The “Woman of the Year” Isn’t A Woman At All
The 1942 film, Woman of the Year, marked the first of nine movies Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn collaborated on. This film also sparked the couple's onscreen and off-screen iconic love affair. Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) work as journalists for the same newspaper. At first, they feud with each other via their news columns, but eventually, they fall in love and get married. The film centers on their compatibility after marriage rather than following the individuals to their eventual union. Conflict arises because Tess is an active political journalist, which results in her neglect of Sam and his idea of a "normal" marriage. Despite the gender inversions and progressive ideologies in Woman of the Year, the film reinforces the necessity for traditional gender roles of the late 1930s and early 1940s for a heterosexual couple to succeed in romance.
In the late 1930s, Hepburn began falling out of favor with Hollywood and film audiences because of her idiosyncratic attitude. The general public "struggled to figure out what to make of her. To her detriment, she often seemed arch, mannish, and impossibly upper-crust" (Farr). Between 1935 and 1938, she starred in a series of unpopular movies with film audiences. They were also not commercially successful at the box office despite her playing powerful roles. Before Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy, she starred in four romantic comedies with motion picture star, Cary Grant. The pair starred in the 1938 screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, which at the time was a box office disaster.
Shortly after its release, the Hollywood Reporter named Katharine Hepburn "poison at the box office" along with several other well-known movie stars at the time (Parsons). Hepburn and Grant collaborated yet again in Holiday (1938), her first movie after the Hollywood Reporter article. Dana Stevens, a film critic at Slate, describes the couple's performance as "moving with informality and freedom…proving their romantic compatibility to the audience even before they recognize it themselves" (Stevens). However, Philip Barry's play, The Philadelphia Story, "written expressly for Hepburn…even written with her help, became an enormous Broadway hit" after her recent flops (Harvey 407). When George Cukor adapted the play for film, Hepburn starred alongside Grant and James Stewart, which became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's (MGM) biggest film of 1940 and fostered Hepburn's movie comeback.
The success of The Philadelphia Story led to Hepburn signing a contract with MGM, which gave her control to help develop a script, choose her director, and pick her co-star for her projects. Amidst Hollywood's studio system, it was uncommon for one to land such a deal. For instance, screenwriter Garson Kanin said, "[Hepburn] usually got anything she wanted because she would turn up wearing the traditional slacks and she'd barge into their offices and give them hell" ("Katharine Hepburn: On Her Own Terms"). Hepburn's close involvement with the production of Woman of the Year guided the film's direction. She selected George Stevens to direct the film because she knew he could best present a man feeling inferior to a woman placed in the spotlight.
Additionally, Hepburn wanted Spencer Tracy as her co-star for the film, even though she had not met him before. Tracy began his career at Fox, where he developed his “earthy, naturalistic style” and “finally found his footing with audiences after signing with MGM in 1935” (Zacharek). The public loved the dignified and honest roles Tracy played. His characters were often traditionally masculine figures like “the light-hearted Portuguese fisherman in “Captains Courageous,” the stern but human Catholic priest in “Boys Town,” the explorer in “Stanley and Livingstone,” [and] the inventor in “Edison, the Man…” (Berman). In 1938 and 1939, Tracy earned two consecutive Academy Awards for best actor in Captains Courageous and Boys Town.
Upon Hepburn's and Tracy's first encounter, "The Hepburn-authorized account has [producer, Joseph L.] Mankiewicz and Hepburn walking out of the Thalberg Building and bumping into Tracy. 'Mr. Tracy, I think you're a little too short for me,' Hepburn said. 'Don't worry, Kate,' quipped Mankiewicz, 'he'll cut you down to size'" (Eagan 345). This experience became the essence of the duo's onscreen dynamic, where Hepburn reunited the couple after she faced admonishment from Tracy.
The production of Woman of the Year took place in 1941, and MGM released it to audiences in 1942, right at the beginning of World War II. According to Leger Grindon, "Wartime romantic comedy reversed trends from screwball comedy and prompted the return to more traditional gender roles" (Grindon). Thus, the conception of Woman of the Year tells the story of a career woman motivated to compromise her professional position as a newspaper columnist to succeed in romance.
Woman of the Year opens with Tess suggesting to postpone baseball during a radio broadcast considering the war. A 1942 New York Times article suggests the "two current topics most frequently discussed by your average American citizen" are "war and sports, of course" (Crowther). Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 and the rise of fascism prompted the American public's growing concern about whether the United States should step in to mediate. Thus, Tess's comments about running the distance between the bases align with her perspective on international politics when she says, "It seems like a frightful waste of energy. There's an awful lot of energy wasted in the world these days… Isn't anything more wasteful than war" (Woman of the Year). Tess's comments caught Sam's attention resulting in their brief rivalry.
Tess Harding serves as an example of what happens to a woman over time if society continues to let her progress. While hardworking and independent, she's "too self-involved to be a mother or wife" (Pierpont). On the one hand, the ending of Woman of the Year made Hepburn's character one an audience could better relate to. People liked seeing Hepburn and Tracy together on screen because "they knew he'd make her sorry. And their first co-starring film set the pattern: the high-flying independent woman brought finally and comically to the ground by the solid, complacent, implacable male" (Harvey 409). On the other hand, the ending did a disservice to Tess's industrious attitude of a working professional.
The employment rate for women in the United States of America rose because of the 1929 stock market crash, which provided more opportunities for "women's work" in service industries. In 1930, approximately 10.5 million women worked outside of the home, but by 1940 that number climbed to 13 million (Rotondi). Women became a "vital part of the labor movement during the era of the Great Depression," as well as gained a more active economic and political role (Boehm). Additionally, within the space of Hollywood's screwball era, some actresses like Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak along with Katharine Hepburn, rose to prominence as more dynamic heroines by challenging the "acceptable" female role. These feminist movie stars brought complex characters to life and fought for gender equality in their careers within the male-dominated industry. These factors expanded opportunities for women to begin their deviation from traditional gender roles.
Lasting attitudes about men being the breadwinners of the family and women tasked with homemaking may also influence the end sequence of Woman of the Year. James Harvey, author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, comments that "It's the trouble with being a goddess, with being too magnificent. You lose the human touch. This was not only a consoling thought for the rest of us but an inspired solution (courtesy of Philip Barry) to the problem of Hepburn's career" (Harvey 409). Predominantly females were the target audience for Hollywood's films during the 1940s as men went off to fight in World War II. However, Tess Harding's character development shifts from a woman who is good at everything to one who fails at accomplishing the socially constructed expectations of what constitutes a woman.
Woman of the Year suggests that Tess's success as a journalist and public figure is a result of her lack of femininity. However, Hepburn knew Stevens would allow her to "act without holding back, without reserve she displayed with other directors" (Eagan 345). In Tess's personal sphere, the film does not present a very good image of her overall. First, Sam and Tess attend a baseball game as their first date. She is indifferent about the game and inconsiderate to the other fans surrounding her by blocking their view with her enormous hat. Then, Tess shatters Sam's dream of a thoughtful or "perfect" wedding. For instance, Sam expresses his opinion about the planning process for the wedding: "The whole thing seems so important for such a rush… I thought I'd do it up right, like most people do… I just don't think you can do the thing right in such a hurry" (Woman of the Year).
Nevertheless, Tess and her father fly through the ceremony to cram it into their busy schedule. Later that evening, an escaped Yugoslavian statesman from Nazi Germany and an entourage of people, insist on speaking to Tess, so they intrude upon her bedroom and disrupt the newlywed's first night together. Tess has an excellent educational background, is fluent in several languages, and converses with political dissidents and ambassadors. She prioritizes her work and overlooks Sam. For instance, she does not notice the new hat Sam tries to show off to her. The conflict heightens when Tess suggests adding another member to their family.
Tess believes she can save her marriage to Sam by having a child. While Sam is overly delighted by the idea of a pregnant Tess, she instead ushers in Chris (George Kezas), a Greek refugee. Marriage and family researcher, Brian D. Doss, Ph.D., hypothesizes that "Couples who really get closer after the birth of the first baby do a lot of shared co-parenting and have a lot of their identity involved in being a parent, rather than work or other sources of identity" (Doss qtd. in Pelley). Tess is the chairperson of a committee looking to find homes for Greek refugees. Instead of bringing Chris into their home out of compassion for the child more likely, she did so because it would look good for her reputation. Sam tries to hide how unenthusiastic he is about Chris being their adopted child, yet the boy immediately senses Sam does not like him. Rather than Chris bringing the couple closer together to raise the child, he causes further strain on their relationship.
Tess shows disinterest in Chris as she keeps him in a room with useless toys, books written in English, and a baseball glove and ball without friends to use them. Furthermore, as she gets dressed to receive her award for "Woman of the Year," Tess tells Sam that she intends to leave Chris unsupervised while they attend the banquet. Upon hearing this, Sam criticizes Tess for her lack of concern for the child and says he will stay home. Tess perceives Sam as refusing to support her during a moment of recognition, to which Sam retorts, "It's too bad I'm not covering this dinner tonight because I've got an angle that would really be sensational. The 'Outstanding Woman of the Year isn't a woman at all'" (Woman of the Year). Although the film depicts Tess as a career woman, it suggests that women trade their polite and nurturing characteristics for apathy and an increased sense of self-importance as they pursue a successful career outside of the home.
Woman of the Year reversed Tess's progression putting her back in her place—inside of the home. With Hepburn's reinvented onscreen persona combined with the social culture's reluctance to accept a woman outperforming a man, film reviewers suggested, "It is Katharine Hepburn herself who should realize that her place is in her husband's kitchen" (Thumim 73). The film suggests that without a man to cut a woman down to size, she will become heartless and cease effective communication, but it never reassess the depiction of masculinity.
Spencer Tracy’s performance as Sam Craig provides an anchor to showcase the masculine norm of the 1930s and 1940s. Sam expresses a specific template of male behavior despite the couple's differences in class, education, and gender. Woman of the Year does not closely examine the socially accepted hallmarks of being a man or how Sam differs from them. Both Tess and Sam are ambitious and competitive, yet the film uses these characteristics to explore gender from a female perspective and what it means to be a woman.
Tess comes off as a woman supporting humanitarian aid, yet she is unable to offer maternal care or possess a nurturing instinct. The "famous woman writer" is "all thumbs and confusion" in the kitchen (Crowther). Although one can celebrate their accomplishments, Tess's aunt, Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), says to her, "You can't live alone in this world," and that "Success is no fun unless you share it with someone" (Woman of the Year). Outwardly, Tess is eloquent, witty, and beautiful, but upon further investigation of who she is on the inside, her soul is void of warmth. Tess does not see the harm she causes because she is too caught up in her accomplishments to care about others.
While Tess strays away from the traditional gender norms expected of women, she needs Sam to steer her back on track. Although Tess heard the officiant speak at her wedding, she listened to the officiant as a guest at her aunt's wedding, which "makes her realize that to keep a good husband is quite as difficult and quite as well worth doing as being awarded a plaque for being 'Woman of the Year.'" (Woman, 13 June 1942 on Woman of the Year qtd. in Thumim 73). As a character, Tess overcorrects her actions by going from one end of the spectrum to the other. The first strong and independent woman suddenly announces she will submit to her husband and domesticity of the house. The ending of Woman of the Year does not follow through with resolving the central issue of the film, which is finding a balance between one's work and personal happiness.
The test audience wanted to see evidence of Tess changing her behavior, not talking about it theoretically. Director, George Stevens reasoned:
"The first ending we shot was wrong. Why? Because it didn't put over the idea we were shooting for. Kate talked about being a good wife. Audiences don't want talk. They want action. In this new finish, Kate doesn't talk. She acts like a good wife as nearly as she can. She tries to cook. To the point of being ridiculous. But she's trying" (Emblidge).
Tess's sophisticated demeanor seen throughout the majority of the film does a complete 180 by the end. Tess demonstrates her inability to cook breakfast for her husband in an attempt to mend their marriage. Writer, Claudia Roth Pierpont describes the end sequence as a parallel to the opening of The Philadelphia Story. As Tess begins to cook, she "fields squares of toast as they sail through the air, gingerly taps down an obscenely drooling waffle-maker, and hitches up a shoulder strap with a colander" (Pierpont). Her failure at cooking breakfast leads Tess to proclaim she will quit her job and become Sam's proper wife. The ending seems out of place with the rest of the film and out of character as a whole.
Before 1938, some of Hepburn’s strident movie characters were not subdued at the conclusion of the film. For instance, in A Woman Rebels (1936), Stage Door (1937), and Bringing Up Baby (1938), she remains chaotic and freewheeling throughout the movie and in the end. In these comedies, Hepburn's character is usually the most dominant figure in the film, refusing to allow her relationship with men to define her as an individual. This character arc contrasts with the nature of Hepburn’s performances throughout the 1940s. Often men humbled her tough characters to reveal her hidden vulnerability. Katharine Hepburn’s pairing with Spencer Tracy in battle-of-the-sexes comedies like Adam’s Rib (1949) demonstrates “the reverse of the old screwball pattern… It was no longer the witty heroine who had the edge but the feet-on-the-ground hero” (Harvey 409). Hepburn’s rebranded onscreen persona depicts her character being limited, yet off-screen, she maintained a level of creative control over her projects, unlike many actresses at the time.
As Hepburn’s career advanced, she acted in several dramas in the 1950s and 1960s. She entered a new stage in her career where she had an established iconic presence, and the need to get her comeuppance as a younger woman to remain appealing to audiences disappeared. Despite her career trajectory, Hepburn’s performance in Woman of the Year became the model for her post-1938 onscreen persona, which she portrayed for a lot of the 1940s.
The test screenings of Woman of the Year to preview audiences found women disliked the original ending. The original version consisted of Tess, who reconciles with Sam by writing a sentimental, apologetic article under his byline in the newspaper (Eagan 345). Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. recalled, "Mayer and Joe Mankiewicz, who was the producer and George Stevens the director [felt] that she had to get her comeuppance, for trying to be too strong in a man's world" (Lardner qtd. in Emblidge). Thus, the producer and director decided to tack on the reshot ending sequence to make Hepburn's unassailable and interesting character likable.
After Tess declares she will become a dutiful housewife, Sam recognizes this will not be a feasible option. Instead, Sam insists, "I don't wanna be married to Tess Harding… any more than I want you to be just Mrs. Craig. Why can't you be… Tess Harding-Craig?" (Woman of the Year). The line from the original script about a symbolic hyphenated surname remained in the new script.
The popularity of double-barrelled last names became a trend in the mid-19th century in Tudor England with "doctors, lawyers, people who are gaining status not through genealogy and land-owning titles but through professions," and with feminist parents in the United States during the 1970s (Churchill qtd. in Cocozza). For a 1940s audience, the conception of a hyphenated surname acted as the last push for Tess to achieve some women's liberation. However, the seemingly triumphant moment creating the "best of both worlds" really places the burden on the woman to negotiate reverting back to traditional gender roles rather than for the couple to work as a team to foster a harmonious marriage.
If a woman has too much power, she wanders away from the gender norms leading to a dysfunctional relationship. Author, Janet Thumim argues, "Katharine Hepburn, the professional woman, the actress, is an example of a successful negotiation of inequitable social construction" (Thumim 73). Woman of the Year congratulates Tess (Hepburn) for her achievements, yet it looks down on her diversion from traditional gender roles. Despite the film's conflicted message about feminism, the one aspect audiences do remember Hepburn's and Tracy's chemistry, which started their two-decade-long romance.