Woman of the Year is a romantic comedy directed by George Stevens, featuring the first on-screen pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They star as Tess Harding and Sam Craig, rival reporters at the New York Chronicle, who fall and love and rush into marriage despite the marked differences in their lifestyles.
In 1941, Garson Kanin – who’d previously directed pictures including Bachelor Mother (1938) with Barbara Stanwyck, and My Favourite Wife (1940) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne – approached Hepburn with the idea for Woman of the Year, and the two got to work on an outline. At the end of the year the United States joined World War II and Garson was drafted, leading him to entrust the screenplay to his brother Michael and their friend Ring Lardner Jr., who’d go on to work on the script for Laura (1944). Hepburn remained heavily involved throughout the writing process, and presented the finished product to Joseph L. Mankiewicz at MGM, with a price tag of $250,000; half for the script, and half for Hepburn herself.
The deal also provided Hepburn with the power to select her own director and co-star. She chose Stevens to direct, who she’d previously worked with twice before – in Alice Adams (1935) and Quality Street (1937) – and Spencer Tracy to appear opposite her. Although the two leads would soon hit it off, legend has it that their initial meeting was less than auspicious; Hepburn first met Tracy whilst she was wearing towering high heels, and is said to have quipped that she was perhaps too tall for him.
Tracy had cut his teeth on Broadway before joining the movie business in the early days of sound pictures, beginning his career with Fox before becoming a stalwart of the MGM lot. He’d won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Captains Courageous (1938) and Boys Town (1939), and was one of the studio’s top stars by the time casting for Woman of the Year came around. It was actually the third time Hepburn and Tracy had attempted to work together; she’d wanted him for The Philadelphia Story (1940), and the following year he’d tried to cast her in what would eventually be Ingrid Bergman’s role in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941). Neither could take part due to prior work commitments, but the pieces would soon fall into place for the two to star together for the first time.
Tess Harding is a celebrated reporter and woman of the world, “the number two dame in the country right next to Mrs. Roosevelt”. Sam Craig – a sports reporter at the same paper – doesn’t agree, particularly after hearing Tess on the radio suggesting baseball be shelved as a national pastime as part of the war effort. He quickly pens an article in retort, calling her “the calamity Jane of the fast international set”, and a war of words ensues. It’s brought to a halt by their editor, who thinks the rivalry is bad for business.
This encounter in the editor’s office is the first time the two have actually met in person, and their bad feeling towards one another is soon forgotten (particularly after Hepburn is introduced legs first, the camera panning gradually upwards). Romance quickly blossoms, and they marry in a whirlwind – and decidedly unromantic – courtroom ceremony. From the beginning of their relationship, Sam feels a bit lost. He’s an All-American Regular Joe who has certain expectations of what a wife will be, and Tess meets hardly any of them. She doesn’t cook or keep house, and she’s kept extremely busy by her high-flying career and a glamorous international social circle.
It certainly seems as though we’re supposed to sympathise with Sam’s marital struggles, but this is difficult when doing so means rooting against the lifestyle Tess has built for herself. Born in China, Tess is well-travelled, well-educated, and speaks multiple languages. She works hard at a career she is clearly passionate about, and is held in high esteem by some of the most important people of the day. It’s hard to imagine why she’d want to give that up in order to stay at home and cook Sam’s dinner.
That’s not quite what Sam wants, either. At the ending of the film he tells her that he doesn’t want her to erase Tess Harding entirely and become wholly Mrs Craig, but to strike a compromise of something in the middle of the two. However, this happy ending comes after Tess has been thoroughly brought down to earth. Almost on a whim she adopts Chris, a young boy who is a Greek refugee, then proceeds to ignore him entirely, showing no maternal aptitude whatsoever. When Tess is proclaimed Woman of the Year, she wants to leave Chris home alone whilst she and Sam attend the award ceremony. Furious at her lack of motherly behaviour, Sam scoffs at her award, proclaiming her to be “no woman at all”, and they split.
After a series of events which make Tess see the error of her ways – including the discovery that Chris is happier living at the orphanage than in her home – she is resolved to become an ideal model of wifeliness. Leaning on the old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she sneaks into Sam’s house whilst he’s sleeping to prepare a surprise breakfast. It’s a disaster. Tess fails at everything from coffee to waffles, and looks thoroughly out of her depth even when operating something so simple as a toaster. The sequence seems to go on forever, as we watch the woman capable of holding a conversation in four simultaneous languages struggle with basic domestic tasks.
This ending was added at the behest of the studio, much to the chagrin of Hepburn and others involved with the film. Of the kitchen scene, screenwriter Lardner said:
“She 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”
As with many Hepburn roles, there’s only so modern a woman in a classic Hollywood-era film is allowed to be. Despite Tess attaining a level of professional achievement that would make her a roaring success if she were a man, her failures as a wife and mother are presented as a failure of proper womanhood. Her self-absorption is displayed in her treatment of Chris, which is undeniably bad. But it’s impossible not to admire Tess as her fictional contemporaries do, living her jet set lifestyle in her lavish apartment.
Despite my issues with the way it deals with gender politics, I love Woman of the Year. Hepburn is at her best, still riding the high of her comeback from being labelled ‘box office poison’ in 1938, and her chemistry with Spencer Tracy is intense and palpable. It’s entirely believable that they fell in love on the set of this film, as you can see it in every frame they share. Tracy excels as the American everyman, and, whilst it would be difficult for Hepburn not to do the same given that she essentially tailor made the role for herself, Tess Harding is such a fun character. Woman of the Year may be the first of the nine films that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together, but it’s also one of the best. Released on 11th February 1942, it garnered a Best Actress nomination for Hepburn and a win for Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr.’s screenplay, and became a huge box office smash for MGM.