As I’ve written in the past, some of the most important acting couples of the 20thCentury were Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. However, there’s another couple who tops them all. Friends for a quarter-century, they appeared together in nine films and their mythic love affair is legendary. They are Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) and Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003).
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI. It wasn’t until he was a student at Ripon College that Tracy’s acting talent was discovered. He earned a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and, while his first New York appearances are unmemorable, The Last Mile, a death-row drama lasted eight months and drew talent scouts who offered him a film contract. In his first film, he co-starred with good friend Humphrey Bogart in Up the River(1930), directed by John Ford. However, it wasn’t until his appearance in The Power and the Glory(1933), that Tracy would be singled out and praised.
Signed to MGM, Fritz Lang’s Fury(1936) was a standout. Co-starring Sylvia Sidney (on loan from Paramount) it’s the story of a young couple who can’t afford to wed. The woman takes a job across the country, but when her fiancé travels to join her, he’s accused of being a murderer. Circumstances lead to vengeance, until finally revealing the truth. The film was a hit, but his next two films would cement Tracy’s place among our greatest and most influential actors.
Captains Courageous(1937) and Boy’s Town(1938) won for Tracy two Oscars, back to back. Victor Fleming’s film of Captains Courageousis a magnificent achievement! In it, Tracy plays, Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman who befriends Harvey, a spoiled, rich boy (Freddie Bartholomew) who falls off an ocean liner and spends three months on a Glouchester fishing boat. Hard work and his endearing friendship with Manuel, change Harvey’s life. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel, the movie is a genuine tearjerker, with great performances from Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney, Charlie Grapewin, John Carradine and Melvin Douglas. It has one helluva ending, too! (When the lights came up, the first time I saw this, in a college film class, the entire audience was in tears!)
Largely fictional, but equally endearing, Boy’s Townis the story of Father Edward J. Flanagan and how he created the Nebraska village that’s been helping at-risk children for over 100 years. Tracy’s performance is a triumph, outshining those given by James Cagney, Charles Boyer and Leslie Howard, among that year’s other Oscar nominees.
While Tracy’s career was strong, he was a troubled man. Raised Catholic, he married actress Louise Treadwell in 1923. The following year, their son John was born hearing-impaired. Grief-stricken, he found solace in his work, but his guilt led to alcoholism. With performances in such films as Stanley and Livingstone, Northwest Passage, Edison, the Man, Boom Town, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he managed to survive. Louise and Spencer Tracy welcomed a daughter, Susan in 1932, but he permanently left the family home in 1933. The couple never divorced.
In 1942, Tracy would be cast opposite Katharine Hepburn in George Stevens’ film, Woman of the Year. When she first met him, Hepburn commented that she was too tall, to which Stevens assured her that Tracy would cut her down to size.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003) was very much a New England woman. Fiercely independent, her father was a urologist and her mother was a suffragette. Never interested in conformities, fashion or trends, often ignoring her publicity she dressed as she chose, Katharine Hepburn was frank and energetic. Her quirky habits and involvement with things that fascinated her have made her one the most renowned performers of all time.
She was fired from many of her first theatrical gigs, but drew audiences and good reviews, when, in 1932, she appeared opposite John Barrymore in George Cukor’s RKO film A Bill of Divorcement. A year later, she was cast in a role she was born to play: Jo March in Cukor’s film of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.(She and Cukor would make ten films together). In 1934 she won the first of her four Oscars for Morning Glory, although the following year she gave a far better performance, under George Stevens’ direction as the title character in Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams.
Between films, Hepburn often returned to the stage, challenging herself with Shakespearean characters. She showed off her athletic body in the Amazonian comedy, The Warrior’s Husband. Her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith kept Hepburn from her burning passion for theater, so after a divorce, she returned, first covering a role in Philip Barry’s Holiday(which she would later film opposite Cary Grant). Following a Broadway engagement and tour as Jane Eyre, she played a variety of film roles.
In 1937, she costarred opposite Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Gail Patrick and Constance Collier in the screen version of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Stage Door. This deft dramady tells the story of a pushy actress who moves into a boarding house and steals the leading role from another actress, which leads to tragedy. While there is precious little of the play left in the script for Stage Door, it’s still a worthwhile movie.
A year later she and Cary Grant appeared in Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby. The plot follows a madcap heiress who throws herself at a clueless paleontologist. Her dog buries a bone needed to complete his latest project as they transport a tame leopard to her aunt’s estate. A failure at the time of its release, Bringing Up Babyis a now revered comedy classic!
“Box Office Poison”
When she was labeled Box Office Poison, Hepburn bought out her RKO contract and returned to Broadway to play Tracy Lord in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, a sophisticated comedy of manners. Hepburn bought the rights and negotiated her MGM contract to get exactly what she wanted: costars Cary Grant and James Stewart under George Cukor’s assured direction. The movie was a smash hit and James Stewart won his Oscar for this film!
Which brings us to Woman of the Year. Placing Hepburn in the role of Tess Harding, a dedicated international journalist whose marriage to a single-minded sports columnist is challenged, the film had both stars brilliantly playing off one another. Tracy and Hepburn became a popular film team and many fans believed they were actually married to one another.
In addition to their collaborations on Keeper of the Flameand Without Love
MGM kept them busy separately as well. Among Tracy’s best were A Guy Named Joeopposite Irene Dunne (later remade as Alwayswith Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and in her last performance, Audrey Hepburn) and The Seventh Cross, a powerful drama about seven people who attempt to escape from a Nazi concentration camp. His costars were Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Signe Hasso.
With Hepburn’s encouragement, Tracy returned to Broadway in 1945. He appeared in Robert Sherwood’s The Rugged Path. Directed by Garson Kanin, it played only six weeks, largely because Tracy was bored and didn’t like theater work. Instead, he returned to MGM for three films with Hepburn: The Sea of Grass, (a failure), State of the Union, and Adam’s Rib. The former is a political drama based on Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Costarring Angela Lansbury, it’s about an ambitious journalist who plans on supporting her lover’s run for the Presidency. Hepburn plays the politician’s wife, who tolerates his affair until political corruptions are revealed.
There are few perfect film comedies, but Adam’s Ribis one of them. 70 years old, the tightly written script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. The film still plays beautifully. Tracy and Hepburn play a pair of married lawyers who find their own marriage challenged when they take the cases of a nervous wife (Judy Holliday) and her cheating husband (Tom Ewell). Directed by George Cukor, this is, quite possibly, their best! Also, if you only know Jean Hagen from Singin’ in the Rain, she’s delightful as the other woman in this film.
The 1950s found Tracy in a variety of roles. Playing the Father of the Bride, his performance informs a terrific movie. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (The Diary of Anne Frank) and directed by Vincente Minnelli the movie is refreshing entertainment. It’s given a huge dose of enthusiasm, because, at the time, Elizabeth Taylor was a new bride (married to Nicky Hilton). Based on its success, the following year, the equally entertaining sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, made by the same team, was released to great success. Among his other films of the period were Plymouth Adventure, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Old Man and the Sea, The Last Hurrahand Inherit the wind.
Inherit the wind
In this important film, Tracy played Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow and Fredric March was Matthew Harrison Brady,based on William Jennings Bryon as they recreated the Scopes Monkey Trial under the guidance of Stanley Kramer. Once again, this was a success.
Meanwhile, Hepburn was equally productive onstage appearing in As You Like Itand Shaw’s TheMillionairess. She went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and John Huston to make The African Queen, Venice for Summertimedirected by David Lean and Fox Studios for Suddenly Last Summer, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.
Tracy and Hepburn did two successful movies together during this period. They collaborated with Cukor, Kanin and Gordon for Pat and Mike, a comedy about a motivated athlete whose career is taken over by a sports promoter with shifty plans of his own. Based on William Marchant’s play about the computer invasion of office space during the 1950s, Desk Setcleverly satirizes how these room-size monsters challenged office workers who feared the monster would take their jobs. Costarring Joan Blondell, Gig Young and Dina Merrill, Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, chief librarian in a TV research office, who seduces Richard Sumner, a systems analyst overseeing the computer’s installation. Directed by Walter Lang, Desk Setwas a failure at the time, but the film is better appreciated today. Spencer Tracy starred as the American Judge for the Nazi Trials in Stanley Kramer’s heartbreaking drama,Judgment at Nurembergand narrated the epic Cinerama western, How the West Was Won.
While Hepburn accepted Sidney Lumet’s offer to play Mary Tyrone in his film of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Tracy appeared in Kramer’s oversized comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. However, years of binge drinking, as well as depression, anxiety and insomnia had taken their toll on his health.
The Cottage and Scotty Bowers
While publicists were careful to protect Tracy and Hepburn’s privacy, it was an open secret. During the last decade of his life, the couple shared a cottage on George Cukor’s estate. The idyllic affair continued, but not in the manner that legend would make of it. For many years there were rumors about a gas jockey who knew everyone and everything about the sex lives of Hollywood’s elite. Over the years, he connected celebrities with partners of their choosing: both men and women. A handyman and avowed pack-rat, Scotty Bowers published his autobiography, Full Servicein 2012. In it he was finally allowed to reveal the truth about Tracy and Hepburn’s affair among those of others.
For one thing, Hepburn was a lesbian and Bowers (who never took anything from his clients), connected her to many beautiful women. In part, due to his guilt, Tracy turned to drink and prescription drugs, but he was also bisexual, and Bowers spent many a night with the great actor. The legend has been exposed. It’s discussed quite openly in the 2018 documentary, Scotty and the Secret Life of Hollywood.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
When Stanley Kramer asked Tracy and Hepburn to make one last film, the team agreed to do Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a drama about an energetic Caucasian woman who brings her fiancé, a brilliant African American doctor home to meet her parents. Conflicts arise, but in true Hollywood fashion, it all works out in the end. The production took many chances. Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton was unknown when she was cast as their daughter. The screenplay addressed social prejudices. It was difficult to get insurance, because Tracy could only work mornings. He died two weeks after the film wrapped. He was 67.
When Hepburn received her second Oscar for this performance, it was felt that it was given to her only to honor Tracy (who was nominated posthumously). Hepburn next portrayed Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of her greatest roles, in The Lion in Winter. She and costar Peter O’Toole burn up the screen in this magnificent historic drama. Honored with her third Oscar, she shared it with newcomer Barbra Streisand who had won for Funny Girl.
A Katharine Hepburn Musical?
Alan Jay Lerner had long been planning a musical about designer Coco Chanel. When Hepburn became available, Cocowas finally produced. With a score by Andre Previn, Hepburn took voice lessons in preparation, talk singing through Lerner’s lyrics just as Richard Burton and Rex Harrison had done. The plot followed Chanel’s decision to reopen her salon, only to encounter failure, until American Department store representatives bought her collection, returning Chanel to the top as one the world’s great French designers. The cast included Rene Auberjonois as a character based on Yves Sant Laurent, Jon Cypher as Chanel’s absent father and Ann Reinking as a model, While Hepburn received glowing reviews, the show did not, closing only a few weeks after the star left the show. Hepburn later took the show on tour.
Wanting to expand her repertoire, her later work included The Trojan Women; A Delicate Balanceand Rooster Cogburn, (opposite John Wayne). She began working on television, first as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; opposite Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins, and in The Corn is Green, both directed by George Cukor.
She returned to the stage in A Matter of Gravityand in Ernest Thompson’s West Side Waltz, but her last great performance came in 1981, when she costarred with Henry and Jane Fonda in the film version of On Golden Pond. She won an unprecedented fourth Oscar for her outstanding performance.
Hepburn’s final years were spent either at her townhouse on E. 49thStreet, which she shared with her companion Phyllis Wilbourn. She made fewer films, the last one being Love Affairstarring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. She moved to the family home in Connecticut, where she died from cardiac arrest at the age of 96.
If ever there was a legacy of films from which to learn about acting, it’s the work of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, working together or separately, they are, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest acting couple of the Century!