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« Beauty Break: "On Wednesdays We Wear Pink" | Main | Tribeca: Spacey, Shakespeare, and Sightseeing »
Wednesday
Apr232014

A Year with Kate: Woman of the Year (1942)

Episode 17 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.

In which Tracy and Hepburn explode on screen in a dynamic maelstrom of celluloid chemistry.

What sparks great star chemistry? Katharine Hepburn, an actress who was all angles and independence, bottled that lightning not once, but twice, with two men who were polar opposites: Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. Near the end of Bringing Up Baby, Grant’s character tells Katharine Hepburn “...in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but, well, there haven't been any quiet moments.” This stuttering sentence sums up the banter-based rapport between Hepburn and Grant that played through their four films together. Watching Grant and Hepburn is watching two master comedians play a scene - glamorous, theatrical, loud, and wonderful. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are the complete opposite: authentic, intimate, sexy, and sweet.

Woman of the Year, the first Tracy/Hepburn film, is full of those “moments of quiet” abolished from Bringing Up Baby. But, oh! how loud a quiet moment can be! The electricity crackling through those moments between Kate and Spencer isn’t born of perfect comedic timing or a well-written script. It is one of those undefinable energies, like the always elusive “star quality,” that you know as soon as it hits you like a bolt of lightning.

In Woman of the Year, Kate and Spencer play newspapermen who quarrel, meet, marry, and continue to quarrel. He’s a blue collar sportswriter named Sam Craig, she’s a polyglot political pundit named Tess Harding. From the outset, Tess wears the pants in the relationship (perfectly tailored culottes by costume designer Adrian). The major conflict is over whether Sam can stomach taking back seat to Tess’s career. For most of the film, the gender roles are reversed. Tess proposes to Sam, and she’s the one who works late and misses dinner, while Sam pouts when Tess doesn’t notice his new hat.

Still, this is 1942, so in the final slapstick sequence, Tess humbles herself by failing to cook Sam breakfast in a scene that would be hilarious if it wasn’t also humiliating. (I’m speaking here as a person who has likewise ruined a waffle iron.) But once Sam has saved his little wife from the evil waffle iron, his response is not “quit your job” or “learn to be a proper woman.” He tells Tess that he loves her for the hardworking lady she is; he just needs her to make a little room for him. While the ending of Woman of the Year can be easily dismissed as an archaic bow on 1940s gender politics, it sets a standard for later Tracy/Hepburn collaborations. Kate will play variations on the Independent Modern Woman, while Spencer plays opposite as her Flummoxed American Husband. The pairing can be surprisingly sexy.

The reason this constant worked so well was because Kate and Spencer sparked. From first glance to last nod, Kate and Spencer imbue their scenes simultaneously with the easy affection of an old married couple and the giddy excitement of newlyweds. Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr.’s script is actually very good, but quotes don’t stand out in Hepburn/Tracy movies; the moments between the quotes do. Moments like when he chases her up the stairs but almost bumps into her instead, or when she interrupts her dictation to give him a quick nip on the ear. They’re almost cloyingly sweet. If they’d made films 70 years later, you could expect hundreds of heart emoticons and several thousand YouTube tributes. But somehow--most likely because they aren’t lovesick preteens, though they look at each other with that intensity--Spencer and Kate just work.

There’s little to write about Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn that hasn’t already been written. They were the perfect marriage of opposites onscreen: Kate was glamorous, theatrical, and loud, but Spencer was the kind of actor who eschewed makeup and refused more than a few takes. He was the immovable object to her unstoppable force. By the time they began working together, each already had an Oscar or two - Kate had hers from Morning Glory, Spencer his from back-to-back wins for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. As a team, they would make nine movies over almost twenty years, running the gamut in genre and quality, but one thing remained the same: that irreplaceable chemistry.

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story,

Next Week: Keeper Of The Flame - In which I'm not entirely sure what's going on but it seems to involve boy scouts and fascism. (Available on Amazon.)

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Reader Comments (13)

I really enjoyed your overview Anne Marie but I have to admit I'm not as swept away by this film as many are. Absolutely their chemistry is solid and Kate has the strong working woman down to a tee but that kitchen scene pisses me off so much it diminishes the entire film for me.

Why suddenly does this thoroughly competent and resourceful woman become an idiot in the kitchen. She a world famous correspondent flitting hither and yon at a moment's notice, in all those travels she's never had to make herself a meal? Ridiculous!

Kate looks great-her wardrobe is terrific, Spencer is all easy charm and the supporting cast contains my beloved Fay Bainter but this doesn't do anything that they didn't do just as well or better in Desk Set.

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Um, I remember really liking the kitchen scene and found it pretty darn relateable actually. My man and I have been together over a decade and have never really progressed beyond punching buttons on the microwave. I have no problem believing someone couldn't handle one of those old time coffee percolater contraptions.

But it's not really about that anyway. The movie is still so modern because he tells her to forget "housework." It took another 25 years for most Americans to be comfortable with that idea.

Anyway, it's been a LONG time since I"ve seen this movie in its entirety and I think it's perfectly fine that it is regarded as the beginning of a major screen pairing.

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

joel6, the kitchen scene aggravates me too, although during this latest viewing I was less annoyed than I had been in the past. I do enjoy Kate's great slapstick chops getting a chance to shine again, which is maybe why I'm slowly coming around to it.

I've heard rumors that the scene wasn't originally in the script. Actually if you listen to the Screen Guild Theatre radio play, the scene is conspicuously absent.

Overall, which star do you prefer playing opposite Kate: Spencer or Cary?

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie-While I think Spencer Tracy is a great actor and he and Kate interact together wonderfully I think Cary Grant and she had a much more physical connection. She and Tracy were partners who were always trying to make their differences meld and butting heads whereas Kate and Cary had fewer dissimilarities and an easier and sexier camaraderie.

It's a pity the pair never worked together after Philadelphia Story but I'm not sure that as the years went on that their individual styles would have blended any longer. Just after State of the Union/Adam's Rib when Kate settled into being a perpetual spinster and Cary became even more suavely urbane I can't imagine them making sense in a film together any longer.

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

That gif is such a sexy little moment. I miss those little bits of business in screen acting. Even "spontaneous" gestures feel methodically planned out (emphasis on "Method" of course).

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I want A Year With Kate to be a book now. Let's make it happen.

April 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I keep checking for the April Fool oscar predictions and, alas, see that
they are evolving into the May Day oscar predictions (sigh)...

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

One of my favorite things about this movie is Kate's bald disdain for the ending. Made me love her even more.

April 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

The hat. Its the scene at the baseball game with the hat that I love the most. The timing and of course the HAT

April 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Nathaniel, from your lips to some publisher's ears! Maybe at the end of all of this I'll just print out the blog, staple it together, and hand it out in drugstores. Eventually, some person I meet has to be in publishing, right? It worked for Lana Turner...

April 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

You know, I've been thinking personally that for me, the rest of the 40s are going to be a kind of slog. Even the movies I'm supposed to like, say Adam's Rib, aren't really my favorites. I next pick up Kate in her mid 50s spinster mode. I guess I really need to watch these movies as they're being reviewed.

Should I bite the bullet and finally go back to Netflix?!

April 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Cary Grant. He was a better actor and the four films they did together are all better than anything Tracy and Hepburn did.

April 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Dave, your comment made me laugh because I feel the exact opposite: I love the 40s but I hate Kate in mid-50s spinster mode. But, if there's one thing I've learned doing A Year With Kate it's that movies will surprise you. I didn't like the ending of Woman of the Year until this time around, and my opinion of Morning Glory has gone up as well. Fingers crossed for the rest of it.

I'd say you should definitely go back to Netflix, except that almost none of Kate's movies can be found there. Goodness knows I've been hunting. The next two decades of her filmography are mostly on Amazon. I don't know how copyright law works, but whoever owns the bulk of her MGM work really dropped the ball on this one.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

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