#386) Woman of the Year (1942)
OR “When Tracy Met Hepburn…”
Directed by George Stevens
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin
Class of 1999
The Plot: New York Chronicle columnist Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) gets into a public feud with sports writer Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) when she endorses abolishing baseball. When the two finally meet in person, the sparks fly immediately. Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage, but their differences in personalities and cultures begin to clash. Can this sophisticated independent woman make it work with this down-to-earth “man’s man”? It’s Tracy and Hepburn, of course they can!
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the “crackling dialog and strong performances”, as well as director George Stevens and the “natural chemistry” of Hepburn and Tracy.
But Does It Really?: Sorry movie lovers, I couldn’t get into “Woman of the Year”. As the first of the Tracy-Hepburn movies, it earns a spot on the NFR, but overall this film was a slog to get through. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and endearing given their real-life romance, but those moments are few and far between in a comedy with too many topical jokes and glacially slow pacing. If you’re going to have one Tracy-Hepburn comedy on the list, “Adam’s Rib” is the correct choice, with “Woman of the Year” a distant second.
Wow, That’s Dated: This movie is filled with two things I’ve come to expect from any studio film of the early ‘40s: The war as an ongoing undercurrent, and discussions about the two sexes that, while frank and funny at the time, seems quite antiquated today.
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit for MGM, “Woman of the Year” received two Oscar nominations. Katharine Hepburn lost Best Actress to Greer Garson for that year’s Best Picture juggernaut “Mrs. Miniver”, but writers Lardner and Kanin prevailed when they took home the Oscar for Original Screenplay.
- “Woman of the Year” was written as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, who also got to choose her director and co-star. Hepburn wanted to work with Spencer Tracy in “The Philadelphia Story”, but the scheduling didn’t work out. Hepburn selected George Stevens as director so that Tracy would be comfortable with someone “who could talk about baseball”.
- The story bears repeating of the historic first meeting between Hepburn and Tracy. Hepburn was wearing high heels and said, “I’m afraid I’m a bit tall for you, Mr. Tracy”. Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz replied, “Don’t worry Kate, he’ll cut you down to size.”
- This movie begins with two forms of exposition that have gone extinct: Newspaper headlines and impeccably timed radio broadcasts.
- I’d be a lot more impressed with this movie if Sam was willing to make up with an opinionated woman who didn’t look as glamorous as Katharine Hepburn. Let’s see Spencer Tracy be this playful with Marie Dressler or Una O’Connor.
- Oh good, a scene where Sam mansplains baseball to Tess. Side note: who knew the A’s were originally from Philadelphia?
- A departure from his usual macho persona, it’s fun to watch Spencer Tracy be awkward and out of his element, especially in the party scene.
- Like many a real life couple on screen, you can feel the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn from the start. They feel so instantly comfortable with each other, and are willing to be vulnerable in front of the other one. You really feel like you’re witnessing the beginnings of something special.
- Where’s Sam’s family during all of this? We meet Tess’ family (Minor Watson and an underutilized Fay Bainter), but Sam’s oft-mentioned mother is nowhere to be seen. It’s the ‘40s, I thought you people loved mother-in-law jokes.
- And then there’s the plotline involving Dr. Lubbek, a concentration camp escapee hiding in Tess’ apartment. Was that actually comic fodder back then? I’m compelled to wave the “too soon” flag at this movie.
- My main problem with “Woman of the Year” is that the further along we go, the less screentime Tracy and Hepburn actually share together. Individually they’re both fine, but that’s not why we’re here.
- This movie had an alternate ending! Sam and Tess still learn the same lesson as in the final film, but it involved Tess covering a boxing match and Sam trying to learn French and Spanish. This ending went over poorly with test audiences, and the new one with Tess trying to cook was filmed. Neither Hepburn nor the screenwriters were pleased with this new ending.
- I’m going to give a shoutout to someone not involved with the movie: Louise Treadwell, wife of Spencer Tracy. Tracy and Hepburn moved in together shortly after “Woman of the Year” wrapped, but as a devout catholic Tracy refused to divorce his wife, and the two remained estranged for the rest of their marriage. Louise devoted her life to her nonprofit, the John Tracy Clinic (named after their son John, who was born deaf), which specializes in the oralist method of deaf communication. Treadwell never asked for a divorce, knowing that being Mrs. Spencer Tracy would help raise awareness to the clinic. The Tracy-Hepburn movies are a testament to Spencer and Katharine, but never forget the woman whose marriage this all came at the expense of.
- The film’s main legacy is of course the start of one of Hollywood’s most famous romantic relationships. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn started their relationship during filming of “Woman of the Year”, and stayed together for 25 years and eight more movies, culminating with 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and Tracy’s death shortly after production wrapped.
- “Woman of the Year” was remade for television in 1976 as a vehicle for real-life couple Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna. And that’s pretty much the only information out there about it.
- In the same season “42nd Street” made it to Broadway, “Woman of the Year” also got the musical treatment. Kander & Ebb composed some lovely songs, but why Lauren Bacall? Why not someone who could, ya know, sing?