Out of all the on-screen teams the studio system created, none endures as strongly as the teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The two made nine films together, and had a strong romantic relationship off-screen, and nearly every film they made is magic distilled in some form. Their first pairing put them would set up the dynamic they’d espouse throughout their careers, for good and ill. 1942’s Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens, is the ultimate battle of the sexes that’s also a send-up of relationship stereotypes and an incisive look at the ways marriages are negotiated, with a healthy dose of hijinks.
Tess Harding and Sam Craig (Hepburn and Tracy) are rival reporters for the same newspaper. The two meet and fall in love, but Sam soon finds himself an outcast in Tess’ hectic world leading to a serious strain on their marriage.
In the essay accompanying Woman of the Year’s Criterion release, it’s said screenwriter Garson Kanin pitched the film to Ring Lardner, Jr. as: “They clash in print about something; meet; clash in person; both wrong, both right — not bad!” Kanin, of course, is right, and that’s to the movie’s benefit. Tess and Sam clash, but considering they’re on opposite ends of the newspaper spectrum – she deals in world affairs and he’s a sportswriter – they’d never meet if not for a chance encounter that brings them together. (Director Stevens knew how to capture Hepburn. Look at how she’s presented – legs first with a determined scoff on her face.) The two couldn’t be more instantly attracted to each other if a bolt of lightning hit them. And though they’ll make mistakes throughout the film’s runtime, it never comes from a meanspirited place.
After that the film falls into the typical hasty marriage plot, with a twist. Because neither Tess nor Sam is a bad person, it’s understandable that they assume love is all they need. The film decides to deal with what happens after happily ever after. The two have to decide where to live, and for reasons that make perfect sense Tess decides they’ll live in her house. Unfortunately her house makes Sam look inferior. She has a maid and a guy Friday named Gerald (a droll Dan Tobin), and practically travels with a party behind her. Make no mistake, Hepburn is the reason Woman of the Year succeeds, for better and for worse.
Woman of the Year continued Hepburn’s successful streak after filming The Philadelphia Story, a role she’d initiated on Broadway. Hepburn’s Tess is a paragon of femininity; she speaks six languages, hosts various committees, and even wants to bring home a little Greek refugee. What prevents Tess from being a cold ice princess is Hepburn’s comedic timing. Whether it’s failing terribly at making breakfast or the way she says “hewwo, Daddy” when Sam comes home. Tess is a woman who’s earned her accomplishments and is a wife any man should be proud of…unless that man is Sam.
Tracy does a great job, but he’s meant to be the straight man to Hepburn or, in this case, the wife. Stevens, Kanin and Lardner, gender swap the marriage comedy with Sam as the put-upon lady of the house. Tess’ maid Alma (Edith Evanson) refers to Tess as “Mrs. Harding,” as opposed to Mrs. Craig. It’s from there that Sam learns about being on his own, and how marriage isn’t about having a pretty woman waiting for him when he gets home.
Unlike the film’s remake, 1957’s Designing Woman, Tess is actually doing important work in comparison to Lauren Bacall’s fashion designer character. With the war happening during the film’s production, the script makes a point of emphasizing women’s contribution to the war effort. With Tess’ aforementioned committees, and her stress over a prominent doctor escaping a Nazi concentration camp, the film acknowledges a world where ladies are at the forefront and the men, particularly Sam, are left to figure out how to deal with themselves.
It’s amazing how intense the chemistry is between Hepburn and Tracy, especially considering this is their first film together. Each anticipates the others’ moves, seen in an improvised first date that saw Hepburn accidentally spilling her drink as Tracy kept the scene going. Their laying on each other, nipping at their ears, feels natural and unscripted, a sign of their enduring relationship.
On top of the Criterion’s 2K restoration of the film there’s also vintage interviews with George Stevens (and a full 112-minute documentary on him), an 86-minute doc on Spencer Tracy from 1986, trailers and more.
Woman of the Year is a sign of things to come from Hepburn and Tracy. Though not their most accomplished film – the ending was reshot to the director, screenwriter and stars’ detriment – it opened the door to eight more films that built on their magnetic chemistry. The new Criterion presentation is the best way to discover your own Woman of the Year!
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