Thursday, May 14, 2009

Classic Film Chemistry 101

It brings a smile to my face when I see the great movie couples onscreen. Every scene they have together crackles with a wonderful energy: tense, sensual yet with a sense of humor. All of these attributes go goes beyond mere flirting. I haven't a clue about what makes chemistry what it is, but I can say that it's at least a bona fide understanding of one another's tendencies. Sure, two of the three were actual couples offscreen, but even if you're new to classic film and didn't know that, you'd probably say to yourself "These two have to be married!" There are many notable movie couples in the Golden Age, but the three represented here are the best that ever were, or will likely ever be. If you want a real laugh, say aloud the names "Tracy and Hepburn" and then, if you can, pick out two of today's "big stars" and then say their names out loud. Funny how the newbies don't compare, isn't it? Actually, it's pathetic and sad. But who cares? We deal in magic and dreams here at Hollywood Dreamland, but also chemistry.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn: These titans appeared in nine films together. You should watch them all, but start at the beginning with Woman of the Year (1942) and see how Tracy is the quintessential American male and how Hepburn is well into her liberated woman stage--which spanned her entire life. Still, her role as Tess Harding is among her best. She, as always, has a timeless appeal. Now skip ahead to Adam's Rib (1949) and see them as married lawyers--the two are at their peak in terms of their onscreen rapport. Finally, jump to the preachy, mawkish, and cheap-looking Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967) Criticisms aside, the duo are wonderful in this, Tracy's final film. I've always viewed these three movies as chronicling the beginning, middle, and end of their onscreen partnership, as if it were the same couple in all three films. That relationship is summed up by Tracy's speech at the end of Dinner. If that speech doesn't bring a tear to your eye, have someone in the room call a coroner, 'cause you're dead, pal.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: It begins with To Have and Have Not (1944) He was forty-five and she was...nineteen??? That's no girl, that's a real woman! I still watch in amazement when I watch their scenes together. Bacall mesmerized both Bogie and director Howard Hawks, who both knew a real woman when they saw one. Bogart got the girl and they married in real life. Now take a look at Key Largo (1948) The couple barely have any dialogue with each other, but they say more with smouldering glances than any other pair I've seen. Readers of this blog should know by now how much I appreciate understatement in acting, and that what's implied and unsaid is so much more effective than the mere obvious act of just speaking the lines. Take that, Johnny Rocco!

William Powell and Myrna Loy: Of the couples here, this one is what I'd call "The Well-Oiled Machine." They hadn't the slightest romantic notion towards one another and were often involved in tragic or failed relationships while working together, but these two professionals are probably the best ever, because what they did was act. Show business pros like no other. Watch them in The Thin Man (1934), and note the scene in the kitchen, when Powell is taking a tray of cocktails out and he gives Loy a peck on the cheek as he's leaving. Her reaction looks like the bit was improvised, but the scene is perfect for Nick and Nora's characters, and both actors knew it was part of their magic onscreen. In all, Powell and Loy did fourteen films together, but this series remains their legacy.

Now, go and watch these masters at work. Or if you're already familiar with them, go and watch them again--I know you will.


  1. that was a very beautiful post.

  2. Great choices but somehow I miss Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. They were hot hot hot! :)

  3. I second Shearer and Montgomery, but there's so many GREAT classic hollywood couples :)

    But your choices is probably the three most amazing, though I would also have added Astaire and Rogers.

    Bogie and Bacall's scenes always mesmerize me as well :)


  4. I'll be giving Astaire-Rogers a separate post of their own in the near future. Believe me, I didn't forget them! :)

  5. I love all these couples. It's hard for me to pick a favorite though.

  6. Great post! You managed to choose the three most impressive Hollywood "couples". Well done! Well written!

  7. I second Lolita, very well done and very well written.

  8. I would have to add Gable and Jean Harlow to that list as well!!! I feel like they were electric together and played off each other so well...


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