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Hedy Lamarr, possibly the most beautiful woman to appear on the silver screen, had just become a star in the United States, thanks to the film Algiers (1938). For an actor to maintain their popularity it is crucial to quickly follow their break-out film with another hit and MGM knew this, which makes it all the more puzzling as to why they cast Lamarr in I Take This Woman (1940).
Lamarr wrote in her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, "When [studio chief] Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer came up with the property that was to "make Algiers look like a small picture" it was I Take This Woman. When I look back on it all objectively I realize this picture was nothing more than a soap opera. Something you would see on daytime television today. But Mr. Mayer truly believed he had an important picture and I believed him. He signed the great Josef von Sternberg to direct, with the tip that I would thus become MGM's biggest star. Josef von Sternberg had just before made some of Marlene Dietrich's biggest pictures. I'll say for Mr. Mayer that when he believed in something he did spend. He hired Charles MacArthur, one of the town's most expensive script writers, for the screen play. He budgeted I Take This Woman at $1,500,000, which was big money in those days. He assigned the biggest names to support me Spencer Tracy and Water Pidgeon. His enthusiasm was catching. I foresaw another triumph."
All of the assembled elements seemed to guarantee a hit - except the script. Lamarr remembered "Von Sternberg himself read the script which Mr. Mayer thought was ready for the sound stages, and screamed that it was terrible. Finally Mr. Mayer allowed him to rewrite it. Von Sternberg was even critical of his own revision. He didn't feel the script was right yet. By now Mr. Mayer was getting impatient. I was getting all this publicity and he wanted to cash in on it."
I Take This Woman began production with a new director, Frank Borzage, and Mayer himself acting as uncredited producer, which meant he actually went on the set and tried to tell everyone how to do their job including Spencer Tracy. Still, the film wasn't working so production was shut down and the picture temporarily shelved. In the meantime Lamarr made Lady of the Tropics (1939) which was a flop, and Spencer Tracy was contractually obligated to make Stanley and Livingstone (1940) for 20th Century Fox.
Finally Mayer had had enough. "They didn't want me to make I Take This Woman. Well now we will make it", he told Lamarr. Hiring Woody Van Dyke (known in Hollywood as "one-take Woody") to direct, and replacing Walter Pidgeon with Kent Taylor, they shot the film in three weeks. "It was referred to around town as I Re-Take This Woman.
The problems didn't end there. On the set Tracy did not get along with Lamarr. As Bill Davidson wrote in his book Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol "[Tracy] told writer Abby Mann years later he did not like Hedy. He thought she was taking advantage of her closeness to Mayer, and putting on airs of being overly prim. Says Mann, 'Spence told me, "I thought I'd fix Hedy one day. We had a scene where she had to sit on my lap. The night before we did the scene, I bought a big banana that wasn't ripe yet and was pretty hard. I slipped the banana down the front of my pants, and when Hedy sat down on it, she let out a scream and jumped about ten f*ckin' feet in the air!"
After all the fuss, I Take This Woman was 'much ado about nothing'. Frank Nugent in his February 16, 1940 review of the film summed it all up: "[...] The result is ersatz, a synthetic brew tasting more of the cooking than the stock, with a completely nonsensical plot, ridiculous characterization and motivation, and a final tableau reminiscent of a grammar school pageant in which a muslined Goddess of Liberty holds her arms in benediction over the grinning little representatives of Nations of the World."
"The goddess here is Hedy Lamarr, who, surrounded by a casting director's sheaf of East Side youngsters, appears at the door of the clinic to keep Dr. Spencer Tracy from taking the next boat to China and forgetfulness. Dr. Tracy (or Dr. Decker, as the script calls him) had decided, you see, that his enigmatic Russian bride never has been able to forget the fiery Phil Mayberry who once eloped with her to Yucatan and then, anti-climactically, remembered he had a wife. Actually, of course, Miss Lamarr's Mrs. Decker, after two solid hours of brooding over her love life, had just reached the staggering conclusion that Mr. Mayberry really meant nothing to her, that she loved Dr. Decker after all. But, by this time, Dr. Decker, who had been almost too mechanically perfect as the understanding husband for the first nine-tenths of the drama, elected to believe the worst and -. But why, oh why, go on?"
"It is altogether too much to expect that any cast could salvage anything from this potpourri of Gone with the Wind , The Citadel  and last year's galoshes. Mr. Tracy manfully does his best; Miss Lamarr obediently turns her face to the camera; Verree Teasdale rips out her lines with gallant obliviousness to the fact that wit sounds odd in a funeral chapel. I Take This Woman will go down in history as the most extensively operated-on film of 1938-39-40; unfortunately the patient died."
Producer: Louis B. Mayer, Bernard H. Hyman, Lawrence Weingarten
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: James Kevin McGuinness, based on the story "A New York Cinderella" by Charles MacArthur
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Artur Guttmann, Bronislau Kaper
Film Editing: George Boemler
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Dr. Karl Decker), Hedy Lamarr (Georgi Gragore Decker), Verree Teasdale (Madame 'Cesca' Marcesca), Kent Taylor (Phil Mayberry), Laraine Day (Linda Rodgers), Mona Barrie (Sandra Mayberry).
BW-97m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
New York Times: The Screen in Review: I Take This Woman by Frank Nugent, Feb 16, 1940.
Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol b Bill Davidson
Ecstasy and Me by Hedy Lamarr