Woman of the Year, 1942, MGM Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 114 minutes.
An incomparable combination of cast, director and screenwriters created a timeless film about a powerful woman with a notable lack of expertise in love. The story is compelling, honest and funny, and it’s impossible to ignore the real-life burgeoning romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who met on the set of this movie. (That love affair continued until his death in 1967).
Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a highly accomplished international affairs reporter, fluent in multiple languages, with a high society background. Enter Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a well-respected sportswriter with a more middle-class background. She is not completely out of his league, but a bit foreign to it.
The two work for the same big-name newspaper at a time when newspapers reigned as the source of information, and find themselves thrown together both by chance and by choice. Love seemingly has overcome that which might divide them. Tess takes on the challenge of learning baseball, oblivious about how out-of-place she is at the game. Sam valiantly works the room at a cocktail party for international dignitaries, or tries to, until language barriers bring his efforts to a halt.
The future looks bright for this sharp couple, with perhaps some comical transition to wedded bliss in store.
Not so fast. This is a fun and funny movie, but the humor is woven into Tess and Sam’s struggle with their differences. Ultimately, their marriage is tested to a possible point of no return. With a finely written script and keenly portrayed characters, how that struggle unfolds is what makes this such a rich and rewarding film.
The character of Tess Harding was based directly on Dorothy Thompson, considered by many “the first lady of journalism.” Thompson’s second husband was Sinclair Lewis, and comments spoken at an award ceremony mused on her ability to have a successful career and successful marriage at the same time. Screenwriter and director Garson Kanin jotted down the outline for Woman of the Year, but prior commitments prevented him from developing the story any further. Instead, he suggested his brother Michael work with Ring Laudner Jr.
The ending falls a little flat, although the message is good, and a bit of background on the making of the film tells us why. The original ending didn’t play well when tested with audiences (either that or the higher ups at MGM weren’t happy, it isn’t clear), so against their wishes, the stars and screenwriters Laudner & Kanin pulled together something new. Despite the messy changes, the script won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Fortunately, they were able to keep the final key message intact. It’s a message as true today as it was then, and one that women faced with combining career and marriage will appreciate. Hopefully, their men will as well.
This movie has honesty, intelligence, complexity, humor and of course, genuine chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award). Fay Bainter, as Hepburn’s equally liberal and driven aunt, is appealing in her vulnerable and straightforward nature.
This is a classic story for women who want to “have it all”—because it tells us you can’t, but at the same time, you can.