Tess’ work gets her named ‘woman of the year’ – and after one too many nights coming home to an empty house -he’s singing a different tune.

Tess is set to accept an award and intends to leave their newly-adopted son in the care of the doorman. Sam snarls, “Maybe the committee should know the woman of the year isn’t a woman at all,” appalled that she’d ditch the kid for something like work. Her credentials as a woman and mother questioned because she opted to work as opposed to staying with her child? I think we’ve all heard that one before. Work versus family and children is the Kobayashi Maru of feminism. Some things don’t change.

Ultimately, Hepburn’s Tess and Tracy’s Sam patch things up, realize that comprise is the secret to a healthy marriage, and live happily ever after. It certainly doesn’t always work out this way in real life, but the film’s willingness to examine these dynamics make it remarkably prescient, almost seven decades after its release.

Early on in Adam’s Rib, the sixth Hepburn/Tracy pairing, as their characters argue, Tracy’s Adam Bonner bellows, “Aw, don’t try to use that old Bryn Mawr accent on me.” Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner smiles shyly and rolls her eyes. With the blurring of fantasy and reality, it’s easy to see why this is considered their best film. Tracy is all caustic smiles and exasperated shrugs, while Hepburn is gorgeous and feminine in some incredible costumes, particularly her high-waisted trousers and curve-hugging blouses.

As a couple that are also opposing attorneys on a high profile case, they bicker adorably and their chemistry is certainly at its most effective. Once again we see them as high-powered couple, competing with each other professionally while trying to maintain their marriage. Needless to say, they have difficulty navigating these choppy waters before ultimately realizing that they bring out the best in each other at home and in the courtroom.

Despite its popularity, Adam’s Rib doesn’t stand up quite as well as Woman of the Year in terms of social commentary. Amanda, successful though she may be, is a terrible lawyer. Instead of trying to argue the actual law, she resorts to her personal theory about women being treated unequally (in the court of public opinion and in the court of law) to win her case. Her pantsuits are gorgeous and her one-liners clever, but those do not a lawyer make. The plot’s silliness makes it difficult to really see Amanda’s courtroom victory as the victory for women that she thinks it to be.

While lacking the extraneous societal implications of Woman of the Year, it’s nevertheless easy to see why Adam’s Rib is still their most popular film. The affection between Hepburn and Tracy shines through in every second of their onscreen interaction. Seldom in screen history is chemistry so natural or potent. It stands the test of time not because it informs or educates but because watching Hepburn and Tracy fight is a hell of a lot sexier than watching most onscreen teams make love. They spar so skillfully, armed only with large vocabularies (and some of the best comic timing in cinema history), there’s no need to see them undress to feel the sexual heat between them. Plus, did I mention the pantsuits?

As far as the Hepburn/Tracy comedies go, 1957’s Desk Set is not widely regarded. At the time, the leads were considered poorly cast, given their middle age, and the script, adapted from a stage play, is tailored to fit their prototypical characters. Tracy’s Richard Sumner is a gruff and rumpled efficiency expert and Hepburn’s Bunny Watson is whip smart and sassy network research executive.

The plot of Desk Set is practically irrelevant; it’s merely the penultimate chance to see Hepburn and Tracy spar in a comedy. Sumner, a computerization expert, is brought into asses Bunny’s research department at the Federal Broadcasting Corporation. Bunny is involved with her boss, despite her obvious attraction to Sumner. The computers eventually brought into the company create an error, causing everyone to believe they’ve been fired.

However, by the time the credits roll, Bunny is in Richard’s arms, and the research department staff learns that the computer was never intended to replace them. Even Richard realizes that what the researchers do isn’t easy. He can’t even answer questions like, “what are the names of Santa’s reindeer?” and “what are the names of the seven dwarves?”

Besides being the last time Hepburn and Tracy would costar in a comedy, the film was certainly the first to deal with the prospect of white collar jobs being eliminated by computers and the unemployment of the highly educated. After all, says Bunny, “I have a Master’s degree and the only reason I don’t have PhD is because I ran out of money.” The deep fear of job loss among Bunny’s employees, despite their high degree of education, strikes a chord, particularly in these difficult economic times.

This film’s foresight into corporate America is remarkable but it also more than a little nostalgic, and not just for the winsomely eccentric touches like the enormous ivy plant that entwines Bunny’s office. The sharper attire, the casual flirtations, the conviviality of everybody meeting for drinks after work – it all seems so much sunnier than the present day, where Bunny Watson and her research grunts would be working 15-hour days, barely making their rent, and commuting out to their rat-trap apartments for some joyless yoga before early bedtimes. Not once in Desk Set does any co-worker call any other co-worker a jerk (or worse). It’s like an alternate universe.

Desk Set is easier to love in hindsight than it was in 1957. It was purchased as a vehicle for Hepburn and Tracy, with little regard to the source material, and was given a lukewarm reception by critics. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the last time Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy appeared on screen together, but Desk Set was the last Hepburn/Tracy film. It was the last time we saw them together when that sight alone was the reason for the movie. This was certainly not the case with a sociopolitical drama like their actual final film.

If a film’s ability to remain relevant and attract an audience years, even decades, after its release makes it a classic, surely the same can be said for film pairs; you’d be hard pressed to find a more classic body of work than the costarrings of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Woman of the Year is dying to be remade (I picture George Clooney as Sam and maybe Kate Winslet as Tess), its issues as relevant as ever. Desk Set, though better than about 90% of the romantic comedies out there, is a bit dated but could return to Broadway with a certain amount of kitschy charm.

But I pray, despite its flaws, no one ever gets their hands on Adam’s Rib. The utter perfection of the two stars together is a gentle tango and any other pair of actors would throw their backs out trying to master their perfect mix of sweetness and passion, humor and ardor. Anyone who tries will fall far short and might ruin that which Hepburn and Tracy always gave us: magic. And isn’t magic why we watch movies to begin with?

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Sarah Hudson is a self-educated film buff who currently resides in Boston.

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