Woman of the Year (1942): George Stevens’ Oscar Winning Comedy, Starring Tracy and Hepburn in their First Teaming

The first teaming of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year, began a long collaborative process that would include eight more films and a legendary off-screen romance that would last until the death of Tracy (who was always married) in 1967.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The movie, written by Ring Lardner and directed by George Stevens, who had previously helmed “Alice Adams,” one of Hepburn’s best films, set the pattern for the couple’s future and better comedies, such as Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, both directed by George Cukor.

Hepburn was instrumental in getting the script done, selling it to Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, for an unprecedented $100,000 (after the success of her previous deal with Metro, The Philadelphia Story), and demanded that her leading man be Tracy.

In the process, she also managed to offend her favorite (and most frequent) director, George Cukor (who had discovered her), favoring Stevens because he was more macho and thus more suitable to direct a story set in the sports world.

Tracy plays Sam Craig, a rough-edged, non-nonsense sportswriter for a New York newspaper, and Hepburn is Tess Harper, a sophisticated journalist writing an international column for the same paper. Opposites attract. Upon meeting, despite some differences, they fall for each other, begin to court and get married.

Their marital bliss doesn’t last long and their different values begin to exert tensions on their union. When Tess is voted the outstanding woman of the year, the upset Sam walks out on her and gets drunk.

In his absence, the utmost professional Tess writes the column for Sam, and though he becomes the laughingstock of the sports world, her gesture serves as a reconciliatory move, bringing the two of them together again.

Much attention has been devoted to the scene in which Tess tries to cook a breakfast for Sam and makes a mess, implying that a career woman can’t have everything and can’t be good in the more traditionally feminine domains, the kitchen. Yet a closer look reveals that the scene is more ambiguous and thus open to various interpretations.

The chemistry, both tension and attraction, between Tracy and Hepburn shows on screen from their very first scene together. They seem to have good time together, and they take turns, playing straight for each other. Stevens, a master of staging strong romantic scenes, gets one love scene that’s particularly erotic. With these two thesps, what could have been a routine romantic comedy turns into something better and more poignant.

At the time, Woman of the Year was praised by most critics, earning an Oscar nomination for Hepburn and an Oscar Award for the screenplay.  Nonetheless, it’s an overestimated picture, too concerned with making points about gender roles in a blatant way. The comedy certainly does not represent the best work of either director Stevens or his two stars.

Compromised Ending

The film was originally shot with a different ending, but it proved unpopular at test screenings. As a result, the final 15 minutes were re-written and shot. In the original, Sam went missing after returning the child to the orphanage, while he was supposed to write an article about an upcoming boxing match. Tess decides to take over for him and visits the gym to learn about the fight. Sam, shocked, encounters Tess, who insists she did the work to be a “good wife.” Sam then says that he does not want either extreme; he just wants her to be “Tess Harding Craig” (as in the released ending).

The actual new ending was written by John Lee Mahin (who was uncredited). Lardner later explained that Tess Harding “had to get her comeuppance for being too strong in a man’s world, so they wrote a scene where she tried to fix breakfast … and gets everything wrong.” He also admitted that the ending had “some of the worst lines we rewrote, but we couldn’t fix it, we couldn’t change it fundamentally.”

Commercial Hit

The film was popular at the box-office, earning $1,935,000 in the U.S. and $773,000 elsewhere during its initial release, thus generating a profit of $753,000 for MGM.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Katharine Hepburn
Screenplay (Original): Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin

Oscar Awards: 1

Best Screenplay

Oscar Context:

In 1942, the Best Actress Oscar went to Greer Garson for the title role in MGMs schmaltzy war melodrama, Mrs. Miniver, which swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture.

Remake Alert

In 1957, Minnelli directed an unofficial remake of Woman of the Year, titled Designing Woman, a pale imitation of the 1942 picture with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in the Tracy Hepburn parts.

Years later, Women of the Year was made into a successful Broadway musical starring Lauren Bacall, who won the Tony Award for her performance.

History Alert

Writer Ring Lardner was blacklisted for his refusal to testify before the HUAAC.  However, he made a creditable comeback in the 1960s with the Steve McQueen vehicle, The Cincinnati Kid, and Altman’s M.A.S.H., for which he won a second writing Oscar.

Credits

Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Directed by George Stevens
Screenplay (Original): Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin
Camera: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Music: Franz Waxman
Art director: Cedric Gibbons
Set decoration: Edwin B. Willis
Costumes: Adrian

Release date: February 1942

Running Time: 112 minutes

Cast:

Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy)
Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn)
Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter)
Clayton (Reginald Owen)
William Harding (Minor Watson)
Pinkie Peters (William Bendix)
Dr. Lubbeck (Ludwig Stoessel)
Flo Peters (Gladys Blake)