Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Keenan Wynn, Lucille Ball, Carl Esmond, Felix Bressart, Patricia Morison, Gloria Grahame
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, based upon the play by Philip Barry
Without Love was the third screen teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Their previous film, the strange, fascists-in-America drama Keeper Of The Flame, had not been well-received, partly because of its subject matter, and partly because what the public wanted of the two was another comedy. Hepburn turned to Philip Barry, who had re-established her as a force both on stage and on the screen by writing The Philadelphia Story for her. Barry and Hepburn had collaborated again on Without Love, which had first been staged during 1942. Hepburn had wanted Tracy to play opposite her then, but the play’s backers were worried about his drinking, and cast instead the actor-writer-director Elliott Nugent. The play was a success, but chiefly because of Hepburn: almost every critic, while praising her performance, commented on the lack of chemistry between the two leads, and its detrimental effect on the story’s impact.
So it was that when Without Love went into production at MGM, Hepburn was in a position to put her foot down about the casting. She got her way, and was vindicated when the film, although not the smash hit that The Philadelphia Story had been, was a popular success with critics and the public alike.
While searching for accommodation in overcrowded war-time Washington, Pat Jamieson (Spencer Tracy) shares a cab with friendly drunk Quentin Ladd (Keenan Wynn), and ends up spending the night in a spacious house owned by Quentin’s cousin, Jamie Rowan (Katharine Hepburn), who passes most of her time in the country. When Quentin wakes up, nursing a vicious hangover, he finds Pat measuring the house’s basement, and showing every sign of refusing to leave. The men are joined by Jamie herself, who at first mistakes Pat for an applicant for the position of caretaker – until she learns his surname and realises that his father and her own, both scientists, were also friends and colleagues.
Pat confesses that what he really wants is an innocent-seeming location to carry out some research, for which he is contracted to the War Department. Jamie hires him as caretaker, and allows him to use the basement for his experiments. The two become friends, each confessing to a painful past: in Pat’s case, a disastrous love affair; in Jamie’s, a perfect marriage of only two years, that ended with the accidental death of her husband. Although in sympathy with Jamie’s determination never to love again, Pat tells her flatly that in war-time, her solitary nursing of her grief is selfish and wasteful. She is angered by his bluntness and flees the house for the country – but returns a month later to tell Pat that he was right: that she needs to put aside her own problems and focus on the world’s; to be useful. In pursuit of this, she makes Pat a proposition: that they should live and work together, and to facilitate this, they should enter into a marriage of companionship only; a marriage without love…
Without Love is a slightly odd duck amongst the Tracy-Hepburn vehicles. The characters are older than usual, emotionally speaking, and there is a muted quality to the proceedings as these two damaged people slowly discover one another and put aside their fears. The film gains a good deal from being able to do what the stage version could not, making nice visual use of the symbolic change in the seasons. It is autumn when Pat and Jamie marry – making her “Jamie Jamieson”, to their mutual amusement – and mid-spring by the time that Pat’s project is complete and ready to be handed over to the government. The change in Jamie is obvious: she is undergoing her own second spring; but Pat’s apparent obliviousness embarrasses her, and the lack of an outlet for her newly re-awakened feelings tempts her to some dangerous behaviour. The script deftly employs T.S. Eliot to convey Jamie’s emotions, with various speeches about “memory and desire”.
It is hardly a spoiler to say that the two finally do decide to risk themselves again, but not until each of them suffers a profound emotional shock: Pat, when he encounters his former love, the wonderfully named “Lila Vine”, who we never see (although we do get Jamie’s hair-raising impression of her); and Jamie, when her frustration and disappointment make her vulnerable to the manoeuvrings of the experienced Continental tomcat, Paul Carrell (Carl Esmond).
However, it isn’t all angst and suffering. Although some of the comedy, particularly Pat’s sleepwalking, seems contrived and unnecessary, on the upside, there’s a Dorothy Parker in-joke – when did she make that crack about Kate, anyway? – and plenty of witty lines (my favourite being Jamie’s description of Pat’s garish pyjamas: “They look like fish eyes swimming in mucilage.” Horrifyingly, she’s right.), as well as a quality supporting cast.
Romantic comedies such as these tend to stand or fall on their second bananas, and Without Love has all sorts of interesting people on the sidelines. Keenan Wynn stands out as the likeable wastrel, Quentin Ladd, who is caught between Edwina Collins (Patricia Morison), the ghastly society girl with whom he has had an “understanding” since they were children, and Kitty Trimble (Lucille Ball, in a breakthrough role), the tart-tongued working girl he really loves, but who won’t take him seriously until he begins to take himself seriously. Inevitably for when the film was made, this plot thread resolves itself with Quentin enlisting as an ordinary seaman, much to Edwina’s horror and Kitty’s pride. Meanwhile, Gloria Grahame has an odd cameo as a flower-seller who just happens to suffer from hay-fever.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with why Without Love is under consideration here, which instead is due to Pat Jamieson’s war-time research efforts. It is a mark, I suppose, of how desperately serious an issue successful high altitude flying was during WWII that here, after Dive Bomber, we find a second star-heavy studio production dealing, albeit more obliquely, with its problems and their solutions – and (as I keep saying) in an MGM film, too!
Here, the critical issue is the development of an oxygen mask that can function above 40,000 feet altitude; the challenge lying in the fact that, above 30,000 feet, there is a sharp decline in alveolar oxygen saturation levels due to the ambient atmospheric pressure. The problem worsens with increasing altitude, until at 40,000 feet and beyond the pressure is such that even a 100% oxygen atmosphere is insufficient to maintain life for longer than a few minutes.
In reality, the solution to this problem came in the form of the so-called “pressure-demand” breathing system, featuring a newly-designed regulator, exhalation valve and face-mask, all intended to deliver oxygen under higher than normal pressure, to combat the effects of the ambient pressure. The first trials of such a system were conducted under experimental conditions in December of 1941, at what was then known as the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory, with the prototype pressure-demand apparatus tested within a hypobaric chamber at pressure equivalent to 50,000 feet altitude. Refinements continued to be made to the delivery system, until it was first tested in actual flight in the middle of 1943, and first used in combat in April of 1944.
When adapting Without Love for the screen, Donald Ogden Stewart did not update its action; so that despite being released in 1945, within the world of the film it is still 1942, and the development of a high-altitude breathing system remains an urgent priority. Pat Jamieson’s search for accommodation in the opening sequence is more than just the usual riff on war-time conditions: he needs room to carry out his research. In his subsequent conversations with Jamie, we learn that there is a whole society of scientists functioning like this, carrying out top secret research out of private homes and the like, as a means of hiding in plain sight.
At first, Pat’s only interest in Jamie is purely practical; but when, as a mark of trust, he allows her to look around the basement, she arrests his attention by asking what equivalent atmospheric pressure his hypobaric chamber can achieve. Once the two of them are married, Jamie works as Pat’s assistant and test subject. Their wedding night finds them – to the bemusement of Pat’s mentor, Professor Grinza (Felix Bressart), who unknowingly drops in for a visit – completing the first test on Pat’s experimental oxygen delivery system, which in its prototype form is a full, diving helmet-like piece of apparatus that Jamie dons before entering the chamber.
(If nothing else, Without Love offers the viewer a unique chance to see Katharine Hepburn off her head with oxygen overload.)
Without Love does not delve into the minutiae of the problem, although there are passing references to regulators and valves that echo the real-world difficulties encountered in conquering the problem of high-altitude breathing. The scenes in the laboratory are intriguing, but all too brief; while six months’ subsequent research are conveyed during a short montage of equipment tests and physiological recordings, during which the diving-helmet becomes a facemask attached to a separate regulator system. It is this arrangement that Pat finally delivers over to the War Department, after it passes a test in a flight simulator at pressure equivalent to 53,000 feet altitude, in which Pat himself is the test subject.
Although it avoids dwelling in detail upon the scientific story that underlies its romance, Without Love does succeed in capturing one of the more attractive aspects of a career in science, namely the sense of community. Science is, if you will pardon the expression, rather an incestuous business; by which I mean, everyone knows someone who knows someone who worked with someone who studied with someone who was supervised by someone who wrote a paper with someone who… It is upon hearing that Pat’s name is “Jamieson” that Jamie changes her attitude towards him: his father, Professor Jamieson, was not only a friend of Jamie’s own father, also a scientist, but someone he greatly admired. Likewise, Professor Grinza, another close friend of Professor Jamieson, subsequently became Pat’s professional mentor. The sense of the scientific world functioning as a kind of extended family is very strong in Without Love – although I suppose the subtext here is that the only person who would want to hang out with a scientist is another scientist! Nevertheless, it makes a very pleasant change from the usual movie insistence upon depicting scientists as isolated and socially dysfunctional.
The other interesting aspect of this film is Jamie’s own professional expertise. There is no suggestion of her being formally qualified, but certainly she has learned by doing, acting as first her father’s assistant, and then after her marriage – to an agricultural scientist – as her husband’s. However, her experience extends beyond the family circle: while praising her contribution to his research, Pat tells Professor Grinza that Jamie, “Worked with Perry at Columbia.”
It is her instant recognition of the significance of the equipment that he has brought into the cellar that induces Pat to stop looking upon Jamie as merely a convenient landlady; while after their marriage, Jamie sets herself to study and understand all aspects of Pat’s work, and succeeds so well that she is later able to critique the work of others. Jamie’s flair for the work and her qualities of mind of course form a stark contrast with the shallow attractions of Pat’s former love, Lila Vine; and while all this is a very large part of Philip Barry’s thesis, there is nevertheless something amusingly incongruous about an MGM film where the heroine’s initial attraction for the hero lies in her aptitude for hard physics.
And in fact – I get the feeling that the MGM executives found something incongruous about it, too. Although Without Love was a financial success, it wasn’t a roaring one; and I can’t help wondering whether that had something to do with the fact that the film the public saw wasn’t the film it expected to see. While the complete absence of any hint of the film’s scientific content is hardly surprising, the advertising art for Without Love likewise gives no indication that serious themes underlie its comedy and romance; or indeed, that it is anything but a completely superficial work.
On the contrary. What tagline did MGM use to advertise their story of war-time contributions and mature, considered love? – She was a bashful bride! He walked in his sleep! – which, seriously, would make my list of the Ten Worst Taglines EVER; while the main poster image, of Jamie / Kate struggling in Pat / Spence’s arms as he smiles at her with disturbing calm, is wrong in almost more ways than you can count. I had a terrible time choosing a lobby card for this piece and ended up going with the main one just because they were all so inappropriate (and the Kate / Spence image notwithstanding, I’m not sure poor Keenan Wynn doesn’t get the worst of it). As was sometimes the case, the lobby cards for Without Love reproduce lines of dialogue from the film – sort of. Just take a look at the caption to the image I’ve provided here:
“I need a man to lean on. I can’t go on alone.” Now, honestly: can you imagine those words coming out of Katharine Hepburn’s mouth? Well, surprise – they don’t. The actual line, spoken while Jamie is proposing marriage to Pat, is, “I want someone to lean on, a little; and to stand by, too; I can do that.” It is part of her vision of their marriage as a meeting of equals, partners, in which she is to lean on Pat only as much as he is to lean on her. But the companionable nature of the relationship between the film’s central characters was, evidently, no more attractive than the scientific advancements that occupied most of their time to the MGM publicity department, which proceeded to hide the film’s strong, clever heroine from the public, and sell her as weak and needy instead.
I tell you, as I sit here thinking about that…I can feel my hair turning white…
Kate and Spence do SCIENCE!!