A Double Dose of Katherine Hepburn

A few months ago I went on a big Katherine Hepburn kick (who can blame me? She’s still hot), and added a ton of her movies to my Netflix queue. However, I’ve been going through my physical discs so slowly that it took all this time to get through them. Many of them, such as Holiday, I’ve enjoyed immensely. Others, like Desk Set, are just kind of silly and dated.

The majority of her work seems to consist of romantic comedies in which she plays an incredibly smart career woman who’s at some sort of feminist odds with her husband. Or maybe it just seems that way because I just got two of those films in the mail at once: Adam’s Rib and Woman of the Year.

I was particularly looking forward to Woman of the Year, having seen photos of the stage play version and wondered what it was about. Spencer Tracy plays sports reporter Sam Craig, while Hepburn plays political reporter/columnist Tess Harding. After a public feud in their respective columns, the two end up falling in love and marrying. Unfortunately Tess is such a workaholic that she can hardly see that she’s making for a very poor wife.

And that’s about where Woman of the Year lost me. The character of Tess is an outright psychopath. She expects her new husband to move in with her, change nothing about her life, and adjust to her jet-setting ways while compromising nothing on her own. At one point she adopts a Greek orphan child, and is content to leave him home alone, unsupervised. By the time she realizes her mistake, it’s too late, and Sam has left her, leaving her with no recourse than to try to be a stereotypical “good wife” with “comedic” results.

I don’t know what this film is trying to say. Are we to honestly believe that a woman so intelligent and ambitious as Tess would put absolutely no work into marriage at all? That her career is to the detriment of any possible family life? One could conjecture, but little in the film’s conclusion will offer any help: like so many romantic comedies of the era, it ends with simply a punchline, and little resolve. The narrative arc is so weak, I’m left wondering what the point of it all was.

Adam’s Rib proved a great counterpoint, since it’s a far better film. Tracy and Hepburn reprise their roles as a bickering professional husband-and-wife, this time becoming opposing council in a sensational attempted murder trial of a woman who shot and injured her cheating husband. Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner is passionately convinced that her trial is evidence of a double-standard (a man has the right to protect the sanctity of his family!), while Tracy’s Adam Bonner is hotly dedicated to his work prosecuting the flaky woman that pulled the trigger. Ultimately the case and its ideals bring both the marriage and the courtroom to their knees.

What was, and still is, refreshing about Adam’s Rib is that it takes both sides seriously — both are intelligent, thoughtful people with entirely reasonable opinions, and both are entirely unable to see the other person’s point of view. Even today it’s refreshing to see a thoughtful debate on a dicey feminist issue (I don’t know how to feel about it today), but even more relevant is how divergent social and political opinions can truly break a family apart. (Plus it’s funny, though not always — the 1940s seems to find great humor in repugnant, “humorous” side characters that serve no purpose other than to annoy.)

Of the two, Adam’s Rib is worth seeing, despite being the less famous of the two.

Hepburn’s filmography has some major gems in it, like The Lion in Winter and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. There are still many more I haven’t gotten to yet. There’s so much good stuff here that it’s worth churning up the occasional dud.


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