Production Code Time…
The onscreen and offscreen partnership of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is the stuff of legend, and it all started with the 1942 film, Woman of the Year. The story of two rival columnists, it’s a classic battle of the sexes.
Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) is an international affairs columnist for the New York Chronicle. She’s been all over the world and speaks every language fluently, switching between them as easy as pie. Her dad is a diplomat and she’s used to hobnobbing with other diplomats and various cosmopolitans. Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) writes a color column for the Chronicle’s sports section. He’s from Wisconsin–direct, intelligent and a man of the people.
Tess and Sam’s paths cross when Sam hears Tess remark to Clifton Fadiman on Information Please that baseball should be abolished for the duration of the war so that people can give the war their full attention. As a sportswriter, Sam takes great umbrage: “We’re concerned with what we like to call our American way of life. Baseball and the things it represents are part of that way of life. What’s the sense of abolishing the thing you’re trying to protect?”
Sam writes a column referring to Tess as the “Calamity Jane of the fast international set.” Tess fires back that Sam “must have had, at one time or another, been subjected to a grammar school course in history.”
Who knows how long these two would have sparred had not their editor, Clayton (Reginald Owen) stepped in and made them shake hands. Sam does Clayton one better, though, and invites Tess to a baseball game the next afternoon.
Tess joins Sam in the press box, where she’s quite a spectacle in her plaid dress with matching gloves and giant hat. The journalists are a little surprised to see her, but they tacitly accept her because she’s Tess Harding. The guy sitting behind Tess’s hat is a bit less understanding, however. Soon, though, Tess loosens up and really starts enjoying herself, even making friends with the grumpy fellow behind her.
In turn, Tess invites Sam to her Park Avenue apartment that night, and Sam goes, thinking he and Tess will have a chance to talk.
Yeah, no. Sam shows up to find a party that’s right out of the League of Nations, with everyone speaking a dizzying array of languages, and Tess is close, personal friends with all of them. Sam feels lost wandering from group to group, and finally parks himself next to a guy who only knows one word in English: “Yes.” After a few pleasantries (Read: slightly racial insults), Sam makes his exit.
Sam and Tess’s next outing is to a lecture she’s giving about womens’ place in the war, and she wants Sam to pick her up and take her to the airport. At the end of the speech, Sam wanders out onto the stage by mistake, where he’s wedged between a random society matron and Tess’s Aunt Ellie (Fay Bainter) and can’t even light a cigarette without getting the matron’s fringes in his pocket. Later on at the airport, Sam wonders what he’s even doing there, and Tess purrs that she was hoping Sam could kiss her goodbye. Of course, Sam doesn’t say no.
Things get even more steamy when Sam and Tess have a date at Sam’s friend, Pinky’s (William Bendix) sports bar, where they both toss back a whole lot of scotch. I remember reading an article in Vanity Fair years ago that said Tracy and Hepburn never kissed in their films, but it’s not true. In Woman of the Year they definitely kiss. In fact, Tess and Sam snuggle up in the cab to Tess’s apartment, where Tess invites Sam up for a glass of milk. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious where this would go, except that the Production Code precludes it, and gentlemen don’t take advantage of drunk women anyway.
It’s also pretty obvious where Tess and Sam are headed next as well…yep, the altar. Only since Tess is a very important person, the only way she can manage a wedding is to fly she and Sam down to South Carolina, where they’re married by a Justice of the Peace in a hurried ceremony. At least Tess’s dad, William T. Harding (Minor Watson) can be there, although he’s only got twelve minutes before his motorcade has to escort him to his next engagement. Sam watches his new family zoom off while downing the celebratory wine.
Yes, in case the pattern isn’t crystal clear by now, Tess is used to calling the shots. Everything revolves around her, with her secretary, Gerald (Dan Tobin) in constant attendance. She’s so immersed in her work that she has a teletype machine in her office and constant phone calls coming in. They can’t even have a proper wedding night without a refugee professor, Dr. Lubeck coming to see Tess. He doesn’t know Tess and Sam have just gotten married, but still. It gets awkward, and soon the bedroom is full of Yugoslavians. Sam counteracts the awkwardness by calling in Pinky and his friends from the bar.
Sam wants to get an apartment by the river, but he has to move in with Tess because she’s the one with all the connections and everyone knows where she lives. Tess swears up and down that Sam won’t feel like a weekend guest, but that’s exactly what Sam is. Tess’s apartment isn’t the type of place where he can put his feet up at the end of the day.
This causes some strain in their marriage, and the final straw comes when Tess brings home Chris, a little Greek refugee. There isn’t room for him in Tess’s life, either, as he has to sleep in her office, and (spoiler alert) the night Tess is to receive the Woman of the Year Award, Sam takes Chris and bolts. Tess will have to ask herself what’s really important to her.
Tess isn’t a bad person, but she is selfish to a fault, and in Woman of the Year she represents the “new woman” finding her place. At that time the emphasis of the feminist movement was very much on equal justice and equally valuing both men and women. American women had just gotten the vote twenty-two years before the film came out, so things were definitely changing, but it was still very early in the war and the hustle and bustle of emergency was only just starting.
Woman of the Year is about finding balance. One of Sam’s fellow sportswriters tells him that “Women should be kept illiterate and clean, like canaries,” and Sam just gives him a look. He loves that Tess is brilliant and important, but he also wants a marriage of equal partnership, and he doesn’t believe either he or Tess should have to turn themselves inside out in order to achieve it.
It’s necessary to the story that Tess be shown as fallible, since she seems to have no limit to her talents and would otherwise remain inaccessible. Critic Stephanie Zachareck wrote on the Criterion website that audiences related better to Hepburn when her characters were softened somewhere within her films. Tess might be a modern woman, but even modern women have limits.
This film was a great one for Tracy and Hepburn to begin their partnership on. According to IMDb, Hepburn was so nervous during their first scene together that she pretended to duck under a table to relieve her tension, and was awed by Tracy’s ability to stay in character. The two became close very quickly, with Hepburn bringing Tracy tea and monitoring his drinking at night, but they didn’t flaunt their relationship. Still, their attraction was so obvious that Joe Mankiewicz later remembered that Tracy and Hepburn were imitating each other’s vocal cadences, an unusual move for major stars with strong personalities.
MGM knew they had something; Tracy and Hepburn would star in eight more films together. These two knew how to play off each other and build each other up as people, and the world of classic Hollywood is forever enriched by their work together.
For more Favorite Code Films, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it’s always a pleasure! Thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…
Woman of the Year is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.