39 without

#39 — Without Love (Harold S. Bucquet, 1945)

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made nine films together. It is without a doubt one of the great screen partnerships in American film history, practically defining what that elusive quality chemistry looks like for every generation to follow. Of course, there was an off-screen pairing between the two of them, officially secret but widely known, that added turbo to the fuel, but the real life twinkle of romance does explain everything. It’s entirely possible that the splendid contrasts of their acting styles — she strident, he relaxed, she crisply intelligent, he scruffily wise — would have produced magic even if they collapsed into mutual loathing the moment “Cut!” was shouted on the set. Understandably, celebrations of their shared time in front of the camera tend to focus on those handful of films in which they had great material to work with. Cinematic heroes are invariably marked less by their best work than their place in great films, individual accomplishment extracted from a collaborative success. I wouldn’t argue that Without Love is the best Hepburn-Tracy film overall, but I’m beginning to believe that it might be the finest representation of their ineffable charm as a movie duo.

Without Love casts Hepburn and Tracy as scientists engaged in projects meant to bolster the war effort of the United States (a more devoted film historian than I could carve out a dandy chapter about the pervasiveness of World War II movies being crafted concurrently with the actual event leading to the oddity of even light romantic comedies hinging their plots on the global cataclysm). Fiercely focused on their work, the two decided to wed, not because they’ve fallen in love, but rather the opposite. They bring the same clinical certainly to the betrothal as they do to their efforts in the lab. Romance is insignificant when compared to logic, hence the title. Based on a 1942 play by Philip Barry, the actual outcome of this calculated coupling is never in doubt, and surely wasn’t even a surprise back then. The pleasure in in watching Hepburn and Tracy waltz their way to the certain conclusion. This was their third film together, released in just over four years, and the comfort they have together is evident. They know exactly where the other is going to go with a moment and fully understand both how to let their partner shine and how to tenderly counter-punch to keep the scene humming along. The natural cantankerousness they brought to scenes together rarely had as much underlying warmth as it does here.

Though it truly is the Hepburn-Tracy tennis match that elevates the film to the point where its worthy of consideration for this sort of list, there are winning qualities aplenty in the film. Barry also penned the play The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn’s career-rescuing triumph. As was the case with the film adaptation of the earlier work, David Ogden Stewart brought those words to the screen in a manner that preserved the integrity of the stage work while artfully, subtly opening it up for the greater possibilities of film. He also provided plenty of barbs for Lucille Ball to pitch in a truly marvelous supporting turn, playing a cynical pal of the two lovebirds. Within her frames of film lie the great big screen career that never was, brassy and sharp. With the leading pair at the top of their shared game, it was probably tempting to cede the screen to them as much as possible. It’s to the credit of director Harold S. Bucquet that he made a fuller film than that. Without Love has plenty to say, even if its most urgent statement is “Would you just look at these two?”

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