Monday, December 27, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Woman of the Year" (1942)

The first of nine screen pairings of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was the least of them -- of those I've seen, anyway. "Woman of the Year" is a farcical comedy more than a romance. It's notable that it's most remembered for an extended skit at the very end of the movie where Hepburn's egghead character makes a total mess trying to make breakfast, with toast shooting across the room and waffle batter blurping out of the griddle.

The lovey stuff is pretty forgettable.

Interestingly, the Spencer/Hepburn romances stick in the mind as middle-aged or even Golden Years couples -- most notably with 1949's "Adam's Rib" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in 1967. Even in 1942 they were no longer whippersnappers: He was 42 and she 35. The enduring aspect of their nine films together was the depiction of mature love rather than the hotter, more single-minded flame of youthful passion.

She plays Tess Harding, a globe-trotting journalist who specializes in international relations -- think Thomas Friedman meets David Ignatius. He is Sam Craig, star sports columnist. They both write for the same newspaper, the New York Chronicle, but they've never met. When he overhears her on the radio dismissing baseball as a waste of time, he writes a screed denouncing her for being out of touch with the common man. She returns fire with a dismissive column of her own. Eventually the publisher invites them up to the penthouse to get them to kiss and make nice.

This they do with such ardor that they're soon an item. It's in the mold of cinematic romances of that time, in which they're in love by the second date and he's proposing marriage by the fourth. But trouble looms when she's only willing to give a tiny slice of her life to the marriage, and he grows resentful.

Directed by the great George Stevens ("Shane," "Giant") from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin -- which won the Oscar that year --"Woman of the Year" is only really interesting as an examination of early, half-hearted feminism. Tess is so consumed by her work that she's never even really thought of marriage and children. Her role model is her aunt Ellen (Fay Bainter), who's won every sort of civic award under the sun, but isn't truly happy because she's never been married. Aunt Ellen has her eye on Fay's own father (Minor Watson), who's been making unrequited moony eyes at her for 15 years since Tess' mother died.

The basic gist of all this interplay is that a woman can be brilliant, accomplished, acclaimed and successful, but she's not truly a woman unless she gives herself to a man.

There's a disturbing sequence toward the middle-end where Tess suddenly adopts a Greek refugee boy named Chris -- a lot of Chrises in Greece, are there? Maybe it's short for Christos -- who does not even speak English. Sam rejects the notion of adopting a child quite sternly, and eventually sneaks him out of the house and gives him back to the refugee home when Tess is away getting her Woman of the Year award. Then Sam packs his stuff and leaves.

The interesting thing here is that Sam is behaving in the classic female mode of this kind of movie -- rather than explaining to his spouse what is wrong, he simply acts more and more annoyed and hurt, expecting her to guess what is wrong with their relationship.

The sexual byplay between the stars is fairly overt, despite the era. I liked some of Hepburn's more kittenish mannerisms, such as purring "Huh-wo, daddy" at Sam when he comes home from work. Before they get married there's a bit where she brings him up to her apartment for a nightcap, and it's made pretty clear that she's enticing him, an overture he refuses because he respects her so darn much.

There's also another long comedy sequence built around a gaggle of interlopers intruding on their wedding night, until everyone finally gets the idea that they desperately want to have sex and depart.

Also worthy of note is Tess' secretary, Gerald (Dan Tobin), who acts as her gatekeeper and manservant. He's clearly supposed to be homosexual, which movies of the time broadcast through sartorial choices -- Gerald is never without a sweater-vest -- and a sing-songy speaking style. Gerald is repeatedly dismissive of Sam while he's courting Tess, and continues the unctuous manner after they're married.

The last line in the movie is after having reconciled, Gerald shows up with a bottle of champagne that Tess is supposed to use to launch a boat. Sam beckons Gerald out back, we hear a crash, and Sam returns with the broken bottle: "I just launched Gerald."

Another in a line of disappointing classics for me, "Woman of the Year" is more a captive of its time than a truly watershed film.

2.5 stars out of four

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