Spencer Tracy

Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



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).


Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).


Inherit the Wind (1960, Stanley Kramer)

A lot of Inherit the Wind is about ideas and not small ones, but big ones. Director Kramer is careful with how big he lets the film get with these ideas, because even though Inherit the Wind is about Darwin vs. the Bible as its biggest idea, the smaller ideas are the more significant ones. And when Kramer’s got Fredric March in a bombastic performance on the side of the Bible, Kramer’s careful to put him in front of those smaller, more important ideas.

The film’s impeccably acted, not just by March or Spencer Tracy as his pseudo-alter ego, but also Gene Kelly as a newspaperman and Florence Eldridge as March’s wife. Amid all these big ideas and small ideas and top-billed stars are Dick York (the small-town teacher teaching Darwin) and his fiancée Donna Anderson (who’s the preacher’s daughter).

Inherit the Wind has something of an anti-climatic finish, just because Kramer and the screenwriters want to let the viewer figure it out. Kramer sets up the film larger than life then, gently, reveals the film’s never larger than life, just the viewers’ expectation of it. There’s depth to the grandiosity and everyone should have been paying attention.

A great deal of the film is listening and watching people listen. Almost all of Harry Morgan’s time is spent listening (as the judge). It’s all important. Kramer’s trying to figure out how to make this too big story work. And he does. Mostly.

Great Ernest Laszlo photography.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer; screenplay by Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Frederic Knudtson; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; released by United Artists.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (E. K. Hornbeck), Dick York (Bertram T. Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge Mel Coffey), Claude Akins (Rev. Jeremiah Brown), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Tom Davenport), Paul Hartman (Bailiff Mort Meeker), Philip Coolidge (Mayor Jason Carter), Jimmy Boyd (Howard), Noah Beery Jr. (John Stebbins), Norman Fell (WGN Radio Technician), Gordon Polk (George Sillers), Hope Summers (Mrs. Krebs – Righteous Townswoman), Ray Teal (Jessie H. Dunlap), Renee Godfrey (Mrs. Stebbins) and Florence Eldridge (Sarah Brady).


Father of the Bride (1950, Vincente Minnelli)

Father of the Bride is such a constant delight, it’s practically over before its problems become clear. First off, it’s definitely about the titular Father–a wonderful Spencer Tracy–who not only narrates but is in almost every scene. The wedding reception, when he’s chasing around daughter Elizabeth Taylor to say goodbye, is about the only time he’s not running a scene.

The reception is also where the problems show. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett write a great script, no question, but their situational comedy is so strong… things get lost. Joan Bennett, as Tracy’s wife and Taylor’s mother, gets shortchanged in the second half. She’s around, she has some good scenes, but nothing compared to her first half ones.

There are also a number of plot threads left unresolved or forgotten or just plain dismissed. Goodrich, Hackett and director Minnelli go for the best laugh they can get out of a scene. Some of these laughs do have narrative consequences and no one seems to have much interest in acknowledging them. It’s too bad.

But Bride’s problems don’t hurt the film’s ability to entertain. Tracy and Bennett are great–he’s so energetic, it’s very impressive she can hold her own. Goodrich and Hackett’s masterful script actively works his narration into scenes.

Taylor’s very likable as the daughter, though she doesn’t have a lot to do. Leo G. Carroll has a great part too.

Minnelli does well too. The settings are confined, but he never lets Bride get claustrophobic.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director of photography, John Alton; edited by Ferris Wheeler; music by Adolph Deutsch; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley T. Banks), Joan Bennett (Ellie Banks), Elizabeth Taylor (Kay Banks), Don Taylor (Buckley Dunstan), Billie Burke (Doris Dunstan), Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Massoula), Moroni Olsen (Herbert Dunstan), Melville Cooper (Mr. Tringle), Taylor Holmes (Warner), Paul Harvey (Rev. A.I. Galsworthy), Frank Orth (Joe), Russ Tamblyn (Tommy Banks), Tom Irish (Ben Banks) and Marietta Canty (Delilah).


Whipsaw (1935, Sam Wood)

Whipsaw takes some detours, but eventually reveals itself as an unlikely road picture… albeit one with limited stops.

The first few scenes are in London, with a lot of exposition introducing Myrna Loy and Harvey Stephens as jewel thieves. There are some other jewel thieves who want in on their score. At this point, Whipsaw seems like it’s going to take place entirely at sea.

But then it skips to New York, three weeks later, with both the cops and the rival crooks staking out Loy in hopes of finding Stephens.

At this point, there are about eight characters to remember–all of whom might end up being significant to the plot.

Then Spencer Tracy shows up as an undercover cop. Even after he does, it still takes Whipsaw another twenty minutes to finally define itself. While Howard Emmett Rogers’s script is messy and often meanders, there’s a lot of enthusiasm to it. The structure’s odd, since Tracy’s deceiving Loy, who he assumes is deceiving him; it doesn’t work for the first act, but once the couple is on the road… Whipsaw gets good.

Loy and Tracy are both fantastic. Their characters have to respect the other’s intellect, try to outsmart the other one and constantly lie. It creates a lot of personal conflict, which the actors essay beautifully.

Wood’s direction–aided by James Wong Howe’s wondrous photography–has some sublime moments but not enough. Basil Wrangell’s editing is weak.

The earnest ending misfires. Loy and Tracy weather it ably.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by William Axt; produced by Wood and Harry Rapf; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Myrna Loy (Vivian Palmer), Spencer Tracy (Ross McBride), Harvey Stephens (Ed Dexter), William Harrigan (‘Doc’ Evans), Clay Clement (Harry Ames), Robert Gleckler (Steve Arnold), Robert Warwick (Robert W. Wadsworth), Georges Renavent (Monetta), Paul Stanton (Justice Department Chief Hughes), Wade Boteler (Detective Humphries), Don Rowan (Curley), John Qualen (Will Dabson), Irene Franklin (Madame Marie), Lillian Leighton (Aunt Jane), J. Anthony Hughes (Justice Department Agent Bailey), William Ingersoll (Dr. Williams) and Charles Irwin (Larry King).


Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges)

My reaction to Bad Day at Black Rock is a guarded one. It runs eighty-one minutes and is frequently long when it should be short and short when it should be long. The conclusion, for instance, is something of a misfire. Ironically, after abandoning him for fifteen minutes near the beginning, the film sticks with Spencer Tracy. So the audience misses characters going through huge (and somewhat unlikely) changes.

It’s a strange problem; even though the film has a great supporting cast, it doesn’t have any other principles besides Tracy. Characters become more and less important as the running time progresses. For example, Robert Ryan’s got a lot to do for the first twenty minutes or so, but once his character is clearly defined, he fades into the background a little.

Some of that fading might be Sturges’s fault. While his Cinemascope composition is fantastic–he has this one scene with six people standing around talking and it’s just startling, the figures, dressed brightly even, contrasting the blue, cloudy sky–it’s all very wide. There are almost no close-ups in the film or even medium shots. Sturges is using all of that wide frame and people can get lost.

But the script has its own problems. Mainly Tracy’s character–he keeps changing, as the script keeps unveiling backstory revelations–and with a longer running time, it might work. The film really just needs more time, not just for Tracy, but to make the longish parts seem less plodding.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Millard Kaufman, adaptation by Don McGuire, based on a story by Howard Breslin; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Newell P. Kimlin; music by André Previn; produced by Dore Schary; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (John J. Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Velie), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David), Russell Collins (Mr. Hastings) and Walter Sande (Sam).


Stanley and Livingstone (1939, Henry King)

There are some beautiful sequences in Stanley and Livingstone, unfortunately, they’re mostly the second unit work from Africa. These sequences–the endless line of men trekking across great expanses–reveal the landscape and wild life of the continent with fervor. Later on, they’re even incorporated into a great rear projection. Spencer Tracy walks from the right of the frame, in front of the screen, to the left, into a physical set. It’s a nice move, probably the best one in the film (but none of the rear projection is shabbily incorporated).

It’s unfortunate the rest of the film comes off so disjointed. Henry King either didn’t shoot enough coverage or editor Barbara McLean simply ignored it for some reason. King’s fine when he’s shooting long shots or unfolding the matter-of-fact narrative (reporter Stanley’s search for Livingstone), but he has real problems when he’s trying to do the tacked-on unrequited romance angle. Or, almost as bad, the awkward, Walter Brennan fueled comedy relief. Brennan’s an American frontier scout in Africa. It’s as funny as it sounds.

The romance, however, reveals the film’s most significant problem. It’s not really about Spencer Tracy. He’s in ninety-five percent of the scenes, but the film tries to explore his personal growth, which isn’t part of the narrative journey. One moment he’s one way, the next he’s different. It’s a revolutionary, absolute and immediate change. The film culminates in a hearing scene–but really a courtroom scene, as it gives Tracy a lengthy monologue–and it’s boring. The climax has a strong dose of deus ex machina and the film visibly strains to bring Tracy into the narrative. He’s been on the sidelines for ten minutes, even though he’s been on screen. It’s a wrong move for the ending; maybe it’s just because the story left Africa, where it was most compelling.

Tracy’s performance is excellent. The script fails him–most of his changes occur during voiceover narration–but he’s still great. As the romantic interest, Nancy Kelly is ineffective. Charles Coburn’s fine as the bad guy, Richard Greene’s amiable as his good-hearted son. Cedric Hardwicke gives a strange performance as the titular Livingstone. He’s going for something and he doesn’t get it, but the failure isn’t absolute and it is interesting to watch. There are a couple moments where he really lets loose and they’re wonderful. Henry Travers is wasted in a manner similar to Brennan.

Some of the film’s problems come from trying to ignore it’s all white man’s burden. In a strange move, the film–in the script–by-passes the evangelical component and promotes the importance of geography… but then concludes with “Onward, Christian Soldiers” playing over Tracy’s African exploration montage.

While the film’s compelling at times–and the production is generally of fine quality–it’s strangely empty and shouldn’t be. It coasts quite a while on the initial good idea before Tracy can’t keep it going on his own anymore.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry King; screenplay by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson, based on historical research and a story by Hal Long and Sam Hellman; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Barbara McLean; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Henry M. Stanley), Nancy Kelly (Eve Kingsley), Richard Greene (Gareth Tyce), Walter Brennan (Jeff Slocum), Charles Coburn (Lord Tyce), Cedric Hardwicke (Dr. David Livingstone), Henry Hull (James Gordon Bennett Jr.), Henry Travers (John Kingsley), Miles Mander (Sir John Gresham), David Torrence (Mr. Cranston), Holmes Herbert (Sir Frederick Holcomb), C. Montague Shaw (Sir Oliver French), Brandon Hurst (Sir Henry Forrester), Hassan Said (Hassan), Paul Harvey (Col. Grimes), Russell Hicks (Peace Commissioner) and Frank Dae (Peace Commissioner).


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).


Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog)

I can’t figure out–past being an inspiring melodrama–if the filmmakers were trying for anything with Boys Town. The question of its success as that inspiring melodrama is easily answered… it fails. The first act of the film deals with Spencer Tracy trying to get Boys Town, starting just as a home, started. It works pretty well, especially since there’s the heavily comedic interplay between Tracy and grudging benefactor Henry Hull. The Tracy and Hull relationship keeps up throughout the movie, which is nice, since Hull’s occasional presence in the late second act makes a lot of difference.

The problems start with the arrival of Mickey Rooney. It isn’t just Rooney, whose performance is affected and exaggerated (at times, it seems like he inspired Jack Nicholson’s Joker performance), but the present action’s lapse as well. An indeterminate period of time passes from the first act to the second and after the public service tour of Boys Town, the movie centers itself entirely around Rooney. Oh, there are some scenes with Tracy in there, worrying about the finances (which would have made a far more interesting story), but mostly Tracy’s just around to try to reform Rooney.

There’s also a significant problem with neon foreshadowing. When Edward Norris shows up what ought to be a brief presence, it’s very clear he’ll be important later on, so there’s nothing to do but wait for him to come back (and he does in an exceptionally contrived manner). Or precious Boys Town mascot Bobs Watson… he’s destined, from his second or third scene, to end up in a hospital bed for something.

A lot of the cheap storytelling undoes some fine acting. Tracy’s excellent, of course, though after a while, there’s nothing for him to do. Norris is good in his part and a number of the kids are good, particularly Frankie Thomas and Sidney Miller. There are no credited female performers (though some nuns eventually show up–another of the movie’s problems, establishing just how Boys Town actually runs) and their absence is felt.

Norman Taurog brings little in way of direction, but it doesn’t matter if he did, since editing miscreant Elmo Veron cut the film. Veron does an awful job, one so bad–even given Boys Town‘s other problems with artifice–he brings the production down a notch.

At some point in the film’s production timeline, it might have been a good idea (unless it was always just supposed to be a vehicle for Rooney) in addition to a well-intentioned one. But as it is, Boys Town is a failure. It misses telling the story it should and it doesn’t do a good job of telling the one it has (and shouldn’t bother telling).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Taurog; screenplay by John Meehan and Dore Schary, from a story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin; director of photography, Sidney Wagner; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Father Flanagan), Mickey Rooney (Whitey Marsh), Henry Hull (Dave Morris), Leslie Fenton (Dan Farrow), Gene Reynolds (Tony Ponessa), Edward Norris (Joe Marsh), Addison Richards (The Judge), Minor Watson (The Bishop), Jonathan Hale (John Hargraves), Bobs Watson (Pee Wee), Martin Spellman (Skinny), Mickey Rentschler (Tommy Anderson), Frankie Thomas (Freddie Fuller), Jimmy Butler (Paul Ferguson), Sidney Miller (Mo Kahn), Robert Emmett Keane (Burton) and Victor Kilian (The Sheriff).


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