PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Illusionist (A)
France: Sylvain Chomet, 2010, Sony Classics
In this wonderful feature cartoon, master old-style French animator Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) takes an unproduced Jacques Tati script about an aging magician (who looks and dresses just like Tati, with trench coat, hat, lanky frame and mildly distracted air), and the young woman who follows and loves him, and makes Chaplinesque, Tatiesque magic.
The movie is set in, of all places, rural Scotland and Edinburgh, and the way Chomet captures that land and that city, in lines and pastels, is wondrous to behold. There's also a snip of the real Tati, on screen, in a movie house. (Jean-Claude Donda does the voices for both the Illusionist and the movie house manager.)
And there's a really great bunny -- white, of course, since he comes out of the hat. Now, how many cartoons have a really great bunny? About as many as have a really great illusionist. This one has both -- as well as the antic, wistful spirit of the great Jacques Tati, a magnificent talent who could pull lots of stuff from his hat, and who vanished far too soon.
U.S.: Franklin Schaffner, 1970, Fox, Blu-ray
George C. Scott delivering General George Patton's flag-backed, five-star, four-letter-word-packed speech with fiery candor and no inhibitions almost seems enough to win him his Oscar. The rest is good epic stuff, with lots of dynamic fierce-warrior emoting from Scott and a smart, absorbing, sometimes breathtaking Francis Coppola (and Edmund North) script. Also in the cast: Karl Malden as Gen. Omar Bradley and Tim Considine as the soldier whom Patton roughs up.
Schaffner, one of the great '50s TV drama helmer class -- along with John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, Robert Mulligan and Arthur Penn -- is an underrated movie director. This remains his best. (Along with Planet of the Apes, of course.) And though it shouldn't have beaten out M*A*S*H for the 1970 Best Picture Oscar, it's still pretty damned good.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection (A)
U.S.: various directors, 1942-1967, Warner Home Video
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were Hollywood's real royal couple. Not Tracy's pal Clark Gable and pretty little Myrna Loy, who were elevated by a '30s press gimmick, but Tracy and Hepburn, who were raised to the heights by talent, by beauty (hers), by rugged humanity (his) and by class, brilliance and genius (both of them). Maybe the Golden Age's best movie actor (Tracy), certainly its best movie actress (Hepburn), and, by all odds, the most fascinating of all its backstage couples: They were lovers who never married, but who, instead of playing out their romance in the shadows, played it out in the blaze of the move screens.
So here is an essential box set: All nine of their tandem movies, from 1942's Woman of the Year to 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, have been assembled together for the first time, with Warner Home Video bringing together at last all their films for MGM, Liberty Films, Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia -- a treasure chest for movie-lovers, a great showcase of great movie acting, a loving memento of the Golden Age.
Did the public who went to all of these movies know they were a offcreen couple as well? Hepburn, the fiery bachelor girl, wooed by Howard Hughes, loved by John Ford, by George Stevens and many others? Tracy, the married man, who cheated and drank, but always kept up proprieties in public? Some of them must have, but the star's reputations, in that pre-tabloid age, were well protected by the studios, the publicists.
Spence and Kate's friends knew of course: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, George Cukor and his crowd, Jim Cagney and Pat O'Brien and Frank Morgan and the rest of Tracy's Irish-American Hollywood buddies. But did we -- or our equivalents in the '40s and '50s -- know they were together when the lights went out? Maybe.
They were the seeming opposites who irresistibly attracted. Tracy was a tough sort of guy from Milwaukee (O'Brien was his youthful pal.) Hepburn was a patrician from a posh, politically liberal Connecticut clan. He was salt-of-the-earthy; she was, in a way, ethereal -- or so it seemed.
Joe Mankiewicz, their producer, introduced them on their first film, Woman of the Year. And she's supposed to have said, to Tracy, "You're not very tall are you?" (He was 5'10".) And Mankiewicz is supposed to have cracked, "Don't worry. He'll cut you down to size." And it doesn't really matter whether any of them really said any of it, because we see that meeting and hear those words, always, anwyay.
Was it love at first sight? Maybe. But it was something even more important, something rarer. It was a love that never ended, a passion that lasted really, truly, deeply, until the moment Tracy died, in the hide-away they shared at George Cuklor's estate.
We may never know completely why they loved each other so much. But we know why we love them. They were both great actors, acting geniuses, the very best of the best in their prime years. Tracy, it was said, could memorize a "side" (a page of movie script) just by looking at it. When Hepburn starred as Clara Schuman in the Brahms-Schuman classical musical bio Song of Love, Hepburn learned to play piano so well that her piano coach claimed Kate finally got to be just as good a pianist as he was. Her coach was Artur Rubinstein.
Tracy won two Oscars (for the beaming Portuguese fisherman Manuel in Captains Courageous, and Father Flanagan in Boys' Town). She eventually won four, for Morning Glory, The Lion in Winter, On Golden Pond and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the last movie they made together. (Kate always said she regarded it as an award for both of them.)
They made nine movies together, starting with Woman of the Year, the romantic comedy about a sports reporter wooing a political columnist, where they famously met, and where you can actually see them falling in love on screen. (You can see the same thing happening to their friends Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not.)
Spence and Kate made five more together in the '40s (Keeper of the Flame for director Cukor, Without Love for Harold Bucquet, The Sea of Grass for Elia Kazan, State of the Union for Frank Capra, and Adam's Rib, written by Gordon and Kanin for Cukor). And two more in the '50s (Pat and Mike from the splendid Gordon-Kanin-Cukor team again, and The Desk Set for George Seaton).
And then, after Tracy's long illness (Hepburn gave up her career, at her absolute acting prime, between 1962 to 1967, to nurse him), they made Dinner together. And, as soon as his last scenes were in the can, Tracy died.
The man was gone; the image remained. But the reality of Spencer Tracy didn't quite fit his well-crafted image. In his movies, we see him as the ultimate paterfamilias, the supreme father figure. Spencer the rock. But the real younger Tracy, according to his director/admirer Stanley Kramer, was an alcoholic and a brawler throughout his early career, a binge-drinking troublemaker who would leave the set and vanish, drinking himself into a stupor. Kate saved him from the bottle, prolonged his life, maybe saved him from the fate of a John Barrymore or an Errol Flynn. She rescued him, kept him at his best, helped pick his parts, sacrificed her own career for him at the end of his life.
Why? She loved him, you see. And he loved her.
You can see it in these films, see it in the way they play together, so immaculately, so beautifully, so well; see it in the delight they take in each other's acting, in each other's company, in each other.
I admire Spencer Tracy greatly, as I love and admire Kate. But there's something he did toward the end of their decades together that's always bothered me. It's not the fact that he stuck so rigidly to the anti-divorce dogma of his church, or that he never divorced -- and never married Kate. Actually, she may not have wanted to be wed, to anybody. And anyway, they were happy. How many other people, even in the high Hollywood life they lived, were as happy?
(Extras: vintage cartoons, including Tex Avery's rowdy World War II specials The Blitz Wolf and Swing Shift Cinderella" (a variation on Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood) and Hanna-Barbera's classical music classic with maestro Tom and nemesis Jerry, The Cat Concerto; vintage Our Gang, Crime Doesn't Pay and Theater of Life shorts; Desk Set commentaries by Dina Merrill and Neva Patterson; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Woman of the Year (A), U.S., George Stevens, 1942; with Fay Bainter, William Bendix and Reginald Owen. Keeper of the Flame (B), U.S., George Cukor, 1942; with Forrest Tucker, Richard Whorf, Howard Da Silva and Audrey Christie. Without Love (B), U.S., Harold Bucquet, 1945); with Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn. The Sea of Grass (B), U.S., Elia Kazan; with Melvyn Douglas, Robert Walker, Harry Carey and Edgar Buchanan, script by Marguerite Roberts, from Conrad Richter's novel. State of the Union (A), U.S., Frank Capra, 1948; with Angela Lansbury, Van Johnson, Adolphe Menjou and Lewis Stone, script from the Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse play. Adam's Rib (A), U.S., George Cukor, 1949; with Judy Holliday, David Wayne, Tom Ewell and Jean Hhagen. Pat and Mike (A), U.S., George Cukor, 1949; with Aldo Ray, Jim Backus and Charles Bronson. Desk Set (B), U.S., George Seaton, 1957; with Dina Merrill and Gig Young. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (A), U.S., Stanley Kramer, 1967; with Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton and Cecil Kellaway.