For my second article for The Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn blogathon, I chose to write about Woman of the Year from 1942. This was the famous couple’s first movie pairing, but you can immediately see how marvelous they were together. This picture tells the story of a sports writer who gets into an argument over the value of sports with a female columnist on the same paper; when they actually meet, they fall in love and eventually get married. However, it is not long before Sam Craig realizes that he is not satisfied with their marriage, since Tess Harding is more interested in being a business woman than a wife. I am going to examine Tess Harding as an international personality, as a wife, and as an example to modern women to see what this movie shows us about the true place of women.
Tess Harding is the number two woman in America after Mrs. Roosevelt; she is on top of politics, international affairs, society, war efforts, and women’s rights. She speaks any number of languages, which helps as she conducts interviews and other business with diplomats and important figures all over the world. In addition, she broadcasts her opinions on the radio and tells people what to think. She is a philanthropist who lectures at charitable events. She has a big heart when it comes to doing good works. She is assisted in her work by a curt, business-like male secretary, Gerald Howe, completing the reversal of the normal office workforce.
She is very proud and obviously quite vain, since her apartment in filled with images of herself. There are statues, carvings, and a giant painting over the mantle. She has looked up to her aunt for years as her “woman of the century,” a proud woman who championed women’s rights and is “above marriage.” She was raised in China and South America and educated in Europe. She draws on that vast experience in her international dealings, but Sam shows her how to enjoy simple American pleasures like going to a baseball game. They fall in love, and he makes her want to get married. However, it is hard to be the number two woman in America and a first rate wife at the same time.
From the beginning of their marriage, it is obvious that being married is something that must be squeezed between conferences and business meetings. Even the actual ceremony has to be done during a break between appointments in Mackinac, South Carolina. As the marriage progresses, Sam has to make a series of compromises to make it work at all. He moves into her apartment because it would be inconvenient for her to move. She keeps her own name since that is how everyone knows her. When the maid has a day off, Sam does the cooking. He is interested in her work, but she neither understands nor cares about his work as a sports writer. He is a good husband, but she is barely a wife at all.
One morning, Tess brings Sam breakfast in bed and suggests that their problem is that there are only two of them when there should be three of them. He thinks that she is going to have a baby, and he is thrilled. His pleasure decreases considerably when she brings in a little Greek boy, an orphaned refugee who doesn’t speak English. Since she is the head of the charity which helps these children, she agreed to adopt him without consulting Sam, but he is disappointed that she doesn’t want to have their own child. As they are arguing, she receives the news that she has been named Woman of the Year. When she tells her aunt on the telephone that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to her just happened, she reveals how little her marriage means to her in comparison to success and the world’s acclaim.
The conflict between the couple builds on the night of the Woman of the Year ceremony. Tess’s whole attitude shows how unimportant she thinks Sam really is. She says that Sam looks “fine,” she doesn’t see why he should be asked to make a speech, and she generally doesn’t think that anything he does that night will be important. Since their maid is also going to the banquet, Tess is leaving their little boy all alone for four hours, saying that she will have the elevator operators look in on him. When Sam wants to stay with the boy until he falls asleep, Tess doesn’t understand his behavior; she says he is putting on a paternal act, and it is finally very obvious how little she cares about this child and her husband. She asks Sam what she can tell people when they notice he isn’t there, and he replies that she should tell them that he had something important to do. She snaps back, “Who would believe that you had anything important enough to….” A reproachful glance from him makes her realize how harsh her words sounded. She apologizes, but Sam won’t come. That night, he packs up his own things and takes the orphan back to the orphanage. When she comes home from her triumphant night, she finds out that both her men have left her. When she goes to retrieve the boy, he doesn’t want to go back home with her, so she leaves him at the orphanage.
The next day, Tess visits Sam in his office to discuss their problems. She says that she thought they had a perfect marriage, but Sam replies, “I don’t think it was either: perfect or a marriage.” It’s obvious that Sam no longer wants to be married to a woman who is more interested in being a success than in being a wife.
When Tess’s maternal aunt and father get married, she is deeply moved by the beautiful wedding vows and wants to be reconciled with Sam. The next day, she sneaks into his new home by the river and begins to cook breakfast as he sleeps. She makes a huge amount of noise as she sloppily struggles to cook, so Sam wakes up and finds her wreaking havoc on the kitchen. She says that she wants to really be his wife and that she can do the mundane tasks “that any idiot can do,” but he doesn’t think she can. Her culinary attempts prove to be a complete disaster, since the coffee boils over, the toast falls on the floor, and the waffles inflate because she put yeast in them. Sam stops the chaos after she admits defeat. He says that she is going too far in the other direction now. He doesn’t want her to be just Mrs. Sam Craig any more than he wants her to be just Tess Harding. He says that he wants her to be Tess Harding Craig. With tears in her eyes, she says, “I think it’s a wonderful name.” You know that they are going to try again to make their marriage a success and that they are going to succeed this time because she has realized that her attitude was the problem. Now she wants to be a good wife, so she will be.
Katharine Hepburn is excellent in this movie. She is so versatile in the role of Tess Harding. She shows many different emotions, personalities, and moods within this one role. She is extremely moved and serious in the scene of her aunt’s wedding; tears role down her face as she listens to the wedding vows. In the next scene, she is hilarious as she ruins breakfast. Her relationship with Spencer Tracy is marvelous, as always. Their chemistry allows them to be as brilliant when they are fighting and conflicting as when they are being romantic. Mr. Tracy is extremely sincere and moving in his portrayal of Sam Craig. The acting in this movie effectively shows Mr. Craig as the unfortunate spouse in the marriage. Miss Hepburn is appropriately cold and harsh at times, yet she interprets Tess to show that she does have a soft heart. Her main problem was that she didn’t have a mother to show her how to be a good wife, since her mother died when she was very young. The rest of the cast is brilliant as well.
Katharine Hepburn looks beautiful in this movie. To me, she is the most beautiful in Holiday and in Woman of the Year. Her hair is styled so nicely, and she wears some beautiful dresses. However, her working outfit is a pantsuit with a velvet coat that looks very mannish. It shows her unfeminine working attitude. When wearing this outfit, she gracelessly puts her feet up on the desk. Even though I don’t like this outfit, it shows her attitude of a career woman.
This movie was released in February of 1942. Since Joseph Breen was the head of RKO during part of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, this film was self-regulated and approved by his assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock. It is what I call a “non-Code” film, since it was made and released during that strange eight-month period when Mr. Breen was not the head of the Production Code Administration. Of course, that does not mean that it is an inferior picture. It is an excellent movie just the same. However, there are a few elements in it which made me realize Joseph Breen’s absence before I read the PCA documents on it. Notice the slight Code breaches the next time you watch it. They are very interesting to note.
This movie contains an excellent lesson for modern women. We want to have careers and success, yet we want to be married, too. Like Tess, however, we find that we can’t do both well. In order to be successful in business, we must neglect our wifely duties. We no longer bring our husbands the pleasant feminine virtues of cooking, house-keeping, and mending. We are unwilling to devote ourselves to giving our husbands children because of the inconvenience. If we do have children, we don’t stay home to raise them properly. Men are meant to provide financial support for the home, but who keeps the home fires burning if the wife is out working, too? Tess’s aunt tells her that winning prizes and accolades are cold comfort if you are all alone. Thankfully, Tess learns that in time to save her marriage to Sam. He doesn’t expect her to give up everything; he just wants her to compromise and to try to be a wife. The most poignant moment of this film is the Woman of the Year ceremony, which Sam hears on the radio at the orphanage. Everyone is praising Tess as the most remarkable woman in America, yet Sam knows that she is a cold person who lacks any maternal devotion or sympathy for the lad she agreed to adopt. When Tess revealed this in the apartment, Sam told her that he wished he was covering the banquet, since he had a terrific angle. “The outstanding Woman of the Year isn’t a woman at all.” How true this is of women who are “successful” in the world’s eyes! A truly successful woman is one who devotes herself to being a good wife and mother. My own mother is the most outstanding woman I know, since she has dedicated herself to staying home, raising my sister and me, and homeschooling us. That is true womanhood. Men are meant to be successful in the world at large, but the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world!
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10 thoughts on “Katharine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year ” from 1942: Tess Harding as a Woman”
I would like the words to the wedding ceramony late in the movie for my Grandchildren to know. Please send copy to me. THANKS Loved the Movie.
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I’m glad you’re so interested. I’ll send those to you later today. I’m honored that you asked me.
Dear Ms. Brennan,
I think you are 100% correct about the public being unaware of the Tracy, Hepburn affair while it was happening. We read so much today of what this or that “star” did back then it is hard to separate truth from fiction. I am fascinated with Old Hollywood, I read biographies, articles about old movies, watch old movies. I read your very well written article you referred to me on Mr. Breen in you answer to my comment. I think it’s time I read a bio on Mr. Breen. Any suggestions? I imagine his moving his family to Hollywood was quite a shock at first. Though Loretta Young was devout Catholic, (baby with C. Gable) as was Irene Dunne, I guess you will keep your principles no matter where you are if you are strong and determined. And speaking of image, what monsters have we seen come out lately that these women (and young men) have had to deal with. Hopefully this will bring about a change for the better.
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Dear Miss Smallwood,
I am so happy to receive your response. I am thrilled that you responded so kindly and positively to my comment. I appreciate your compliment of my article about Mr. Breen.
I am glad that you are interested in learning more about a widely misunderstood figure of Old Hollywood. The only real biography about him is “Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration” by Thomas Doherty. I highly recommend it. It is very intellectual, and it provides excellent information about his life before and during his years in Hollywood. I appreciate the fact that the author dispelled many myths about him in this book and wrote without bias. This book is good for facts. However, if you really want to get an inside look at the PCA and Mr. Breen’s actual character, I suggest that you read “See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor” by Jack Vizzard. This book, which was published in 1970, is the memoirs of one of the member of the PCA, who was third in command during Mr. Breen’s tenure and second in command after his retirement. He provides a personal, behind the scenes view of the self-regulation which no historian could. Also, this book is more entertaining than any plain biography, since it is written more like a story. For anyone who really wants to know about the PCA and Mr. Breen, I suggest that both books be read, since the first provides facts and the second provides the spirit. You can buy both these books new and used on Amazon.
I am so glad that you are interested in causing a change for better in Hollywood. These recent events in Hollywood are very much like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of the 1920s which caused Will Hays’s appointment as the head of the MPPDA. This eventually led to the instillation of the Code and the PCA. Our hopes are that the Weinstein scandal will produce the same effects with modern Hollywood. If you want to show your support, you can sign our petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/embed/widget.html?v=3&name=bring-the-code-back-to.
Thank you very much for your interest and your polite comments. It has been very nice corresponding with you, Miss Smallwood. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.
With sincere personal regards, I am
And also with you, thank you for the book recommendations, hope you have a great Thanksgiving.
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Happy Thanksgiving to you too!
The MOVIE is ok, sorry.
Ok, how to put this, I DO NOT want to come across as rude or self serving. I am asking this in all honesty, First, a little background, I love old films, I am a TCM subscriber, I have always loved old films, I have probably seen every Astaire and Rogers movie at least 10-12 times apiece. Film Noir, I love, musicals, old musicals 30’s 40’s I’m in heaven. Meet Me In St.Louis, -the best. J.Cagney dancing, mesmerizing. I found your blog by looking up something on J Breen, (he was very anti-Semitic as his letters reveal) he was not perfect. No one is.You seem to want a pure Hollywood as Mr Breen did, and that’s your prerogative-but you do know that Tracy and Hepburn carried on an illicit affair for decades. That was probably why their on-screen chemistry was so good. Tracy was catholic, would not divorce his wife, this was maybe one of the reasons he was such an alcoholic, Hepburn never married. She stayed with him till the end. So… I guess my question is how do you balance this out? The move is ok as long as is it up to code, but what about the stars? Do you ignore their personal lives? They weren’t “up to code”. Again, I’m just wondering how you reconcile the two.
Dear Miss Smallwood,
Thank you for taking enough interest in my opinions to write the lengthy comment on this article. I know about the affair between Mr. Tracy and Miss Hepburn, but I can appreciate their acting despite that. You raised an interesting question about my balancing of stars’ personal lives and the screen propriety. Firstly, this is a free country, so people have a right to do as they please, within reason. Hollywood did control stars, but they didn’t own them enough to dictate every detail of their personal lives. Secondly, the most important thing in Hollywood is image. The whole film industry is based on an image. The important thing is to keep the image clean, even if it is covering something which is not clean. Actors needed to keep their images somewhat wholesome to please American audiences. That doesn’t mean they were all moral; they just couldn’t flaunt too much immorality in public and remain in the good graces of the film industry. I don’t think that the public knew about the Tracy and Hepburn affair when it was happening. I think that the public saw Spencer Tracy as a family man. If I am wrong on this point, I am willing to accept correction. However, I do know that the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was initially founded in 1922 to improve Hollywood’s image to the world. That was Will Hays’s job. In 1934, Hollywood became serious about improve Hollywood’s product’s image, namely, the quality of film content. That was Joe Breen’s job. As long as both jobs were done well, I see no reason to delve too deep into the personal lives of all the stars. I think that such details of one’s life are called private for a reason. What one does in private is between him and his conscience.
I appreciate the way you introduced your question. We seem to share an appreciation for old musicals and James Cagney’s dancing in particular. As a side note, I must defend Joseph Breen on one account. Although I agree with you that he, like all of us, had his faults, he has been falsely accused of antisemitism. In the letters to which you referred, he criticized the Jewish moguls for their immoral films and their greedy, selfish business tactics. When he wrote “the Jews,” he was using the common slang term of the day for Sam Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and their contemporaries. I wrote a more complete defense of Mr. Breen’s character in the following article: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/joseph-i-breen-americas-moral-guardian/. However, I thank you for referring respectfully to him as “Mr. Breen” instead of just “Breen.”
I hope that you will honor me with a response. I appreciate your interest and thought on these interesting topics. With sincere personal regards, I am
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