One of the most famous couples in Hollywood history, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, starred in nine films together from the time they met at MGM in 1942 until Tracy died in 1967. Today, The Criterion Collection is releasing a new home video edition of the film that started it all: George Stevens’ Woman of the Year.
Written by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin (for which they won an Oscar), directed by George Stevens, starring Hepburn (who was nominated for an Oscar) and Tracy, selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1999, the film comes with some lofty expectations. In 1942, is this the rare progressive Hollywood film? Sadly, no. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. That said, I think Criterion’s Woman of the Year release is a fantastic one, and I’d like to explain why it’s important even if the film itself turns into an offense.
Tracy plays the role of Sam Craig, a sports writer for The New York Chronicle. Hepburn’s Tess Harding is an influential political columnist for the same paper. When the film begins, we see Sam and some of his sports-loving chums listening to Tess’s statements that, with the war going on, we really don’t need to spend much time worrying about baseball.
Sam responds in his own column, and there’s the beginning of an intra-office feud. I would have loved to see this play out a bit more, but the Chronicle‘s editor (and the film’s editor) nip this in the bud to get to the crux of the film: the romance between the two characters. Sam invites her to attend a baseball game with him. The rest is history.
Despite their disparate past and incongruous present, Sam and Tess become friends and this rather quickly develops into a romance. As quick as it is, though, it is believable. I imagine this is mostly because Tracy and Hepburn were themselves falling in love. The chemistry is natural. Sam’s initial gruffness dissipates and he’s genuinely in love with Tess, who will soon be his wife.
That’s the beginning of the trouble both for Sam and Tess’s relationship and for the film itself. At first Sam is proud of Tess’s important work, but patience begins to wear thin the more she doesn’t do the simple things he thinks a wife should do. He has always felt inferior to her — this is shown early on when she’s the one entertaining important guests and he wanders around the room unsure where to sit down — and he has made peace with the fact that her job is probably more important than his, but does that have to extend into the home as well? No, the film says. Progressive women beware of responsibilities outside the home!
That message of balance is fine, and its wisdom applies nicely to men and women. However, Woman of the Year generates its laughs by humiliating Sam when Tess, in the middle of a conversation, doesn’t answer the phone, or, even funnier and more humiliating, when she doesn’t cook Sam eggs when he gets home from work and, indeed, has him cook some for her hungry assistant. For Woman of the Year, Tess isn’t failing because, due to her busy, successful life she is ignoring Sam or failing to love him; Tess is failing because she isn’t fulfilling her domestic duties as his wife.
Of course, the pressure of gender roles in a marriage is an important avenue to explore, but this film is mostly interested in warning women and reassuring men.
At least, that’s what the film we got is interested in. Woman of the Year, as originally written and filmed, was not meant to end the way it does here, which is offensively. Lardner and his co-writer were on vacation when Louis B. Mayer, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and director Stevens realized the film’s original ending was not testing well with audiences. And so Tess has to have a “comeuppance,” as Lardner put it, and receive wisdom from Sam. Hepburn was not pleased.
This context makes the film fascinating as an object of its time (even more so than the trivia that it’s where Tracy and Hepburn met and started their lives and careers together). The Criterion edition is packed with great information: multiple interviews, most dealing with George Stevens and Katharine Hepburn, and two long documentaries: one of George Stevens and one on Spencer Tracy.