From the start I Take this Woman was to be Louis Mayer’s vehicle for propelling his latest star, Hedy Lamarr, into the stratosphere. He had the story already picked out along with a working title of Cinderella. He had a hand picked director in the enigmatic Josef von Sternberg who he thought would work well with the refined high-mindedness of Lamarr.
He threw in his ace star, Spencer Tracy, to play the lead opposite and further strengthen the film. Then the wheels fell off the bus. Some claim that Hedy Lamarr was uncooperative and destroyed the production. Others claim that stars Tracy and Lamarr quarreled and could not work together. Still others claim von Sternerg was simply too slow to produce the film on time.
As to the reasons for the constant directorial changes, one can presumably exclude the second, as Spencer Tracy had sufficient clout at the studio to refuse to work with Lamarr again if he so chose. The fact that Tracy went on to make two additional pictures with Lamarr (Boom Town and Tortilla Flat) would seem to eliminate the claimed acrimony as a cause.
Ultimately von Sternberg was sacked in favor of Frank Borzage, who managed to complete the film. But evidently the finished product wasn’t deemed up to snuff and the film still wasn’t released. Studio turnaround speci
alist W. S. Van Dyke was called in after the script was punched up to reshoot most of the film with a dramatically new supporting cast.
Over a year passed between the start of principal photography and the films final release, an eternity in the speed conscious system of MGM.
The film, though by no means great, does seem to overcome most of the trauma of its dramatic and overwrought birth. It it technically proficient but doesn’t have any wow factors. But also are there no glaring errors either.
Spencer Tracy is a kindly doctor working in a clinic in a rather improverished portion of the city. He is extremely dedicated, so much so that he vacations in the Yucatan to do further research as his self described hobby. It is on the return trip that he meet Lamarr, saving her in the nick of time from tossing herself overboard.
Evidently Hedy had run to the Yucatan on holiday with her beaux (played by Kent Taylor), who halfway through the trip breaks things off as he has suddenly remembered that he is married. Lamarr attempted suicide is the result.
Of course Tracy is immediately smitten with Lamarr but also knows she is out of his league, but strangely the connect and eventually marry. Feeling insecure in his current position working to help the poor, he moves to a high-priced practice in the city in an effort to fill his new wife’s presumed material needs.
As they begin to settle into their new life in the city, Kent Taylor reappears and informs a suitably befuddled Lamarr that now he is ready for marrying her, having divorced his (presumably) original wife. If only, he asks, if Lamarr could do the same and now divorce the good Dr. Tracy.
She waffles a bit, though Tracy at first doesn’t catch on, continuing to play the role of the dutiful and encouraging husband- at one time going so far as suggesting she meet him. Finally she waffles on last time and meets Taylor to tell him she want to be either “all wife” or “no wife.” She has picked the former and sends Taylor permanently on his way. She follows up by suggesting a honeymoon for herself and Tracy, which he gleefully accepts.
But while on honeymoon, Tracy changes his mind and tosses Hedy aside, feeling that perhaps he has been overly naive and that she has always and only loved the enigmatic and forgetful Mr. Taylor. She shares the truth but the sincere Dr. Tracy simply says enough is enough. Then he is called away to an emergency case at his practice (evidently they honeymooned in town).
Sadly, Tracy looses his patient and despondent take the assisting doctor to his old clinic, hoping to get him a job there. In this Tracy is successful but also shares that he has decided to leave the country and head to China to further his research. His former colleagues and patients clamor for him to stay, but he refuses. His mind is made up.
Then, as he makes to leave, the crowd of onlookers parts and there stands Lamarr, now bereft of her fancy gown and jewels and clad in a simple dress. With her she has a half dozen of the neighborhood children, and together them implore him to reconsider.
This time he does, and the curtain falls with the required ersatz ending with the full cast sining “Auld Lang Syne.”
Hopefully you kept up with the plot twists and turns. Many before you haven’t. It is a plot which has quite a bit of potential, but yet doesn’t quite make all the needed connections to make it effective.
Willie Best’s roll of the janitor Sambo is the one true negative in the film, and it is still shocking to see such a mindless and inappropriate portrayal of African-Americans a mere 70 years ago. Thankfully Best’s scenes are few but what they lack in length and importance is exceeded by their inherent cringeworthiness.
Tracy and Lamarr would both go on to make better movies, though of course Tracy went on to be the true superstar, with Lamarr touching the heavens briefly with 1949’s Samson and Delilah, which was the true pinnacle of her career. The last laugh may be hers however, as her technological contributions exceed any of her peers in film, as she developed and shared a patent for frequency hopping technology. First this was used in the war effort to jam enemy torpedoes. Today it serves as the basis of most current wireless technologies.
But back on the film, to paraphrase the English magus Jimmy Page, “It wasn’t the best of films, but surely isn’t the worst, either.”