Woman of the Year (1942, George Stevens)
Directed with unusual-for-him, par-for-MGM anonymity by the celebrated George Stevens, Woman of the Year isn’t known for any visual or cinematic quality because there just isn’t much there. The authors of this film are the leads, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, portraying respectively an energetic, worldly political reporter (Tess) and a sportswriter (Sam), both of whom work for the same paper. They clash and meld and meet-cute in a now-somewhat rote fashion that feels heart-meltingly fresh in their capable hands. (And little wonder that there’s some sensuality brimming behind their eyes, for in reality they began to fall for one another during production.) Tess is quite a lady, a celebrated feminist who’s unapologetic about her careerist lifestyle, really one of the most progressive characters in a Hollywood film of the ’40s, while Sam is somewhat stoic and set in his ways. Because the script by Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner structurally views Tess and not Sam as the person who must change and because it also mocks Sam feverishly and glorifies Tess’ bustling universe that needs no man to fill it up, this film is brilliant and abhorrent in almost equal amounts — it lurches around violently, and as a result so do we.
For four reels or so it’s one of the most breathtakingly real and subtle romantic comedies of the period, in part because neither Tracy nor Hepburn is blessed or cursed with a traditional movie-star face but mostly because it’s written that way: almost a flesh and blood reenactment of the way most films of this nature are structured. They become acquainted because of a war of words in the paper between them over the merits of baseball. They become a couple after mutual embarrassments: Tess out of her comfort zone in the press box at a game (where, interestingly, women are not traditionally allowed), and Sam at one of Tess’ exuberant parties in which he can’t understand what anyone is saying and makes much of his sense of alienation. Under the surface, we can sense something darker here — Sam can’t stand not being surrounded by validation, Tess simply isn’t comfortable in a place where she’s openly not welcome, but Tess’s discomfort is depicted as funny, Sam’s as just some everyman annoyance. There are other early clues that something is amiss in the form of Sam’s boorishness and racism (directed mostly at other inhabitants of Tess’s apartment), which are scattered and quick but still gross even by the standards of ’40s Hollywood.
That said, Woman sets up its central career-marriage conflict, a problem that typically sends romcoms down into the trite doldrums, quite believably. Sam and Tess fall in love, of course, and begin to try and navigate the concept of a marriage between two working people; you laugh, but this was an unusual situation in the U.S. then. Really, very little that the characters in this film struggle with is unfamiliar to anyone who’s dealt with something that, while not a “problem” exactly, people certainly still have to work around with patience and respect. It’s hardly the paralyzing state of unique chaos the film makes out. Sam’s frustrations are somewhat understandable — he’s not terrible at separating work from home life and occasionally feels cast aside in Tess’s busier and less compartmentalized life, which is a human enough feeling and something that happens to couples, regardless of gender roles. Yet he also fails to comprehend that he has come into a life already fulfilled and defined by passion, that he cannot and will never be her only world — that’s a character flaw that’s still relevant. Tess’s heart has room for Sam, but she’s a complete person already: not just an independent career woman but one set up by the film itself as a focus of admiration as much as desire (both of which, honestly, are progressive avenues). Even though Sam is clearly in the wrong, it’s human to want someone you love to spend more time with you, and his sense of periodic emptiness can be sympathetic to us without taking away from his wife’s depth and sophistication.
The turn comes with an unnecessarily cruel sequence wherein Tess, apparently out of a general pang for altruism that borders on impulsive, suddenly adopts a Greek orphan named Chris. She forges no meaningful connection to him and in some ways he becomes a barter item between the feuding husband and wife, which is every shade of inappropriate. Sam, of course, can’t tolerate him because he doesn’t understand English or baseball, and he covertly returns the boy to the orphanage — where, to be fair, he feels much more at home — while Tess is off receiving an award, all this as a precursor to his leaving her. The argument seems to be that Tess sees husband and son as mere window dressing to her society-page appeal, but not only is this an inexplicable turnaround from the hard-and-true exuberance of her obviously important working life earlier in the film, it’s a bitter scold that doesn’t have much resonance with the information we’ve been given about her. It’s hard to imagine why the scenes with Chris are even in the film, but easy to see that it’s the most egregious error in a problmetic movie that gradually goes off the rails.
Finally, the sad truth is revealed that it’s a movie essentially serving the notion that men shouldn’t have to cook and women (married women, anyway) shouldn’t be working. And if they must work, they’d best be home in time to pamper the husband who of course should have no reason to show any interest in her work but plenty reason to act like a petulant child when she doesn’t care about his. Never mind that Tess consistently shows that Sam is a priority even when he isn’t priority #1; she’s clearly a remarkable woman, and this baseball-loving boob should be thrilled for the honor of cooking for her and listening to her and giving her support. Did he not fall in love with her, as the person she is? Yeah, things seem a little uneven in her favor, but that’s what I hoped the last act was going to be about: compromising, exploring, growing. Man, I’d love to see that movie, especially with characters this well drawn and such brilliant actors playing them. But… you know, 1942, I suppose.
The two leads are, of course, magic, Hepburn especially — even the way she blinks is brilliant — and it’s far more evident here than in the Bacall-Bogart intro To Have and Have Not that we are actually watching a couple fall in love. But the great problem of the film is handily illustrated by the last scene, in which Tess attempts to make Sam breakfast. It’s an almost too-perfect comedic setup which fulfills all of its potential — gaspingly funny, in other words — then is deflated by the misogynistic claptrap that spews out of Sam’s mouth, and then before the film can even start to resolve any of its issues it’s over. Frustrating, to say the least, but admittedly a fascinating frustration, resulting certainly in one of the more provocative, troubling comedies of its time.