We’re torn when it comes to the 1942 romantic comedy Woman of the Year.
This is an early WWII comedy about a slightly rumpled sportswriter (Spencer Tracy) who meets and marries a gonna-liberate-all-women-and-save-the-world journalist (Katharine Hepburn).
After a fast and intense courtship, the two marry, then learn to adjust to each other.
Tracy’s character loves an opinionated, high-spirited woman, but he’s woefully unprepared to live with Hepburn’s doggedness. If she’s not rescuing Greek orphans, she’s giving asylum to political refugees or interviewing world leaders. As Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock might say, Hepburn runs “madly off in all directions”.
In this film, director George Stevens uses dialogue as a frame for the more important job of defining the characters. For example, when Tracy first meets Hepburn in person, it is in the newspaper publisher’s office. The publisher, standing in the background, is droning on about Who Knows What: all we see is Tracy’s attraction to Hepburn and the chemistry that’s going to propel the plot.
But not all dialogue acts as wallpaper. When Tracy meets his new father-in-law (Minor Watson) on the day of the wedding, he has a small confession:
Tracy (to Watson): “I’ve been worried about you since yesterday.”
Watson: “I’ve been worried about you for years.”
Tracy’s character is no dummy; neither is Hepburn’s, which makes the script rather frustrating.
Hepburn’s character is not perfect. She sometimes makes dumb decisions and jumps into situations before thinking them through. (If she weren’t impetuous, though, she might not have married Tracy in the first place.)
She’s persistent in making the world A Better Place, but this isn’t a hobby to pass the time until marriage. This is who she is.
Therefore, it is unfair to ask Hepburn to Stop It. Many influential women who trade domesticity for the greater good feel the push-pull of domestic life. (Read the memoirs of any past or present female world leader – they’ll tell you how it is.)
However, it’s not Tracy who’s asking Hepburn to Stop It. Nay, he admires her energy and determination. We realize this early in the film:
Tracy: “I love you.” …
Hepburn: “Even when I’m sober?”
Tracy: “Even when you’re brilliant.”
It’s the script that’s pressuring Hepburn to Stop It. Other scripts from this period would praise men for doing the very things Hepburn does. But Hepburn is a woman; therefore, the script requires her character to suffer because she’s not feminine enough.
Even if Tracy were the one telling Hepburn to Stop It, he would likely have our sympathy. He is completely in love with Hepburn (both on screen and off), and is not satisfied with scheduling brief meetings between trains and speeches and ball games. Because he’s Spencer Tracy – and therefore gruffly charming and endearing – we want him to be happy.
This is why we’re torn about Woman of the Year. There is no good guy or bad guy; there are two people trying to find their way in a relationship, just like people do in real life.
Still, Woman of the Year is an entertaining Battle of the Sexes, and a Must See for fans of Tracy and Hepburn.
Woman of the Year: starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. Written by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942, B&W, 112 mins.
This post is part of THE GREAT KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON, hosted by MargaretPerry.org. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.
Nicely written, and I like that you point out the “elephant in the room,” i.e., if a 1940’s man was doing what Hepburn does in the movie, he’d be regarded as a hero. Ain’t sexual politics a hoot? Anyway, great post!
Ha ha – yes, sexual politics are a hoot, as you say. I admire Hepburn in this movie, but I keep thinking of she were Paul Henreid, she’d be hailed as a hero.
I remember enjoying this film and thinking Tracy and Hepburn were both great, but being frustrated by the way the dice are stacked against Hepburn’s character. How dare she save the world when dinner needs cooking! However, you bring out how the relationship between the couple is more subtle than that.
I have to admit the scene of Hepburn making breakfast in the kitchen always has me in stitches, but it’s also sad to think she’s being pressured to be someone she’s not. Yet, true to her character, she goes at it with gusto.
Afraid I have a sense of humour failure over that breakfast scene! It’s one of the sections that really annoys me because of its sexism, along with that “bad mother” plot line – totally agree with your comment below in your answer to Jenni, about that being a cheap trick to make her character unsympathetic. It’ll be interesting to see your take on this aspect in the future!
It’s that whistling, ballooning waffle that makes me laugh every time. It’s so ridiculous, I can’t help it. The rest of that scene, however, is painfully contrived.
I like this movie but always feel a bit conflicted when Hepburn’s character rushes into adopting an orphan, As much as we are to admire Hepburn’s Save the World persona, it makes me angry at her for doing something so important in such a haphazard, thoughtless manner, and that she was actually going to leave the child alone in order to accept her award? That’s awful!!
That scene of her adopting an orphan is appallingly thoughtless, which is a cheap trick the script uses to weaken Hepburn’s character. To treat a child like a new puppy is reprehensible, and I don’t feel that rings true with the character. I started going on about this scene in my post, but I took it out to address on its own at a future date.
LikeLiked by 1 person
No one like Hepburn – her work stands the test of time. Loved this movie too. Enjoyed your write-up ~
Thanks, Mary. Yes, there are some brilliant lines in this film – and the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is quite something, isn’t it?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Absolutely – magic, right?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Great review. It is hard to watch the good ol’ boy sexism take over, but Kate was so strong you knew it was all fiddlesticks anyway. The chemistry is undeniable and both stars were just so great at verbal comedy. Thanks for picking the cream of the crop!
Ha ha – yes, fiddlesticks indeed! Kate really was strong, wasn’t she? I can’t imagine any other person being as near convincing in this role as she was.
Reblogged this on Carleigh-Hepburn and commented:
This is one of the best films of the 40s!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Excellent review, Margaret—you didn’t gloss over the stumbling block but properly pointed out the wonderful stuff proper weight. I read somewhere, maybe in Five Came Back, that the kitchen scene isn’t in the original script, that producer Mankiewicz corralled Stevens and Hepburn into doing it (very much against their wills) after negative audience cards at a preview… The audience wanted to see Hepburn get her comeuppance. I think maybe the reason Hepburn’s career hit that rough spot in the late ’30s was because she was too independent, and it bothered audiences. Her big comeback, Philadelphia Story, is all about Tracy getting cut down to size, starting with the shove from Cary… and for the next decade she stayed in that mode, and became huge and won all those Oscars…anyway, that’s my theory. When she was middle-aged and wasn’t playing ingenues anymore she got to ditch the cut-down-to-size formula in her movies of the ’50s and thereafter and go back to playing larger-than-life. Which she certainly was!
Yes, she certainly was larger than life! 🙂 Thanks for your insightful comments, and for putting the kitchen scene in perspective. I have the book Five Came Back, which is on my summer reading list.
This is my favorite Hepburn-Tracy movie, and I was constantly afraid that Kate was going to settle down and become a housewife… Darn script! I’m glad Kate and Spence made ends meet in the end of the movie!
Your review is great, thoughtful, and made me realize it’s probably time to rewatch Woman of the Year.
Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!
I was afraid of that, too! I didn’t want Katharine to become a housewife..although, if she put her mind to it, she would probably have done an excellent job. Thanks for dropping by!
It’s interesting how often we see this happen–even in films now. The logic of the characters’ actions and personalities says one thing, yet the script makes them do something else. I wonder how often then it’s the director forcing it rather than the writer…
I think the problem with Woman of the Year is simply that it was made in a time when people weren’t comfortable with seeing a woman with this much independence at the time it was made. The last fifteen minutes of the film, which Hepburn and others hated, were kept in because it was popular with people at film screenings. So, I’m torn too – I hate how this movie is so pulled back by its time, what it could have been for women. Especially with an actress like Katharine Hepburn.
I do agree with you that Tess Harding isn’t perfect, and she’s definitely not without fault. But the faults that matter are never really addressed, are they? Or they’re condensed into a general fault of not being a good enough wife, which isn’t really the issue at all.
But the romance in this film is amazing. That “even when you’re brilliant” line gives me chills. So yeah it’s a mixed bag but in the end I think it’s still worth it.
Great post! Check out my contribution to the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon! https://knifeink.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/my-week-with-kate-and-spence/
Ha ha – yes, the “even when you’re brilliant” line is a good one, isn’t it? You’ve made a lot of good points about audiences at the time, and that certainly is something to keep in mind.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I confess that Woman of the Year is the only Spencer- Hepburn vehicle that I haven’t seen. But after reading your review and the comments, it’s definitely going on my list to watch ASAP!
Visiting via the Great Katharine Hepburn blogathon!
Oh yes – you’ve got to see this one! The chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy is palpable. Lots of great lines, too.
You did a great job of making me feel the tension in the movie about the difference between what is expected of a woman and the things Katharine Hepburn’s character was passionate about and how it affected their marriage as well. A lot of things to think about in this movie, it sounds like. I love her and would like to see this one!
This film has a lot of amazing lines, and the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is, unsurprisingly, quite something. I like how the movie doesn’t cast one of them as a “bad guy” – there are two people negotiating a marriage, like people do in real life.
These two always had great chemistry. But I haven’t seen ‘Woman of Year’ yet. Love their work together in films like ‘Adam’s Rib’ (1949) & ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (1967). I’ve seen a lot more Hepburn films than Hepburn & Tracy films.
You’re right about their chemistry. It practically radiates from the screen! “Adam’s Rib” is one of my fave movies – the script sparkles!
LikeLiked by 1 person