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06 February 2014

Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin write for the silver screen's dream team

When Garson Kanin published Tracy & Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir in 1972, Katharine Hepburn was furious and refused to talk to him for years. But after time went by and many of her friends started passing away, including Kanin's wife and writing partner Ruth Gordon, Miss Hepburn came to value his friendship once again.

Most scholars have since dismissed Kanin's memoir as too biased to be considered a dependable account of the affair. Scholar Andrew Britton is most perceptive when he states the purpose of the book "suggests only that the authors of PAT AND MIKE wish to make it clear to the spectator that they are in the habit of addressing the leading actors by their abbreviated forenames." (Britton 170)


The Kanins worked on two film projects with Hepburn and Tracy: ADAMS RIB (1949) and PAT AND MIKE (1952). These films were two of the three that earned the couple Academy Award nominations (A DOUBLE LIFE (1947) was the third). Unfortunately, ADAM'S RIB lost out to SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman, Jr., and PAT AND MIKE was beaten by T.E.B. Clarke's THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951). Although the team didn't win, it is significant to note that two thirds of their Oscar-nominated screenplays were also considered the most popular films of the Tracy/Hepburn screen duo.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made a total of nine films together, starting with WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942) and ending with the poignant social commentary Stanley Kramer's GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (1967). While ADAM'S RIB undoubtedly holds it's own against the other films in the pair's canon, PAT AND MIKE is little more than an opportunity for Hepburn to show off her athletic ability. Although the script is witty and entertaining, the meet-cute concept of the genre prevented the film from becoming purposeful. Britton is also critical of the Kanins work on these projects:
"This want of freshness goes with the clubby atmosphere which seems to have prevailed on the set of the two films written by the Kanins and with the ideological ritual performed by the films themselves: the tacit reference to the actors on which the project depends so closely seems frequently to express itself in the tone and character of the acting." (Britton 206)
When Garson Kanin proposed the outline for a third film starring Hepburn and Tracy, both Tracy and director George Cukor hesitated:
“Maybe Spencer felt they were getting too old to do this kind of film. He felt ‘a joke’s a joke’, and maybe he was right. Life changes. There’s nothing worse than doing a certain kind of thing very charmingly and then running it into the ground.” (On Cukor 217)
The Kanins were not teetotallers, but they didn't like to drink while they worked. Their habits had a steadying influence on Tracy, who struggled with a drinking problem for most of his life. Like Hepburn and Tracy, the Kanins were workaholics, often running several projects at the same time. They were much more social than Tracy and Hepburn, but as much as they enjoyed going out and spending ludicrous amounts of money in shops and at restaurants, they were just as happy to spend a night at home with their friends Spence and Kate.

Garson Kanin first worked with Hepburn and Tracy on WOMAN OF THE YEAR, contributing some uncredited writing assistance to his brother Michael Kanin's script. In 1945 Kanin directed Spencer Tracy on Broadway in "The Rugged Path."

Ruth Gordon was a New Englander who had many of the same East Coast roots as Katharine Hepburn. Gordon had been acting in motion pictures since 1915 and had acted on Broadway for many years. She was an active member of the New York social scene in the 1920s, even skirting the periphery of the Algonquin Round Table set with her good friend Harpo Marx. Gordon lived a Gatsby lifestyle and once noted of the East Hampton parties of the swinging 20s that "among the ‘steady pour-through’ of weekend guests one was sure to find ‘everybody anybody wanted to meet.’” (Leaming 250)

Hepburn and Gordon were both nominated for Oscars in 1968, Hepburn for THE LION IN WINTER (which she won in a tie with Barbara Streisand in FUNNY GIRL), and Gordon for ROSEMARY'S BABY. Hepburn watched the awards ceremony in New York city at her friend Irene (Mayer) Selznick's apartment because she didn't have a television of her own. Hepburn couldn't have been more pleased to see Gordon win her first Oscar, at the age of 72, and laughed heartily when Gordon quipped during her acceptance speech, "I don't know why it took so long!" (Edwards 359)

Although they only made two films together, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon were friends with Tracy and Hepburn for years.  They were one of the few couples whom Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn included in their small circle of friends. Because the Tracy/Hepburn affair was kept secret, the couple seldom went out in public, and few of their colleagues in Hollywood ever socialised with them. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, along with George Cukor, Constance Collier, and a few other close friends, were the exceptions.
"The Kanins were as splendid a team as Kate and Tracy - both witty, quick and eccentric in their interests - and they seemed to ‘spark off each other.’” (Edwards 240)
This post is written in conjunction with the 31 Days of Oscars blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Paula's Cinema Club, and Outspoken & Freckled. Week one featured historic Oscar snubs. Week two is devoted to miscellaneous categories. Stay tuned for the actors in week three, the directors in week four, and the movies in week five!

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