Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Woman of the Year (1942)

For all those men with wives or girlfriends who don't know a thing about sports and for all those women with husbands or boyfriends who don't know a thing about international affairs, director George Stevens comedy WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942) might be the film for both sexes to watch. Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, WOMAN OF THE YEAR was the first of nine films that Tracy and Hepburn would make together starting with WOMAN in 1942 all the way to 1967's GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? Just like the characters that Tracy and Hepburn play in the film, the two stars would fall in love during the making of their first film together even though Tracy was married and never did divorce his wife.  The chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is one of the strongest parts of this film and it's easy to see how Tracy fell for Hepburn. Her sultry glances and dazzling smile made me almost fall in love with her.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR wants to be a screwball comedy like HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1939) with its newspaper setting and witty dialogue and WOMAN is most entertaining during its first act.  Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a sports columnist for the New York Chronicle sits in Pinky's bar with "Pinky" Peters (William Bendix), a former boxer turned bar owner, listening to the radio when he hears political columnist Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) make a disparaging remark about baseball.  Both Sam and Tess work at the Chronicle but have never met. Sam writes a scathing article in his column Manabout Sports toward Tess. Tess fires back in her column Now. Their editor Mr. Clayton (Reginald Owen) calls both into his office, requesting a cease fire.  When Sam sees Tess, it's love at first sight.

Sam invites Tess to a New York Yankee baseball game.  She gets to sit in the press box with him despite cries of "No women in the press box" from his fellow male sports writers. Tess knows nothing about baseball but Sam patiently explains the game to her. Tess invites Sam back to her apartment after her weekly radio broadcast. Sam thinks it's an intimate evening with just the two of them but when he arrives, Sam discovers a big party in full swing with lots of international guests speaking French or Russian. These two scenes are a wonderful introduction for Sam and Tess to each other as well as a fish out of water feeling in the other's world.

All Sam wants is to be alone with Tess but she's busy attending parties, interviewing dignitaries, and giving speeches. Sam pursues her like a love sick puppy. When Sam goes to a university to pick up Tess after another speaking engagement, he stumbles into a Women's Rights rally with Tess honoring her aunt Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter). Comically, Sam is the only man on stage sitting with a panel of feminists.  Sam finally gets Tess alone and proposes to her. Tess wants to get married quickly and they find an available church in South Carolina. When Sam and Tess finally have what looks to be their honeymoon night, their romantic evening is once again interrupted, this time by Tess's friend, the Yugoslavian statesman Dr. Lubbeck (Ludwig Stossel), recently escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. Another party breaks out in Tess's apartment with Lubbeck and his entourage. This time Sam invites Pinky and his bar friends to mingle with Tess's European friends.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR loses its momentum as Sam and Tess's marriage stalls. Sam grows frustrated with such an independent woman as Tess. He wants to come home to just his wife and not her work or her assistant Gerald (Dan Tobin) taking dictation. One night, Sam comes home to find Tess has adopted a young Greek refugee child without asking him.  When Tess is named "Woman of the Year", she attends the award ceremony alone as Sam stays home with the young Greek boy Chris (George Kezas), returning him to the Greek Children's Home that night. Sam moves out of their house. Tess's aunt Ellen surprises her with the announcement that she's marrying Tess's father Senator William J. Harding (Minor Watson). Tess arrives at the impromptu wedding alone.  As she watches how happy Ellen and her father are, Tess realizes that a marriage means being a team, being involved with one's spouse. Tess races home, deeply changed.  She tries to prove to Sam she can be a home maker but her attempt at making Sam's favorite waffles for breakfast comes off with I LOVE LUCY like disastrous results. Sam gives Tess and marriage another chance but the spontaneity that WOMAN OF THE YEAR started with seems forced by the end.

The screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr and Michael Kanin is at its best when it plays off the opposites attract plot lines. Tess trying to learn about baseball or Sam frantically searching for someone who speaks English at Tess's apartment party are priceless. WOMAN OF THE YEAR loses steam after Sam and Tess are married. Like most films about a man and a woman with completely different interests, the fun is in the foreplay, the flirting, the early stages of courtship. Director Stevens does such a good job showing Tess's sexy, independent side that it's a let down when she has to tone it down to win Sam back, almost becoming domesticated. 

Although director George Stevens is a capable director having directed classics like GUNGA DIN (1939), SHANE (1953), and GIANT (1956), WOMAN OF THE YEAR could have benefited from a more seasoned comedy director like Preston Sturges or Frank Capra. Apparently Hepburn wanted her favorite director George Cukor who directed her in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) two years earlier but settled on Stevens for this film. Cukor would eventually work with Hepburn and Tracy in ADAM'S RIB (1949) and PAT AND MIKE (1952).

Yet director Stevens and his writers Lardner and Kanin stage many great comic scenes. Besides the baseball scene and League of Nations party scene, my other favorite scene is Sam believing he's alone with Tess and finding Lubbeck and Tess together in her bedroom. The surprised look on Sam's face and the shock on Tess's face is wonderful. Then, Lubbeck's bodyguards come in and Pinky and his friends and suddenly Tess's room is as crowded as the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935).

Katharine Hepburn is a joy to watch as Tess Harding, handling comedy and romance with equal aplomb. Spencer Tracy's performance as Sam Craig is a bit more complicated. It's fun to watch him transition from a no nonsense sports writer to a softer, loving side but I never got a good handle on him in the second half of the film.  I kept waiting for him to give Tess a second chance and even at the very end of the film, Sam still doesn't seem completely convinced Tess can be devoted to him and her career. Any comedy needs some good supporting players and one of my favorite character actors William Bendix fulfills that role in WOMAN OF THE YEAR as "Pinky" Peters, Tracy's pugilistic bar buddy who's never tired of telling a stranger his boxing tales of yesteryear.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR is a fine film to initiate a film lover to the great screen duo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.  I look forward to viewing ADAM'S RIB soon to see how these two progressed as acting partners. I just wish the filmmakers had come up with a little less male chauvinistic ending to the film.

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