Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Without Love (1945)

Without Love was originally a stage production about an American diplomat who comes to Washington, D.C. to persuade Ireland--neutral during WWII--to join the Allies by allowing English ships into Irish ports. The diplomat goes "undercover" as an Irish butler while staying with a wealthy American widow--Hepburn--who discovers his identity and offers to enter into a platonic marriage.

The film is one of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's more obscure collaborations. It lacks, well, a lot. But a "big time" director like George Cukor, Elia Kazan, or George Stevens is noticeably absent, and is the first thing that springs to mind when watching Without Love. Instead, it's helmed by competent journeyman Harold S. Bucquet ("It's Booo-kaaaay!" as TV's Hyacinth would affirm), whose final film this was, as he would die in February 1946. Bucquet, best known for the Dr. Kildare series that starred Lew Ayres, is a strange choice for a Tracy-Hepburn vehicle. It's uncertain whether Bucquet was finally getting the chance to take on A-List projects or if he merely impressed Kate enough for her to bring him in for her next project with "Spen-suh."

The movie itself is one of those affairs where everything seems to be ideal for a decent motion picture: we have a game cast with Hepburn and Tracy, a knockout crew of second bananas (Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn), and a situation that could provide some on screen fireworks with that patented Tracy-Hepburn chemistry, but it just doesn't come together in this film. It's a huge wasted opportunity to establish Tracy-Hepburn after the triumph of 1942's Woman of the Year. Audiences wouldn't get that until 1949, with Adam's Rib.

Despite the hackneyed and contrived plot, Kate felt a degree of loyalty to playwright Philip Barry and engaged on a stage production. She wanted Spencer for the diplomat part, but the producers feared Tracy's binge drinking would put the kibbosh on the play. Instead, they cast the "blandly debonair" Elliott Nugent as the diplomat. When Nugent's drinking started in earnest (Ha!), Without Love suffered.

By 1945, MGM was looking for another smash follow-up to 1942's Woman of the Year and so Without Love's narrative was altered: the Irish political angle was jettisoned and was substituted with the post-war housing shortage, which is as dated an issue as the previous plot. In the final film, Tracy would play scientist Pat Jamieson, who's looking for a place to stay in Washington, D.C. and Kate would play a widow, Jamie Rowan, providing him room and board and the two later agree to marry with the agreement that their relationship remain platonic; hence the title, "Without Love." Hepburn ends up assisting him in his kooky experiments in what is supposed to be cute, funny, and downright wacky. Unfortunately, they're nowhere near being amusing. Oh, we do get one seen-in-many-a-Kate-Hepburn montage: that of her sneezing inside of a glass helmet and attempting to wipe her nose, only the helmet gets in the way.

As to Kate's performance, watching her in Without Love playing her character, the widowed Jamie Rowan, is like witnessing Alice Adams' life ten years later; only she's widowed, creepy, and depressed. Kate haters will cheerfully point to her role here in order to make note of all the acting mannerisms that she's infamous for among her detractors. It's strange how a performer's lesser proclivities stand out when the film they're in is disappointing. Hepburn's performance betrays the screenplays stage--and stagey--origin. It probably didn't help matters any that Spencer Tracy's performance was inconsistent; sometimes he's engaged and interested, other times he's just not interested, what with the lame dialogue and fall-flat one liners he's given to spit out, all done in an offhanded and bored manner. There's also that damned dog that gobbles up valuable screen time; the mutt, named "Diz", is no Asta.

One thing I despise about many post-World War II films--specifically 1945-49--is the mawkish, cutesy, and regressive themes that took root in Hollywood. It's like everyone wanted to get back to "normal" and make sweet-saccharine-natured Americana. How could that even be possible after the horrific events of 1939-45? Thank goodness for Film Noir and B-Movies that dealt with the dirty underbelly of American life. The sanitized fantasy world of post-WWII films is discussed at length in Joseph C. Goulden's 1976 book, The Best Years: 1945-1950. In the chapter "The Movies Flicker Out", Goulden rips into the lifeless and empty offerings that Hollywood gushed forth in the years immediately following the war. Unfortunately, Without Love must be added to that long list of awkwardly-staged failures prevalent in the motion picture industry during the immediate post-war years.

I'll give Without Love another chance. Maybe when I'm in a big post-war mood where I want a "slice of life" after World War II movie, but then I'll probably just put on The Best Years of Our Lives instead.


  1. You know, I like this picture very much. It's not as good as "Adam's rib" or "Pat and Mike", but it's always wonderful to see these two working together!

  2. It's a while since I saw this, but as far as I remember I quite enjoyed the whole idea of the two of them working together on wacky scientific experiments, and I also liked the dog! Maybe it's one where you have to be in the mood for it. Judy

  3. Dexter, a good analysis of the film's shortcomings. I wouldn't really call this a bad movie--the dated elements didn't bother me that much--but would definitely put it in the bottom half of the Tracy-Hepburn movies. As you said, the supporting players outshone the stars--I even liked the little dog. I thought Tracy fared better than Hepburn. He seemed well-suited to the laid-back approach he took to his part. But Hepburn was clearly too old to be behaving so girlishly. That's probably why those Alice Adams mannerisms seemed so forced and embarrassing. Barry liked to load his plays (like "The Animal Kingdom," "Holiday," and even "The Philadelphia Story") with thematic significance. But the "platonic roommates fall in love" concept didn't have the weight to sustain this movie, especially not when compared with the similar but far better "The More the Merrier."

    For the record, my favorite Tracy-Hepburn movies (in order) are "Adam's Rib," "Woman of the Year," and "Pat and Mike." The one that was much better than I expected was the Kazan-directed "Sea of Grass." I thought Kate was just great in it. For me the worst is easily "Keeper of the Flame."

  4. many post-World War II films--specifically 1945-49

    To me it's a rather strange world. Comparing the 30s Fred & Ginger films to The Barkleys of Broadway I'd say the philosophy of making films had totally changed. And it's very enlightening to see, that Jean Arthur is dated then. Her performance in A Foreign Affair was downright excoriated and from then on she had no chance. Jean stuck to her 30s style - even in the 60s - and people realized that and hated it. Jean's 1944 movie "The Impatient Years" already flopped. I will order that film in November and then see whether it was really a question of quality...

    Well, I think it's just the time - another generation began to dominate I guess. A generation with a wondrous taste as I feel. Above all if I see those endless Oscar Levant piano concertos, grafted in musical films like crowning a sugar cake with a huge pumpkin, instead of a strawberry. If it had been something new, I'd say "okay, some Busby Berkly numbers are long too". But they inserted something from the 19th century and it doesn't belong there. They could have implanted Carmina Burana as well, or Verdi, Handel, Jean Baptiste de Lully...

    But was it really the war that changed Hollywood's style. The first World War had been terrible as well, then the depression, the march of the bonus army 1932 &c. ...

    I see something else in the late 40s. I see the upcoming sexual revolution already, with all it's errors and naive superstitiousness. Then Elvis Presley's demonstrative hip swinging and finally Michael Jackson... There's something in the air that tastes of exhibitionism - people begin to stage their privacy and that makes the whole thing unnaturally impelled. Good taste becomes more and more dated. More and more people feel it's opportune to show bad taste.

    Well, that's the reason why I'm strictly classic in movie issues.

  5. This period of "Americana" was also prevalent - at least to me - during the late 1930s. Especially in films released by MGM. World War II seemed to interrupt this style of filmmaking, but the end of the war put it back on track.

    As for "WITHOUT LOVE", I found it simply boring.


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