Cutting Her Down to Size? Katharine Hepburn & Woman of the Year

Cutting Her Down to Size? Katharine Hepburn & Woman of the Year

April 23, 2021 | by Shannon

woman of the year

Katharine Hepburn Meets Spencer Tracy, Pulls a Fast One on MGM, Wears Her Power Platforms, and Proves She’s Here to Stay. From 1942, it’s Woman of the Year.

Be sure to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episodes 45-47 are all about Katharine Hepburn.  Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Click to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood!

1942’s Woman of the Year proved pivotal for Katharine Hepburn.  With the film, Kate further paved her road in Hollywood, selling the property to MGM on her own terms.  Yet again, Hepburn was taking control of her career, negotiating with Hollywood power players at a time when most stars did not.

Woman of the Year also held personal significance for Kate: during filming, she fell in love with costar Spencer Tracy, and a legendary romance began.  For the next 26 years, her relationship with Tracy defined Kate’s life and career.

Let’s go through the plot of Woman of the Year, and how Kate shrewdly hooked and sold the film to MGM.  Then we’ll cover the famous first meeting between Kate and Spence, and the early days of the romance that set the precedent for the length of their relationship.  And we’ll analyze the true messages Woman of the Year conveys, messages that are often misunderstood by film scholars and audiences today.

Katharine Hepburn as Tess Harding in Woman of the Year (1942).

The Plot

Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) is a respected political columnist for the New York Chronicle.  Tess travels the world reporting on international politics, even influencing foreign and domestic policy with her knowledge of global affairs, and fluency in multiple languages.  And with the impending entry of the United States into World War II, Tess’ opinions are particularly valued.

Then there’s Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy), a popular sports columnist for the Chronicle.  Sam is as strictly American as Tess is international.  Sam loves baseball, football, boxing, and talking all things sports with his buddies over drinks.

The two divergent worlds of Tess and Sam meet when Sam, discussing the latest game with friends at a bar, overhears Tess on the radio.  She’s suggesting—perhaps not so seriously—that things such as baseball be temporarily banned, forcing Americans to put their attention on more important matters, such as the fight for democracy overseas.

Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) can't believe what he just heard Tess Harding say on the radio.

Her suggestion burns Sam up.

“We’re concerned with a threat to what we call our American way of life.  Baseball and the things it represents are part of that way of life.  What’s the sense of abolishing the thing you’re trying to protect?”

Is Sam’s response to Tess’ logic.  He writes about it in his column the next day.  And with that, the feud between Tess Harding and Sam Craig is officially on.

There's immediate chemistry when Tess and Sam meet.

Tess and Sam: the Feud, Meeting, and Romance

The two columnists battle it out in writing, responding to each other’s arguments in their respective columns.  The fight gets so heated, the editor of the Chronicle tells Tess and Sam to knock it off.  He sets up the first official meeting between the two, so apologies can be exchanged.

At the meeting, there’s an immediate attraction between Tess and Sam: what was heated on paper is a fireball of chemistry in person. 

Sam asks Tess out on a date to a baseball game.

After calling a truce to their written feud, Sam asks Tess out on a date to a baseball game.  Tess doesn’t know a thing about baseball, but the two end up having a marvelous time as Sam explains to her the workings of the game.

It’s the beginning of a quick-paced courtship that soon results in marriage. 

woman of the year
Tess and Sam look radiant on their wedding day.

And the baseball date will prove to be just about the only time in the romance of Tess Harding and Sam Craig where Sam has the upper-hand.  The independent Tess will run the show from here on out, with Sam, more often than not, playing the fool.

Tess invites Sam to her apartment, but neglects to tell him it's not a date...

A One-Sided Relationship

For example: 

After the baseball game, Tess invites Sam to come over to her apartment later that evening.  But she fails to mention it’s not a date.  Sam arrives with flowers for Tess, only to discover he’s entered a party of the international set, where he knows no one—and no one speaks English.  Still, Sam must fend for himself, as Tess has other more important guests to attend to. 

Or what about on their wedding night, when Tess insists that Sam move all his things into her apartment, even though he’s expressed worries about feeling “like a weekend guest,” and would rather get a completely new place together.

A dream come true! Sam gets to spend his wedding night with his new bride and...these guys.

And then later on their wedding night, when Sam, after dressing for bed in Tess’s cramped office—the room she’s designated as his in their new living arrangement—goes to the bedroom to meet his bride, only to find Tess entertaining Dr. Lubbeck, a German refugee who’s inconveniently decided to visit that night.

Or the time, not long after their marriage, when Sam comes home from covering a football game in Chicago, and Tess shares that she too ended up in Chicago that day, but didn’t think to tell him. The revelation hurts Sam’s feelings, since they could have taken the train home together if she’d kept him updated on her schedule.

And how about the time Tess adopts a Greek refugee child without asking Sam how he feels about such a life-altering decision, only telling her husband about the new addition to their family after she’s brought the boy home.

woman of the year
Tess informs Sam that he's a new father. It probably would have been better to speak with him before adopting the child...

Woman of the Year

In light of all these rather careless and/or selfish acts, Sam begins to realize that the woman he married may be exceptionally smart, motivated, beautiful, and accomplished, but she’s never learned about the give-and-take dynamic necessary to make a relationship—particularly marriage—work.  As far as successful personal relationships go, Tess Harding’s got a lot to learn.

Things come to a head for the Harding/Craig marriage when Tess is voted “Woman of the Year.”  Tess and Sam are both ecstatic about the award, which Tess will collect at a ritzy banquet held in her honor.

But as they’re about to leave for the banquet, Sam realizes that Tess’ housekeeper is not around to watch Chris, their new adopted son.

woman of the year
Tess believes their adopted son, approximately age 6, is old enough to stay home. She doesn't see why Sam disagrees with her.

Tess reasons that Chris, with all the maturity of his six or so years, is fully capable of staying home alone.  This is completely—and rightly—unacceptable to Sam.  He opts to stay home from the banquet to look after the boy.  Tess, infuriated, worries about how it will look if she attends the awards ceremony alone.  But Sam remains firm.

While Tess is out accepting her award, Sam takes Chris back to the Greek refugee home, realizing the boy will be happier among his friends until another family, one that can give Chris the love he needs, adopts him.

And after returning Chris to the refugee home, Sam himself packs up, and leaves Tess.

woman of the year
Tess accepts her Woman of the Year Award alone.

The Woman of the Year is Alone

Tess arrives home from the banquet shortly thereafter, with reporters in tow.  They are anxious to take pictures of the “Woman of the Year” at home, with her husband and child.  It’s an embarrassment for Tess that neither is home.  And she soon realizes that Chris and Sam are gone for good.

It isn’t until she attends the wedding of her Aunt Ellen to her father that Tess truly appreciates the vows she made to Sam on their wedding day.  She listens tearfully to the minister’s words as Aunt Ellen and her father solemnly commit to each other:

woman of the year
Tess gets emotional as she listens to the minister's words. She now hears them in a way that escaped her on her own wedding day.

“You are performing an act of utter faith.  Believe in one another to the end…unite in all the experiences of life to which your paths shall lead—the great moments and the small ones.  That the joys of each shall be the joys of both.  And the sorrows of each the sorrows of both….Cherish those gracious visions of your first love.  Let them not be blurred by the common events of life.  Be not moved in your devotion.  Believe in the ideal.  You saw it once.  It still exists.”

Tess applies the minister’s words to her own marriage.  She realizes how much she loves Sam, and that if she wants their relationship to work, she can’t live her life exactly as she did before marriage: Tess must start thinking of not just her own needs and desires, but Sam’s as well.

So she decides to win Sam back.

woman of the year

Going to Extremes

Tess arrives early one morning at the apartment Sam rented after leaving her.  She sneaks in while Sam is asleep, planning to surprise him with a homemade breakfast.

But Tess has never cooked before.  Her willingness to do something so entirely out of her comfort zone is a testament to her love for Sam, and of her growing maturity.  Over the course of their relationship, this may be the first thing Tess has ever done completely for Sam.

Sam wakes to discover Tess in the kitchen, burning the toast, following the wrong recipe for waffles, and boiling over the coffee.  Once she’s aware that Sam is watching, Tess profusely apologizes for her selfish behavior, and pledges to be a good wife.  In her tendency to go to extremes, Tess promises she’ll now be the traditional homemaker, forgoing her career to stay home and do the cooking and housework.

But Sam knows that that’s not Tess.  And it’s certainly not what he’s asking of her:

woman of the year

“Why do you have to go to extremes, Tess?  I don’t want to be married to Tess Harding any more than I want you to be just Mrs. Sam Craig.  Why can’t you be Tess Harding Craig?”

What Sam has so insightfully put to words brings Tess to the realization that she doesn’t have to give up her career or her independence to make their marriage work.  She just needs to find the balance between her career and the partnership, respect, and unity required of marriage.

Tess Harding Craig.

“I think it’s a wonderful name,”

Tess tells Sam.

And with that, we’re confident that Tess will find her middle ground, and be a success in both her career and marriage.

And that’s the end of the film.

Kate's Back on Top

With the staggering success of The Philadelphia Story (1940), Katharine Hepburn proved that she wasn’t box office poison.  The film broke box office records, and earned Kate her third Oscar nomination.

Even the press, which had, in the words of critic Richard Watts, “so relentlessly assailed her for so long a period of time,” seemed squarely in Kate’s corner.  Now, Hepburn’s career-long eccentricities that columnists had previously derided, were hailed as admirable.

Such as her penchant for pants.  

As Kate told James Reid of Modern Screen, when it came to trousers,

“I was simply ahead of the times.”

Reid, in what is quite telling of the press’ new pro-Hepburn spin, agreed, pointing out how now “every girl in her right mind” was following Kate’s lead, and wearing slacks.

What a complete turn around from the unfriendly press corps and “box office poison” label of just a few years earlier.

But would Kate’s favor with the press and public last?  Was the success of The Philadelphia Story a fluke, or could she do it again?

The answer seemed clear when Kate’s good friend Garson Kanin presented her with an idea for a new movie.  The working title of Kanin’s short treatment was The Thing About Women.  But it would soon be re-titled Woman of the Year.

woman of the year

Woman of the Year: Character Inspiration

Garson Kanin’s inspiration for Woman of the Year’s Tess Harding was the “first lady of American journalism,” Dorothy Thompson.  Thompson, an early suffragist, later turned her attention to journalism, becoming head of the New York Post’s Berlin bureau in Germany.  Thompson so offended Hitler with her anti-Nazi writings, the Fuhrer issued a personal order in 1934 expelling her from the country, making Thompson the first American journalist to be banned from Germany.

So basically, Dorothy Thompson was Katharine Hepburn.

That is, if Kate had pursued a career in journalism rather than acting.

It wasn’t just the Tess Harding character traits that hit close to home for Kate: Garson Kanin actually took the “Harding” name for Tess from Kate’s good friend Laura Harding, with whom Kate remained close nearly ten years after the two women first arrived in Hollywood.

Kanin’s lesser-known inspiration for the Sam Craig character was International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Cannon, a popular sports writer for the New York Post.  Though screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. claimed that Kanin first envisioned Clark Gable in the Sam Craig role, Kanin insisted that he wanted Spencer Tracy from the start.

woman of the year

Convincing Kate

Garson Kanin also held that initially, Katharine Hepburn didn’t want Tracy in the film at all, that it was Kanin’s own enthusiasm for Spence that eventually won her over.

“Oh—I don’t know.  I wonder whether we would be good together.  We’re so different,”

Kanin remembered of Kate’s first reaction to his suggestion of casting Tracy.

Before eventually ceding that Kanin was probably right about her initial feelings, Kate insisted in her autobiography that

“I, of course, don’t remember this at all.  I remember only how perfect I thought Spence would be as anyone and how great we would be together.”

woman of the year

Whether she wanted Tracy from the start, or had to be convinced, there’s no denying that Kate, who still had yet to meet Spencer, was enamored of his talent.  It was an opinion shared by most of Hollywood, for Tracy had already convincingly played just about everything, from priests to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Spencer Tracy could quite literally do it all. 

By the time she was ready to pitch the Woman of the Year storyline in Hollywood, Kate knew she wanted Tracy in the film, and she made his casting a condition of the sale.

Kate with Louis B. Mayer, 1945.

Kate and L.B.

Despite what many of her colleagues said, or would later say, about Louis B. Mayer, Katharine Hepburn respected the man, and enjoyed doing business with him:

“L.B. Mayer and I were friends…I liked him and he like me.  I sold him quite a number of properties.  He gave me a lot of freedom and I gave him a lot of respect.  L.B. had a sense of romance about the movie business and the studio system.  I must say I did too.  It was a glorious time to be in the business…”

And after the success of their negotiations for The Philadelphia Story, Kate decided that she’d give Mayer and MGM first dibs on Woman of the Year.

But it wouldn’t be an easy sell.  

Before he finished writing a complete screenplay for Woman of the Year, Garson Kanin was drafted into the army.  Not wanting to sit on the treatment until his return, Kanin handed Woman of the Year over to his younger brother, Michael Kanin, and Ring Lardner, Jr., two up and coming screenwriters.  This talented duo then fleshed out the characters, dialogue, and storyline that Garson Kanin hadn’t had time to complete.

Kate behind the scenes of Woman of the Year with screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr., Michael Kanin, and producer Joseph Mankiewicz.

Woman of the Year: A Hard Sell

At this stage of their respective careers, Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr. were both struggling screenwriters who’d yet to make names for themselves in Hollywood.  The most either fledgling writer had commanded for their work on any script thus far was a few hundred dollars a week.

Not really a great negotiating tool when you’re trying to get a big Hollywood studio to pay you a bunch of money for a new film idea…

So Kate, acting as agent for the Woman of the Year treatment herself, had to figure out a way to pique the interest of MGM without revealing that two rookies wrote the screenplay.  

Can we just stop for a moment to appreciate how cool it is that Katharine Hepburn was once again preparing to barter with a huge Hollywood studio?  This was 1941, a time when, not just the female stars, but movie stars in general, weren’t really taking control of their own careers.  And here was Kate, negotiating with MGM, and laying out her own terms for yet another film she wanted to star in.

Katharine Hepburn was, as ever, paddling her own canoe.

woman of the year

Kate's Strategy for Woman of the Year

Kate’s strategy for selling MGM on Woman of the Year started with Joseph Mankiewicz, the producer of The Philadelphia Story, whose dedication to that film had impressed her.  Kate sent Mankiewicz the 78 pages of Woman of the Year that Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr. had written thus far.  She instructed Mankiewicz to read it, and get back to her within 24 hours.  At that point, if he and MGM were interested, Kate would fly out to Hollywood for further negotiations. 

But here’s where Kate’s shrewd business sense came in: the treatment she sent Mankiewicz did not have the names of the writers on it.

Mankiewicz read the incomplete story, and loved it.  MGM was interested, he told Kate, but it’d be really great if she could tell him who the writers were.

Kate’s answer was that no, she couldn’t.  But she’d meet him in Hollywood to discuss a potential sale. 

woman of the year

Kate Pulls Out Her Power Platforms

Now Katharine Hepburn had a secret trick: whenever she discussed business deals with powerful men in Hollywood, she tried to appear as tall as possible.  Kate believed that being taller than the men around her acted as a psychological equalizer.  

So before any important meeting or negotiation, Kate piled her hair high, and put on a pair of what I like to call her “power platforms.”

As Garson Kanin later described these unique shoes,

“Katharine Hepburn is tall—not as tall as she thinks she is, but tall.  For a long time, she owned several pairs of specially cut platform shoes (has them still for all I know) that she wore whenever she felt the occasion warranted.  To my eye they seemed ugly, suggesting deformity.  She agreed, but was willing to go as far as to seem clubfooted, so long as she attained her impish aim: to put down—literally—the men with whom she came in professional contact…with the addition of the trick shoes, which added three or four inches to her height…she towered over them.  At least she felt she did and what is more important, they felt she did.” 

woman of the year

Woman of the Year Negotiations Continue

So when Kate arrived at MGM to negotiate the sale of Woman of the Year with Louis B. Mayer and the other powerful men at the studio, you can bet she wore a pair of her power platforms.  Perhaps it was the shoes that helped her to hold strong when Mayer asked her the same question that Mankiewicz had.  As Kate recalled,

“[Mayer asked] ’Who wrote it?’  

I said, ‘Mr. Mayer, I can’t tell you.’  I added, ‘I want such and such for the author and I want such and such for me…Two amounts. Each $125,000.’”

Mayer said he’d be willing to meet Kate’s $250,000 request, but first he really needed to know the names of those writers.  But Kate, still not entirely convinced that the $250,000 price tag was locked in, refused to tell Mayer yet again:

woman of the year

“’I cannot tell you who the writers are, and there is no way that you are going to find out.  There is no possible way.’”

When Mayer responded that he “didn’t like to do business this way,” Kate worried that she’d pushed too far, and perhaps bruised his ego:

“I felt that he was going to turn me down, so I said, ‘Besides, it’s not for sale.  I simply wanted to how how interest you were.  It’s a great part for Spencer.  If you are interested in seeing the script when it’s done, then fine.  The script will be for sale.’  I pulled back because I knew what happens when a big man says no.  You couldn’t ask too much and you couldn’t ask too little.  You had to figure out what you thought he’d pay and ask for it and get it.”

woman of the year

"Agent of the Year"

Trusting her gut and pulling back turned out to be a smart move, for Mayer stopped pushing for the writers’ names.  Kate then offered to come back to him on Monday with additional finished pages.  If the additional pages looked good, Mayer said, MGM would buy Woman of the Year.

What happened next was a dash to the finish line, as Michael Kanin, Lardner, and Kate rushed to get a solid section of the script finished.  As Michael Kanin remembered,

“We holed up, and, with the aid of a lot of Benzedrine managed to do it.”

Sounds like a fun couple of days.

woman of the year

The all-nighters were worth it though, for they met the deadline, and Kate delivered the script to MGM that Monday.  The next day, Kate got a call from MGM executive Sam Katz, who initially tried to seal the deal with a low ball offer of $175,000.

“You don’t seem understand, I really want $250,000,”

Kate told him.  To which Katz replied,

“Well, you know we’re going to give it to you.  So now you can tell us.  Who wrote it?”

When Kate responded that it was two unknowns, Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr., Katz paid her a great compliment:

“Mike Kanin and Ring Lardner have never made more than $3,000 for a script before and we’re paying them $62,500 each?  This picture should be called Agent of the Year!’”

Sam Katz was right.  Katharine Hepburn’s negotiating skills for Woman of the Year were nothing short of extraordinary.

woman of the year

Meeting Spencer Tracy

Towards the end of these negotiations, Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy for the first time.

There are various versions of how this legendary meeting occurred, but I’m sticking with the one told by Kate, which is more or less corroborated by Joe Mankiewicz.

The meeting occurred just outside of the Thalberg Building on the MGM lot. Mankiewicz and Tracy were exiting the building when Kate walked by.  Since the two stars would soon be working on Woman of the Year together, Mankiewicz figured now was as good a time as any to make the introductions.

Unfortunately, Kate was wearing her power platforms, which put her at least even in height with the 5’10’’ Tracy.

woman of the year

At this point, many Hepburn biographers forgo logic, and say that Kate’s first words to Spencer were: “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.”

But why on earth would Kate choose to insult the man she’d just negotiated so hard to get as a costar? As Hepburn herself later said,

“I wouldn’t have been dumb enough to say what I supposedly said to him…I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I said, ‘Sorry I’ve got these high heels on.  When we do the movie, I’ll be careful about what I wear.’”

Then, as Spencer sized her up, Mankiewicz uttered his famous reply to Hepburn’s high heels apology:

“‘Don’t worry , Kate.  He’ll cut you down to size.’”

Not Impressed. But Not For Long!

Spencer Tracy wasn’t all that familiar with Kate or her work when he first read the Woman of the Year screenplay.  And what he did know of the curious Miss Hepburn didn’t seem to impress him.  As Kate remembered,

“I think he thought I was awful.  And he said to Joe [Mankiewicz], ‘She has dirty fingernails.  Her hands are dirty.  And she’s bossy.’  That was his impression of me.  Not that I was too tall.  I think he just found me rather unattractive and disappointing.  And thought: ‘My god, what am I stuck with [on this picture]?’”

Mankiewicz confirmed Kate’s analysis, saying that after first meeting Kate, Tracy turned to him and said, 

“Not me, boy, I don’t want to get mixed up with anything like that.”

In fact, Katharine Hepburn was pretty sure Spence found her to be “of ambiguous sexuality” when they first met.  As Kate herself put it,

“I think that you imagined that I was a lesbian.  But not for long.”

woman of the year
Kate rehearsing a scene with Woman of the Year director, George Stevens.

"I Found Him Irresistible"

The sale of Woman of the Year finalized in May of 1941.  Kate chose George Stevens to direct, believing the very masculine director, revered for the sympathetic portrayals of women in his films, would infuse Woman of the Year with all the qualities necessary for success.  

It’s debatable, but very likely, that Stevens and Hepburn were in the midst of a six-month long romance when filming began.  Whether true or not, any relationship between Kate and George Stevens didn’t last long: once production was underway, Katharine Hepburn found herself head-over-heels for Spencer Tracy.

As Kate remembered of falling for her costar:

“Someone asked me when I fell for Spencer.  I can’t remember.  It was right away.  We started our first picture together and I knew right away that I found him irresistible.  Just exactly that, irresistible.”

The chemistry between the two stars was palpable, and it was exciting for observers on set to watch the real life romance of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn unfold.  It was also extremely good for the picture.  As Ring Lardner, Jr. noted, their real-life attraction translated to the screen, bringing the romance of Tess Harding and Sam Craig to life in ways that even the best of acting could not.

An Unlikely Pair

But they seemed an unlikely pair.  Despite similar senses of humor and intellectual tastes, Kate and Spence differed in foundational ways.  Kate preferred to rehearse a scene over and over, to analyze every line of the script to exhaustion, while Spencer was a much more instinctual actor, often doing his best work on the first take.  Kate was the image of health, full of boundless energy as she looked for life’s next adventure or two, while Spence was more inclined to introspection, and had struggled with alcoholism for close to a decade.  

But as George Stevens quickly noticed, because of these great differences, Kate and Spencer balanced each other, both onscreen and off:

“Spence’s reaction to her was a total, pleasant, but glacial put down of her extreme effusiveness.  He just didn’t get disturbed about doing things immediately; she wanted to do a hundred and one things at once; he was never in a hurry.  She ‘worried the bone’; he just took it and padded off with it.  Slowly.”

woman of the year

Those “pleasant but glacial put downs” came to characterize the Tracy/Hepburn romance for the next 26 years, both in their films, and in real life.  Some would call Tracy’s put downs of Kate downright cruel, while others, such as Garson Kanin, viewed them as necessary to keeping Kate “down to earth,” a reflection of Tracy’s way of using “the tender weapon of humor to reveal her to herself; to show her a better way.”

Kate herself, for the most part, viewed their banter in a positive light:

“I think he was so steady and I was so volatile that we exasperated each other .  And we challenged each other and that was the fun of it.”

woman of the year

Keeping the Press Off Their Trail

Spencer’s teasing nature certainly kept the press off the trail of a Tracy/Hepburn romance during filming of Woman of the Year.  When John Chapman of the New York Daily News visited the set, he observed Kate rehearsing a speech she delivers in the film, and Tracy on the sidelines, heckling her like a school boy, trying to break her concentration.  As Chapman wrote of the scene:

“We are told that this is the big new friendly feud.  Spence and Miss H. had never worked together before, and each at first was a little in awe of the other; but now they are in the happy Hollywood state of amiable insult. ‘We will now pause,’ announces Tracy, ‘while Miss Hepburn rewrites the  script.’”

For the time being at least, the burgeoning romance between Kate and Spence remained a secret from the press.

woman of the year

Woman of the Year: A Hit! ALMOST.

Woman of the Year opened to preview audiences on November 14, 1941, and theatergoers were enraptured. 

That is, until the last few minutes of the film.

The ending of Woman of the Year was so unpopular, audience members reportedly walked out.  Afraid that this reaction was indicative of how the film would be received at large, MGM quickly decided a new ending was crucial.  So the final few minutes of the film that we all know—with Tess failing in the kitchen before asking Sam to give their marriage another chance—were written and filmed. 

Ring Lardner, Jr., later claimed that the original ending of Woman of the Year was unpopular because it was “too feminist” for MGM and theatergoers of the time.

Ok.  But what was the original ending to Woman of the Year?

woman of the year

Woman of the Year: The Original Ending

Well, the ending as initially written consisted of Tess stepping in to cover a big prizefight for Sam, who fails to show up to the fight because he’s at language school, trying to learn French and Spanish for Tess.

Once Tess and Sam realize they’ve each demonstrated their commitment to the marriage by trying to get involved in the other’s interest, Tess apologizes to Sam for not being much a wife, promising that:

“We’ll move out of the apartment, get a little house out of town somewhere.  I’ll make it a real home, honest.  I’ll learn how to take care of it…and you.”

It’s curious that Ring Lardner, Jr. would call such an ending unpopular because it was “too feminist.”  

I honestly don’t know what part of this ending could have struck MGM or audiences of the day as “too feminist.”  It just doesn’t seem all that revolutionary…

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Kate's Take on the Endings

Considering how many stories there are of Katharine Hepburn calling the replacement ending with Tess’ kitchen faux-pas, “the biggest bunch of crap I’ve ever read,” it’s interesting that in her autobiography, Kate doesn’t say a single negative word about it.  In fact, it’s the original ending that Hepburn deems problematic.  As Kate wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],

“I remember that they had a preview of Woman of the Year.  They had accepted for an ending the last eighth of the picture, which I, alas, had suggested.  I met Mayer on the lot the next day…

I said, ‘The end stank.’  

He said, ‘What do you mean?’

I said, ‘I’m in the position to say this, Mr. Mayer, because I suggested the idea for the end.  It’s no good.  The picture just nosedived….It would cost about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars [to fix it].”

Mayer listened to Kate, and approved the funds necessary to create a new ending.  And so director George Stevens, inspired by some old gag routines he’d worked out for Laurel and Hardy at the beginning of his career, teamed up with Joseph Mankiewicz, and together they developed the idea of closing Woman of the Year with Tess burning the toast, and boiling over the coffee as she tries to make up with Sam.

woman of the year

Woman of the Year: A Hit! (For Reals)

When Woman of the Year officially premiered on February 19, 1942 with the new ending, the film was a smash, earning $2.7 million on its initial release, and yet another Oscar nomination for Kate.

According to Joe Mankiewicz, the reason the new ending of Woman of the Year worked, and why audiences at the time loved it, was because it showed Tess Harding getting her “comeuppance.”  As Mankiewicz put it, 

“The average housewife was going to look up at this beautiful, accomplished goddess up there on the screen…and well, hate her guts…Now [with the new ending] they could turn to their schmuck husbands and say, ‘She may know Batista, but she can’t even make a cup of coffee, you silly bastard.” 

George Stevens, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy behind the scenes of Woman of the Year (1942).

Woman of the Year: The Ending, According to George Stevens

But director George Stevens had a different take on why the original ending of Woman of the Year was unpopular, and why the kitchen ending worked: it wasn’t that theatergoers found the initial ending “too feminist.”  (Again, does the original ending sound very feminist to you?)  The real problem with the first ending was that it was boring.  As a filmmaker, George Stevens understood that action is necessary to holding an audience’s attention.  And the original ending of Woman of the Year just didn’t have enough of it:

“The first ending we shot was wrong.  Why?  Because it didn’t put over the idea we were shooting for.  Kate talked about being a good wife.  Audience don’t want talk. They want action.  In this new finish, Kate doesn’t talk.  She acts like a good wife as nearly as she can.  She tries to cook.  To the point of being ridiculous.  But she’s trying.”

woman of the year

So, by George Stevens’ logic, the kitchen ending was a hit because it had the action that the original ending lacked.

Stevens’ words bring up another interesting point.  He mentions that audiences wanted to see Tess try to be a good wife.  It begs the question: did audiences of the 1940s enjoy the kitchen ending because it “put Tess in her place” after being dangerously empowered for the majority of the film?  Or did audiences at the time enjoy the kitchen ending because, after basically treating Sam like dirt throughout the whole film, Tess is finally doing something nice for him, visually demonstrating that she’s committed to making their marriage work?

woman of the year

Are We Getting This Right?

Much has been said about this replacement ending in Woman of the Year, and the message it conveys.  The common consensus today is that the ending is old fashioned, and rather offensive in its treatment of the Tess Harding character.  Many present-day viewers go along with Joe Mankiewicz’s analysis of the ending as a sort of “comeuppance” for Tess: she’s been too much of a threat to the status quo the whole film, so it’s time to make a fool of her in the kitchen before having her promise to quit her career and be the dutiful housewife.

No doubt, it’s an easy surface analysis of what the scene, and the film at large, are meant to tell us.

But as more and more classic films are criticized for expounding old fashioned messages that are out of touch—or even offensive—to audiences today, it’s more important than ever to make sure we fully grasp what the actual messages of these films are. 

So, before we “reframe” Woman of the Year—to borrow a phrase from Turner Classic Movies—let’s analyze what the end of the film actually says. 

woman of the year

Feminist Elements in the Woman of the Year Ending

Many viewers and film scholars today say Tess’ failure in the kitchen is an embarrassment to the character, and an insult to women at large.  But should we really be offended?  Tess has been too busy doing other things, like getting an education, pursuing her career, and influencing world politics—things that feminist thought traditionally values more than housework.  By this token, viewers of the scene who are insulted should instead interpret Tess’ lack of cooking expertise as evidence of her empowerment. 

Another piece of Woman of the Year’s ending that’s unpopular with some viewers today occurs half way through Tess’ well-meaning attempts in the kitchen.  Tess and Sam move to the living room, where Tess kneels at Sam’s feet, and tries to convince him that she now understands the meaning of their marriage vows.  This positioning of Tess below Sam is criticized as a sign of female subservience, further evidence of the “comeuppance” that according to Mankiewicz, audiences of the day demanded for the Tess Harding character.

But hold on.  

woman of the year

Tess kneels at Sam’s feet just after she proposes to him.

Tess literally asks Sam to marry her again right before she kneels.  The proposal is her way of opening the conversation to giving their marriage another chance.

Who traditionally does the proposing in a relationship? 

The man.

And how does he traditionally position himself when proposing? 

He kneels.

So doesn’t Tess’ traditional kneeling position her as the spouse who holds more power?

woman of the year

The Ultimate Message of Woman of the Year

Specific elements such these aside, the final message of Woman of the Year is not about punishing Tess for her amazing accomplishments.  The takeaway is not that Tess must give up her career, stay home, and wait on her husband.

The ultimate message of the film is one of empowerment and partnership, of the difficult give-and-take required of any marriage, and how lucky Tess and Sam are to have found a spouse who loves the other for who they are.  It’s about a strong, confident, and accomplished woman realizing that a successful relationship requires work, compromise, and respect.  Tess  doesn’t have to give up her career, and Sam’s not asking her to.  She just needs to find her middle ground, to find the balance it takes to be not Tess Harding, or Mrs. Sam Craig, but Tess Harding Craig.

And with the relationship maturity she reaches by the end of the film, we’re confident that Tess will find this middle ground, and retain her career and identity while also being the team player that any successful relationship requires, and her sweet husband deserves.

woman of the year

Defining the Relationship

Despite the immediate chemistry, the Tracy/Hepburn relationship didn’t turn serious, and certainly wasn’t exclusive, during filming of Woman of the Year.  Spence was married—in his 26 years with Kate, that would never change—but he was also dating other actresses on the side.  Tracy’s records show that he took Ingrid Bergman out on October 16, 1941, evidence that he didn’t yet know how deep his feelings for Kate would soon run.

And though Kate would soon make Spence her number one priority, exclusively agreeing to films that would pair her with Tracy, or keep her close to him, she wasn’t ready to do that just yet: when Woman of the Year wrapped, Kate left Hollywood for the east coast, to star in the Theatre Guild’s production of Without Love. 

But things were about to get serious.

woman of the year

Things Get Serious

In early 1942, after 3 years and eight months of sobriety, Spencer Tracy fell off the wagon. 

It was a series of devastating events that led Spence back to alcohol, starting with the US entry into WWII, and quickly followed by tragic death of his good friend Carole Lombard in a plane crash on January 16, 1942.  With Lombard’s passing, her husband, Clark Gable, fell into a deep depression.  And Tracy, one of Gable’s most trusted friends, internalized his buddy’s deep melancholy as he comforted Gable through this unspeakably heartbreaking time.

Then Spencer’s mother died on January 23rd.  Coupled with the guilt the Catholic Tracy felt over his growing feelings for Kate, it all proved too much for him to deal with sober.

But Kate was there for Spencer through it all.

woman of the year

Kate had already committed to touring with the Theatre Guild production of Without Love, but Tracy visited her in various cities.  Kate juggled her rehearsals and performances with taking care of Spencer, keeping him busy, fed, and sober.  She arranged an extensive physical for Spence at Johns Hopkins to make sure no internal damage had been done by his latest binge.  Kate eventually decided to postpone the Broadway premiere of Without Love so she could return to Hollywood and make a film with Spencer instead.  It was the best way, she reasoned, to keep him healthy and away from alcohol.

This caregiver cycle was ultimately indicative of the Tracy/Hepburn relationship.  And Kate’s first go-around sealed her commitment to the man who proved to be the great love of her life.

woman of the year

Spencer Commits

It was around the time of this 1942 binge that Spencer Tracy decided that he was ready to commit to Kate.  Before sobering up, Spence went to see his former costar and friend, Myrna Loy.  According to Loy, in his inebriated state, Spence proceeded to tell her that 

“’You don’t have to worry about me anymore,’ he said like a sulky child.  ‘I’ve found the woman I want…he [then] outlined the virtues of Katharine Hepburn…”

Kate remained Tracy’s  dedicated friend, lover, nurse, and caregiver for the next 26 years.  And for just about the next decade, Kate molded her career around Spencer’s needs and schedule, only accepting film offers that allowed her to stay close by his side, or that reunited the Tracy/Hepburn team.  Indeed, of the eleven films Kate made between 1942 and 1951, six of them paired her with Tracy. 

Such an existence was fulfilling for a woman who reveled in playing caregiver to the man she loved.

But it was also draining.

woman of the year

Some "Me" Time

By 1951, Kate was ready for some “me” time.  In her own words, it was time for Kate to “fortify” herself.

 And the perfect opportunity to fortify herself both artistically and emotionally came from director John Huston.

Huston offered Kate a chance to travel farther from home than she’d ever gone before.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that spoke to her sense of adventure.

How could she say no?

So Kate was off to Africa with Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall to make The African Queen (1951), the film that would usher in the next phase of Katharine Hepburn’s distinguished career.

Next Time: Katharine Hepburn Goes to Africa

And that’s it for Woman of the Year.  Be sure to come back next time for all about, as Kate liked to put it,

“How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and almost lost my mind.” 

Also known as 1951’s The African Queen.

woman of the year

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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