Scen: Ring Lardner Jr., Michael Kanin. F: Joseph Ruttenberg. M: Frank Sullivan. Scgf.: Cedric Gibbons. Mus: Franz Waxman. Int: Katharine Hepburn (Tess Harding), Spencer Tracy (Sam Craig), Fay Bainter (Ellen Whitcomb), Reginald Owen (Clayton), Minor Watson (William J. Harding), William Bendix (‘Pinkie’ Peters), Gladys Blake (Flo Peters), Dan Tobin (Gerald Howe), Roscoe Karns (Phil Whittaker), William Tannen (Ellis). Prod: Joseph L. Mankiewicz per Metro – Goldwyn-Mayer. DCP.
George Stevens’s only MGM work and one of his most irresistible films is an Alice Adams in reverse: the story of a male character being snubbed by the world of the woman he loves. The idea for a relationship between a feminist political commentator and a sportswriter working for the same journal first came to Ring Lardner Jr. (soon one of the Hollywood Ten) as a sort of intellectual Taming of the Shrew – with his own sportswriter father and the political columnist Dorothy Thompson in mind. The script he wrote with Michael Kanin would win the duo an Oscar. It’s a film about World War II reaching America, before the country officially joined in the fighting on the battlegrounds. International politics even finds its way into the bridal chamber: a child refugee in the house, an anti-fascist fugitive in the bedroom. If the film’s image of war is apolitical, that is no doubt due to the fact that the filming wrapped before America’s entry into the war – though it premiered two months later, in February 1942. Adroit and breezy, Stevens interprets most of the scenes like a silent film, focusing on orchestrating bodies and gazes, with a sense of relentless groove, as in the splendid kitchen sequence (the most Laurel & Hardy thing in a Stevens picture) which was an alternative ending devised by the director after the original ending – settling on a softer punishment for Tess – didn’t do too well with audiences. This scene, one of the greatest examples of performers’ timing on celluloid, is both an invitation to domesticity and a parody of it. While the message is worryingly dated, even for 1941, Tracy and Hepburn’s timeless performance makes it look like a game played between the two of them. They make it a film about their own first encounter and a love that lasted until Tracy’s death. They radiate love and mutual admiration throughout, even when Tracy sports his tight-lipped grins and Stevensian glares, even in that infamous kitchen.