Woman of the Year – 1942 – 114 minutes – ★★★★
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Spencer Tracy (Sam Craig), Katherine Hepburn (Tess Harding), William Bendix (Pinkie Peters), Dan Tobin (Gerald Howe), Fay Bainter (Ellen Whitcomb), Reginald Owen (Clayton).
Where to watch: The Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017
Bogie and Bacall may be the most celebrated couple from Hollywood’s golden age, but Spence and Kate can’t be far behind. Both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were under contract at MGM studios in the early 1940’s, and both were riding high. Tracy had won back-to-back Oscars in the late 30’s, and Hepburn was coming off of the smash hit play and film The Philadelphia Story. They certainly knew of one another at the time Woman of the Year went into production, but they had never met. So in this film we get the rare treat of watching not just two characters fall in love, but watching the actors fall in love too.
Spencer Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sportswriter for the New York Chronicle. Early in the film Sam is sitting in his local watering hole with a couple of other sportswriters, when he hears a woman on the radio named Tess Harding (Hepburn) who has the nerve to disparage the game of baseball. Sam is upset by this; America is at war and baseball is our national pastime. So he responds to Tess in his column, despite the fact that she is also a columnist for the same newspaper. She responds to his column with one of her own, and the editor summons them both to his office; after all, he can’t have two of his columnists attacking each other. This sets up one of the most memorable on-screen meetings of all time. Sam is in a sour mood when he walks in the room, but his mood changes immediately when he sees Tess. Their mutual attraction is unmistakable, from the first time they share the screen together.
This is in essence an “opposites attract” story, but the two characters don’t represent the stereotypes that the viewer might expect. Yes, Tess is very worldly, speaking several languages, and well-versed in world issues. But she is not demure; she is actually more sexually aggressive than Sam. And while he is a sportswriter, he is no coarse buffoon. He speaks plainly and reacts rationally, even when faced with seemingly irrational events.
One of the joys of this movie is the way it plays with stereotypes, (for most of its length anyway). Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and there are funny moments as he tries to explain the game to her. But by the end of the scene, she is fully involved, cheering the Yanks along with everyone around her.
Sam has a harder time adjusting to her world, and we get some more funny moments as he attends a gathering at Tess’s where everyone seemingly speaks a different language. It is clear that these two are in love, and Sam impulsively asks Tess to marry him. She agrees, and the rest of the film follows Sam’s growing disillusionment as he tries to adapt to her ever busy, ever changing world, and Tess’s ultimate realization that the wedding vows she utters are more than just words.
This film is funny and fresh for most of its length. But it seems to take a slight step backwards in the final scene. This scene, (which was a rewrite that Katherine Hepburn detested) mocks Tess’s lack of ability in the kitchen. What makes the scene truly funny are Spencer Tracy’s subtle, almost deadpan reactions to what is going on around him. But it also seems to imply that a woman can’t have it all in 1942. While this closing scene marks the movie as a product of a different time, it is still worth viewing. It is a genuinely funny comedy, which caused me to laugh aloud several times. And of course, we also have the pleasure of watching Spence and Kate get to know each other, get comfortable with each other, fall in love with each other.
If you pick up the Criterion version of this movie, be sure and watch the two documentaries that are included. Both are feature-length, and well worth the time. The first is about the life and career of director George Stevens. This documentary (written and directed by his son) paints the picture of a quiet, dignified man who created an impressive body of work and deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks and Capra. The other documentary is a tribute to the life of Spencer Tracy, narrated by Katherine Hepburn. She speaks openly and honestly about their careers, their relationship, and his passing. It ends with one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed. In it, Hepburn reads a letter she had written recently to the long-dead Spencer Tracy, with her emotion getting the better of her at the end. (You can watch this scene below.) What a brave woman she was, to share this with the world. And what a great love she clearly had for him. God bless them both.