Tag Archives: Katharine Hepburn

Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SPENCER TRACY & KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).



Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)

I’m hard pressed to think of a better comedy than Bringing Up Baby. Between Hawks’s direction, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde’s script, the acting (particularly from Katharine Hepburn, who’s so funny, one just starts laughing when she starts talking to save the trouble of having to laugh after her line), it’s probably not possible to be any better than Baby.

The film opens with a hen-pecked Cary Grant getting his mission for the film–get May Robson to donate a million dollars to the museum. What Grant doesn’t know is how Hepburn’s going to get in his way, for how long and how intensely (not to mention she’s Robson’s niece). So Baby is a perfect blend of screwball and situational comedy. There’s enough room for everything, with Hawks and editor George Hively keeping it moving a brisk pace.

After Grant’s established, Hepburn sort of takes over as protagonist, though once Charles Ruggles shows up as this delightful dip, Hawks hovers between characters. They’re hunting a leopard in New England after all.

Baby is never mean-spirited–except maybe about Virginia Walker as Grant’s fianceé–all of the characters mean well and Hepburn either confuses them or they’re inept (or both). The approach gives the comedy has edge without ruthlessness. And Walker’s barely in it, otherwise dismissing her wouldn’t work.

Some great supporting performances–Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, Fritz Feld, Walter Catlett–it’s a big cast and Hawks handles them masterfully.

Baby is a singular motion picture, brilliantly made, absolutely hilarious.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, based on a story by Wilde; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by George Lively; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Susan), Cary Grant (David), Charles Ruggles (Major Applegate), Walter Catlett (Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (Mr. Gogarty), May Robson (Aunt Elizabeth), Fritz Feld (Dr. Lehman), Leona Roberts (Mrs. Gogarty), George Irving (Mr. Peabody), Tala Birell (Mrs. Lehman), Virginia Walker (Alice Swallow) and John Kelly (Elmer).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE GREAT KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON 2015 HOSTED BY MARGARETPERRY.ORG


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State of the Union (1948, Frank Capra)

Capra tries for another entry in his humanist series (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and John Doe) and fails miserably. Two of the principal ingredients–Robert Riskin and Gary Cooper–are missing, but since State of the Union is from a play, it’s questionable if Riskin could have helped (Union‘s problems are fundamental). As for Cooper… Spencer Tracy’s excellent and the film’s failings aren’t his fault. The film’s also something of a technical failure, plagued by some terrible editing from William Hornbeck, during the first half.

The movie moves well enough–the first half hour until Katharine Hepburn shows up goes at a lightning fast pace–usually thanks to Van Johnson. Johnson’s cynical but affable reporter is Union‘s best part. Margaret Hamilton’s put-upon maid is also a lot of fun, but Capra tends to misuse actors here more than not. Adolphe Menjou gets saddled with one of the big bad guy roles and he’s way too passive for it. Charles Dingle, in a smaller part, would have had the volume. As the primary villain–corrosive both as a newspaper publisher and Tracy’s mistress–Angela Lansbury is out of her depth. She doesn’t have the skills to pull it off as believable, not just in terms of her villainous scenes, but to convince anyone Tracy would want anything to do with her… much less leave Hepburn for her. (Hepburn in the Lansbury role would have been interesting). There’s the major problem with State of the Union… Tracy’s a bad guy too.

The big changeover happens late in the film, so the viewing experience isn’t totally ruined. Hepburn’s got a great drunk scene during the last act, which is painfully slight, and Maidel Turner, as her drinking buddy, helps a lot. But the whole thing, as it wraps, is bad. Tracy’s not even a main character after Hepburn shows up, so no long walks to think or hurt expressions from the witness stand.

Capra’s free of any earnestness here, just treading water. Worse, he’s lost almost all filmmaking imagination, only retaining competence–with the exception of one plane chase scene, which was probably all second unit. Sure, it’s adapted from a play and there’s lots of stagy scenes, but Capra doesn’t even explore that idea.

It’s a sad afterword to the trilogy and a waste of time for Tracy and Hepburn. They both have good scenes, Hepburn having a lot more, but as a narrative, it’s an embarrassment.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Victor Young; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Grant Matthews), Katharine Hepburn (Mary Matthews), Van Johnson (Spike McManus), Angela Lansbury (Kay Thorndyke), Adolphe Menjou (Jim Conover), Lewis Stone (Sam Thorndyke), Howard Smith (Sam I. Parrish), Charles Dingle (Bill Nolard Hardy), Maidel Turner (Lulubelle Alexander), Raymond Walburn (Judge Alexander) and Margaret Hamilton (Norah).


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