Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Woman of the Year

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Woman of the Year (1942)

At the time that it was made, 1942’s Woman of the Year would be the third collaboration between director George Stevens and star Katherine Hepburn, after having worked together on Alice Adams in 1935 and Quality Street in 1937. In that five year gap, Hepburn’s status as box office poison had swung the pendulum in the other direction, thanks to the success of George Cukor’s adaptation of The Philadelphia Story in 1940, featuring Hepburn in the same role she had performed on the stage the  year before. With her career back rolling, she and George Stevens set out to make Woman of the Year, the start of a lengthy on screen and off screen partnership between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Following the courtship and subsequent marriage between two newspaper writers—Tess (Hepburn), a political columnist, and Sam (Tracy), a sports columnist—Woman of the Year attempts to examine the personal and professional complexities of marriage, especially when the two characters are in the same industry. It’s about two very different people trying to make it work, with the film serving as a blueprint for many romantic comedies to come after.

The Criterion Collection’s release of Woman of the Year includes a new interview with George Stevens, Jr., an archival interview with the director from 1967, a new interview with George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, a new interview with Claudia Roth Pierpont on Katherine Hepburn, a full length documentary from 1984 called George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, another documentary from 1986 called The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn, a trailer, and an essay by Time Magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek. Criterion’s new edition of this classic film is an invitation to watch one of the formative proto-working couple romantic comedies.

Lessons in Gender Politics in the Romantic Comedy

The gender politics of Woman of the Year are, shall we say, very much of their era, with a lean toward the progressive, given its historical context. Spencer Tracy’s somewhat masculine writer Sam is defined by his interest in sports and his visible disdain for intellectualism. The fundamental issue within the relationship between Sam and Tess is Tess’s negligence to their family in comparison to the attention she pays to her own career. It’s worth noting, though, that few films of the studio era, and particularly within the genre of the romantic comedy, would dare try to put the husband and wife on equal playing ground. They most certainly would not allow a wife to succeed professionally and out do her husband in this way.

Important to all of this is the ways these two characters navigate power. Throughout, Hepburn’s Tess is professionally more powerful than Sam is, but he attempts to maintain the home as his domain of power because the newspaper won’t work as such. Pre-Mr. Mom, and post-Sam’s infatuation and initial proposal, Stevens casts Tracy and the primary home keeper and caregiver, ostensibly. He’s not happy about that, and the interactions fostered by this inequity of power and the placement of it isn’t funny. Mildly amusing, but not funny. I think that’s intentional.

George Stevens Jr. notes that his father hated the term “screwball comedy” because it had the connotation of being about silly antics featuring a kind of fantastical quality that ultimately obscures the emotional truth of the picture. Stevens and his screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin attempt to find more pathos in the drama of relationship that is struggling to function in a very straightforward sense.

Left to right: Fay Bainter, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Minor Watson in Woman of the Year. Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection

Lessons in Screen Chemistry

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are both excellent actors. They were both (allegedly) together. Impossible to manufacture is genuine screen chemistry, which Tracy and Hepburn had in spades. That Woman of the Year serves as their first joint venture makes it feel almost like the first “date” between them, filled with the boiling emotions of giddiness, joy, and longing; and yet, the performers are so skilled that they can easily play out the dissolution of a marriage.

Both Hepburn and Tracy’s eyes light up in ways that few actors’ do when they look at one another. Stevens positions his camera to gaze in over the should shots, leaving much of the other person in the frame, as if their entire body feels the electricity of the chemistry. When Stevens has his actors lean into the repartee of the dialogue, they bat back and forth like tennis pros.

In the documentary included on the Criterion disc, The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn, the actress discusses her eagerness sell the outline that would become Woman of the Year and her desire to work with Tracy, in spite of having not met the actor prior to shooting the film. As she was trying to develop the picture, she found out Tracy was busy in Florida shooting The Yearling, but due to weather conditions, was able to have her people talk to Tracy about doing the film. Even before ever working together, Hepburn knew that there was something inimitable about their would-be dynamic, and about Tracy’s persona on the screen. Neither could ever know the lasting impact of their partnership.

Lessons in the Working Romantic Comedy

The core to Woman of the Year is how a working relationship functions, in the sense that both parties are working professionals, and how that effects their personal lives. Tess is taken seriously in few ways that professional women would have been on the screen at that time—with notable exceptions, such as Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. The work that both Tess and Sam do is important to them, and their talent at their respective jobs is partially what attracted them to one another in the first place. It’s an example of the ambiguity of having two people working similar yet different jobs, with the jobs themselves having almost fundamentally different demographics and levels of respects (in this film, at least).

More broadly, the working dynamic between Tess, who becomes so successful that she becomes the titular Woman of the Year with a teletype in the room adjacent to the bedroom, and Sam, whose job is mostly static in the film, becomes a competition of domination. This sort of competitive dynamic informed many of the Spencer/Tracy films, and those films in turn would influence work like The Holiday, 13 Going on 30, Broadcast News, The Devil Wears Prada—all films in which women must choose between work and love.

Woman of the Year ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, with Tess failing spectacularly at the “wifely duties” Sam thinks she’s been ignoring and with him conceding that she should be “Tess Harding Craig”, the perfect amalgamation of who she wants to be and who he wants her to be. We don’t know, nor do we ever get to see, what that means for either of them professionally. This was the ending that was picked (against Hepburn’s wishes) over the original ending, where Sam goes missing and Tess briefly takes over his column for an article.

Left to right: Spencer Tracy, George Kezas and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year

Special Features

George Stevens Jr. fondly remembers the way his father shaped his films, finding a happy medium between being a studio collaborative director and an auteurist visionary, overseeing script development to the shooting and release of the film. It’s clear that the desired precision of the film finds it way into both the script and the direction of the film, though it feels as if Hepburn and Tracy are in a league of their own. Marilyn Ann Moss calls Stevens the “Walt Whitman of film” and the various permutations of sensibilities he went through, from works like Penny Serenade to Shane, the scholar arguing it was his versatility of his frames and his films.

In the archival interview with Stevens, he recalls that Hepburn was “extraordinary!” He repeats this several times, waxing poetically about her professionalism, her poise, and her voice, almost implying that her talent was beyond direction. In spite of the nine producers that had their hands on the film’s screenplay, Stevens credits much of the inventiveness and strength of the screenplay to Hepburn herself.

Hepburn scholar Claudia Roth Pierpont talks about how the angularity of the actress’s body and mind informed the sharpness of her acting, arguing that she never disappeared into a role but instead used it as a vessel for a distinctly and transparently feminist approach. Discussing the ups and downs of her career, Pierpont talks about the consistency of her progressiveness and strength. Hepburn continues to set the standard for daring acting.

The Takeaway

George Stevens is rarely remembered for his comedies, Moss says, partially due to his chameleonic filmography. But Woman of the Year, however rooted deeply in the era’s sense of progressive and feminist politics, remains an important work in trying to navigate the complex waters of intimacy and work, and what role the two have with one another. Stevens, Tracy, and Hepburn all have fun playing with the reversals and stereotypes of gender and work. A high point in all three of their careers, Woman of the Year puts a journalistic spin on some scenes from a marriage. MM

Woman of the Year was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD April 18, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection. 

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