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film, music, text, city, spectacle, pleasure

Life in the Dark: “Woman of the Year” with Katharine Hepburn

[broadcast on TCM on 8/20 and recorded]

Woman of the Year (1942)
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

I originally intended to write about this film as an experiment in “live blogging”—typing up notes on a film as I watch it (at home on video, of course—imagine how annoying it would be to have someone typing on their laptop in a movie theatre!). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but expected to post the results regardless.

But… well, the results don’t really seem worth reading. “Live blogging” is clearly a form that requires some practice. Mostly, I found that I went on at greater length than was needed, or about points that ended up seeming minor. Still, I’ve posted the results of my live blogging below the jump in case anyone is interested. Here, I’ll make in a more normal form the few points that really stood out for me while watching this film (which of course I’ve seen a number of times before, on the big screen as well as TV/video).

The most obvious thing to say about it would be to go into the central issue: the way in which Katharine Hepburn’s character, Tess Harding, is disciplined to assume a more properly feminine role. But surely that issue has been gone into at great length already elsewhere.

One thing about this issue that particularly struck me though was how it seemed to derail the movie somewhat. After Tess and Spencer Tracy’s character, Sam Craig, get married and the conflict comes to the fore, the writing seems less sparkling and Hepburn in particular is less convincing. It is just hard to see her character acting the way she does—hard in the sense of both unpleasant and also unbelievable. After what we saw of her in the beginning, her cluelessness and insensitivity ring false.

Leaving aside this issue of the disciplining of Hepburn’s wayward woman, another thing of note is the presence—or absence—in the movie of World War II. When I began watching it, I seemed to recall from previous viewings that the War was completely absent. But in fact (as I noted in my live blogging), it comes up repeatedly, though in what are really casual asides, such as a mention of Rudolph Hess. The film is set prior to Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the War (of course, since it opened in January 1942). Still, Tess is very much engaged with the conflict in Europe, in both a personal and professional capacity. But in fact the War is irrelevant to the movie. Mentioned a lot, but just a detail of current events, not an issue. There’s no menace. It feels… strange. Does the relative non-presence of the War in the movie reflect an attempt to make an entertainment, a distraction, or is it a product of America’s isolationism prior to Pearl Harbor, the widespread desire, or perhaps hope, to avoid involvement in the unfolding catastrophe overseas? Or perhaps the script was just floating around for a while, and when it came time to make the money they through in some War references for “local color,” but otherwise left it as it was, in a pre-War form.

The dialogue—by screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin—is particularly sparkling in the first half, during the lead up to the marriage of Sam and Tess. Many if not most of the highlights, I suspect, are down to Lardner, who has such an ear for blue collar and sports-related New York vernacular speech in particular. His gift for snappy repartee is evident, among other places, in his work on Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970)

The score by Franz Waxman feels perfect. And William Bendix as “Pinkie” is wonderful (as always)—as indeed are many of the character actors in minor parts.

This is the first of the many films starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and also marks the beginning of their personal relationship, which only ended 26 years later with Tracy’s death. You can watch them falling in love. It’s breathtaking.

But it also brings us back to the issue of the disciplining of Hepburn’s powerful and independent Tess in the movie.  Does this tell us anything about the famous relationship between Tracy and Hepburn, which began with this backdrop? A relationship that Tracy never publicly acknowledge in all its 27 years because he was already married and a devote Catholic? During which Tracy had a serious drinking problem that reportedly lead to bouts of (apparently only) verbal abuse? There’s no doubt that Hepburn deeply loved Tracy, and it seems equally true that Tracy was devoted to Hepburn, but in Tess Hardings’ disciplining to a subservient, more traditional role we can perhaps see shadows of what was to come.

MGM Lion Logo

Musical score by Franz Waxman – under appreciated. Not in the same class as the greats, but still…

New York, New York, what a wonderful town. That great old device of compressing a whole bunch of info/backstory into a few flashed newspaper headlines.

That great character actor behind the bar – what’s him name? Tracy is so young – wow!

The war is mentioned in the radio quiz – I bet it doesn’t get another mention. This is one of those war movies in which the war is conspicuous by its absence. A movie to forget the war. Tess talks about giving the war their “full attention” on the radio. Hmm. Like I said, though – it doesn’t come up much afterwards as I recall.

“Women should be kept illiterate and clean. Like canaries.” Appallingly sexist, but quite funny as a line – especially delivered as it is by another one of those character actors that are so wonderful in movies of the 1940s.

Wow! What a looker. Hepburn is such a knockout.

“I’ll kiss, but I don’t know about make up.” Another great line. Script by Ring Lardner and Michael Kanin, as I recall.

The chase music – they don’t do scores like that any more, but maybe they should. It’s charming and funny. See also the musical accompaniment to the paper falling in the trash.

Her hat’s going to be a problem. Yup. Look at that outfit – gloves matching the top and the band on the hat. The Athletics – now one of our local teams – the one I followed when I was a kid. Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. But this was when they played for Philadelphia – where I lived when I was even younger.

Cursing the referee: “What do you do in the winter time – burn down hospitals?!? Ya graverobber!” That would be Ring Lardner dialogue, I suppose.

Cutting from them to the score boards and some scenes of play – back to them – and Tess is a huge baseball fan! How natural they make the transition look – in part by how everyone else is into the change. But she still cheers like she’s in prep school. And Tracy is clearly smitten.

Has any romantic comedy ever moved from the initial antipathy to the crush so quickly? But does their encounter in the newspaper editor’s office count as a meet cute? She was pretty cute, adjusting her stockings.

Her French accent is much better than her Russian.

Wonderful low angled camera work as Sam tries to work the party. Using the foreign language issue to establish how isolated and out of his depth Sam is at Tess’ fancy soiree.

“Ask her if it’s true about Rudolph Hess’ toe nails, will ya?” – That’s some throw away line, and I guess it keeps the war in the picture, though just barely. I wonder if audiences today know who Hess was – or indeed how many in audiences back then.

A speech on women’s rights! Interesting. “The feminist movement” – seems to refer to the movement to get voting rights for women. How nice though to hear “feminist” used so approvingly in a movie.

A moment of tension there with Tess’ (male) secretary – though he comes across as slightly gay.

“Thought you might want to kiss me good-bye.” Wow – what a knock-out.

“The little corporal” – a Hitler reference – so actually there are a ton of war references. Casually and basically content free, but there. In some ways the opposite of what I was expecting – constantly reminding people, but with no point to make about it.

In the two shots, you can see them falling in love. As they were – and stayed that way for the next 26 years, until Tracy’s death.

Comparing Spengler and Pareto while drunk… I’m struck by how smart this script is. “Little Corporal,” Spengler and Pareto, etc. – they don’t seem forced.

“Were you there in Madrid? At the end?” The Spanish Civil War – one of my favorite subjects. There were a couple of important women writers who got their start with the Spanish Civil War – one was pals with Hemingway. What was her name?

“I was there the day you came home. It was in the ballpark.” An interesting take on America and on her… But I think it’s a bit provincial. Can you really only be American/in America if you love baseball? Even if you don’t speak any foreign languages and don’t know much about world affairs. Is that what it means to be American?

Cabbie: “Would you like me to wait?” Tess: “Why don’t you let him go – you can get another cab.” How to make it clear he’s getting lucky. A genuinely erotic moment. But it’s Tracy’s pause and uncertainty about what to say, and the way Hepburn says what she says that makes it so erotic.

Briliant direction. Then in the dark, an area of light on the wall, and the city lights behind them out the window.

Tracy flees! Amazing. But it saves the movie from the censors. It was getting pretty steamy. Tess was clearly a woman who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to take it.

“Did anyone ever tell you that your… manners left much to be desired.” “You’re practically the only woman in the world I would have walked out on last night.” “That’s about the prettiest compliment I’ve ever had.”  And it goes on. So hard to write the dialogue for scenes like this. And this is some of the best…

Lots of smart, funny, suggestive dialogue – that bit with his mother about whether she’s a good cook.

So funny that he’s the one who wanted the traditional wedding. In fact, it helps make clear all sorts of gender role reversals in the film.

“I’ve been worried about you since yesterday.” “I’ve been worried about you for years.” “He’ll do.” “I think we can both stop worrying.” Such smart dialogue. Though I can see that it might come across as stilted with other, lesser actors.

The business with “Mrs. Harding” – more of the gender reversals.

I’ll stop writing about how smart the writing is now – I think I’ve made my opinion of that clear.

Having the wedding night interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Lubeck – an interesting move. Kind of fits in with the gender role reversal – not sure if I can explain that. Something about Sam/Tracy’s being sidelined by Tess’ important connections.

Football in the snow – a Green Bay Packers game? I guess they have snow like that in New York. Who watches games in that kind of weather? Oh, it’s Chicago. Well, still – I can understand playing in that kind of weather, but who watches?

God! Check her out in the men’s tuxedo! What an outfit. More of that role reversal. Now him wanting her to notice his new hat. So, okay, they are playing to that role reversal pretty obviously. Now he’s cooking.

So the father… An interesting issue. Gets along with Sam. But also occupies the same high-flying intellectual and political world as Tess.

“The most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me…” – Tess on her award as “Woman of the Year” – and clearly we are meant to feel the cut to Sam – who would have said their wedding.

Sam staying home with the refugee kid, “at home minding the baby.” The gender role reversal conflict comes to a head: “The outstanding ‘woman of the year’ isn’t a woman at all.” All of this stuff kind of blows away the “feminist” bit early on, with the movie starting to seem more and more hostile to Tess as a intelligent, sophisticated career woman.

And of course she has to change back into her men’s tuxedo for her publicity shots – with Sam gone.

It’s hard to watch in a way – the smart script giving her some very nasty lines and moments – one’s that seem out of character. Or maybe I just want her to be nicer.

(When did kids stop wearing night shirts? So practical and comfortable. My ex always used to make fun of mine.)

Hard to watch Hepburn suffering, too – the pain is so apparent in her face.

“What goes on?” – kind of neat. Sounds smarter than “What’s going on?”

Starts to feel too moralizing – to focused on putting Tess in her place.

It’s ridiculous to think she wouldn’t even know how to make a cup of coffee or light a gas burner. But we can see how the film is going to reach its end now. I wonder how she’ll spill the waffle batter? Or no, the recipe book flips to a new page – so it is going to be some horrendous  concoction.

Will he interrupt or go back to bed? I’d probably go back to bed – give her a chance to make amends the way she wants to. But he stands in the door.

She’s going to quit her job? That really is an unsatisfying outcome from a modern perspective –  it really does feel too much like she is getting put in her place.  And I liked the other apartment better.

Okay – “Why can’t you be ‘Tess Harding-Craig’?” – that sounds better. And it redeems the end. But then we get a cute wrap up.

The great character actor behind the bar – “Pinkie” – was William Bendix.

Filed under: Movies,

2 Responses

  1. AlgaRythums says:

    This was just too fun!
    I put this movie in tonight. I had to google Rudolph Hess’s toenails and found your awesome blog. I watched the movie and followed along with your blog. You helped me to get a lot of little things that I would not have understood. It added so much to my enjoyment. Thank you for a wonderful evening.

    • zerode says:

      Wow. That’s great – I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and that I could play a small part in that. It really is a wonderful movie. But, believe it or not, by no means the best of the Spencer Tracy / Katharine Hepburn films – check out Pat & Mike or Adam’s Rib or Desk Set (not the best, but a personal favorite)

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

tweeting my mind



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