1942’s ‘Woman of the Year’ Remains a Contemporary Romantic Comedy, But Not Necessarily for Good Reasons

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This month Criterion is releasing Woman of the Year on DVD and Blu-ray. The 1942 film remains beloved in many circles for a number of reasons. It was directed by award-winning filmmaker George Stevens and has a witty script by Ring Lardner, Jr., Michael Kanin, and John Lee Mahin. This was also the first Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn movie – where the two actors first met and began the love affair that lasted a quarter century until Tracy died. Rewatching the film, what’s sad, though, isn’t the fact that the film is dated, though some elements are. The problem is that the compromises made with Hepburn’s character continue to plague female actors today in Hollywood just as they did more than 70 years ago.

The opening montage of newspaper headlines and advertisements establish Hepburn’s Tess Harding as a Nick Kristof-Christiane Amanpour type journalist. She’s traveling the country and the globe, meeting with foreign leaders, and does a regular radio broadcast in addition to her newspaper column. She speaks multiple languages, was born in China, her father is now a senator, and her aunt is a noted feminist and activist. Tracy’s Sam Craig is a sports columnist for the same paper. In the opening scene, he overhears her on the radio making it clear she thinks little of baseball, suggesting that maybe it should be abolished until “the emergency” is over. He attacks her in print, she responds in her next column, and both are called into the editor’s office where he tells them to knock it off. There’s a clear attraction between the two, and Sam asks Tess if he can take her to a ball game. At Yankee Stadium he brings her to the press box – which up until then was men’s only – and has to explain the game to her. By the ninth inning she’s gotten into it, and is even getting along with the loudmouthed fan sitting behind her.

After that there are miscommunications as the two try to find time for each other and make plans. Sam picks Tess up at an event to drive her – and her secretary and her aunt – to the airport. As he is seeing her off, she pulls out a cigarette and lights it, not noticing that Sam is lighting a match for her which he then tosses aside.

“I can’t quite figure you out,” Sam tells her, clearly confused as to why he’s there.

“I thought you might want to kiss me goodbye,” Tess says.

Watching the film, what’s so striking is Hepburn’s body language. Tess is so clearly interested in Sam. She’s also so caught up in her work and the intense time-consuming nature of it that she only has so much time and attention for him.

After she gets back, the two meet at Sam’s bar to talk and drink and eventually take a cab back to her apartment. The interaction between the two in her apartment is, on one hand, one of those great old Hollywood scenes where sex is on the mind of both characters and yet they aren’t allowed to articulate any of that. At the time, Hollywood operated under the production Code, or the Hays Code, which set limits of what could be shown in a movie. That meant that most swear words were banned along with nudity. It’s why couples slept in twin beds, and childbirth was never shown. It’s why in a scene like this, where sex is so clearly on the minds of the two characters, they don’t even speak the word. Sometimes this restriction meant that filmmakers found inventive ways to be suggestive, but more often, today those scenes come off as awkward.

That’s especially the case here where the scene shows how they’re very different people. She makes it clear that he can spend the night, and he ends up leaving when she goes to the kitchen. He tells her the next day that he only walked out because he cared so much – except he can’t speak so plainly because the Production Code wouldn’t let him. But he is able to make his feelings clear and she finds it as odd as it is touching, but she takes it for the heartfelt compliment he means it to be.

It’s precisely this dynamic that makes the film so contemporary. Hepburn is beloved by many of us for playing crazy heiresses in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story and Holiday. She isn’t playing that kind of wacky character here, but the screwball comedy dynamic of “ordinary guy” and “colorful woman” remains in this film even though Woman of the Year is a much more realistic film. Here Hepburn is playing a modern career woman — and doing so at a time when it meant that being married and having children was something that had to be abandoned.

Of course, complications follow, and anyone who has seen hundreds of romantic comedies and thousands of sitcom episodes will find the dynamics very familiar. But that tension of the two being from very different worlds – and having habits that don’t always complement each other’s – and struggling to make it work remain and really give the film its heart.

Tess tells her aunt at the end, “I always felt that you were above marriage.” Her aunt replies, “You can’t live alone in this world, Tess. It’s no good. Success is no fun unless you share it with someone.” Woman of the Year is a comedy, but it’s a little more serious and not quite as madcap as the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Maybe some of that was the result of the war. This film isn’t quite so wild, but it still has a very traditional heart.

In the original script, the two are on the verge of breaking up when Sam goes missing and Tess covers for him and writes about an upcoming boxing match. Sam has been disappearing because he’s been taking classes and trying to learn Spanish and French so that he can “be important.” The two reunite, and she says that she wants to be a “good wife” and will change, but he says that he wants her to be Tess Harding Craig.

That’s not the ending that people will see when watching this film.

In the film, Sam moves out and has found an apartment by the river. Tess finds out where and arrives one morning offering to quit her job. What follows is a long, cringe-worthy scene in which Tess tries to make breakfast. I say “cringe-worthy” not because it’s simply embarrassing for the character – though clearly the fact that she can’t even crack an egg or make coffee or measure ingredients or follow a recipe is embarrassing considering how competent and smart Tess is. It’s also cringe-worthy because it’s not especially funny. In a good comedy scene, one mistake is compounded by another, and mistakes snowball into bigger ones. Here she just can’t do anything right, and everything goes wrong in ways that are inconsistent and make no sense. Everything she does goes wrong in the most spectacular, over-the-top way. Not in a logical way. The scene feels as though we’re watching a different movie.

Sam just sits and watches as everything goes wrong. In terms of comedy, Spencer Tracy plays it perfectly, remaining low-key and and not overreacting as everything goes wrong. On the other hand, it’s frustrating to see Sam sit there and watch smugly, enjoying that his wife is being taken down a peg. In the end, though, he tells her that he doesn’t want her to quit her job. He knows that she wouldn’t be happy that way. He wants her to be Tess Harding Craig. That line remained from the original script.

And 75 years ago, I suppose that was something.

As someone old enough to remember the 1992 presidential campaign when the wife of one candidate was publicly mocked and derided for having a career and going professionally by the name Hillary Rodham Clinton, I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like in 1942 to hear this — to hear one of the biggest actors in America tell his onscreen wife that he wants her to work and use her maiden name.

Watching Woman of the Year today, it’s hard not to see it as a the model for almost every romantic comedy. The first two acts are funny and the third act is less funny as we tend to the serious business of the strong woman getting her comeuppance and having to compromise with and crawl to the man. The ending of Woman of the Year doesn’t feel dull and flat because it’s been imitated hundreds of times since – although it has. The ending is sad because we keep seeing that ending because that’s what required to make these strong, interesting women “relatable” and “likable.”

There is plenty about the film that’s dated and would be changed if it were remade today, from the subplot involving a Yugoslav friend of Tess – whose escape from the Nazis is treated for laughs and inconvenience – to Sam imitating Chinese. The ending, though, would probably remain the same. The sad truth is that some things haven’t changed all that much. The Tess Harding we meet at the beginning of the film is just too smart for her own good – and not “likable” enough – to deserve a happy ending.

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