Comedy · Criterion Collection · Drama · Romance · United States

#867 Woman of the Year (1942)

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#867 Woman of the Year

 1942 // USA // George Stevens

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Condescension of Women: Cooking Wife or Career Woman

While inserting the word “woman” onto the film title, Woman of the Year is surprisingly, in a horrendous way, a film of condescension of woman. The film is released in 1942, at the eve of America sending forces to Europe for fighting the Nazi. Director George Stevens would soon to be one of the volunteers going overseas for protecting the American values they all cherished for. The values would include baseball, as the sports column writer Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) proclaims early in the film in response to the radio interview of the political column writer Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), in which she discredits the sports over the course of the more important European war.

Tess is established as an independent, highly motivated career woman in the opening scene without even showing her face, by the advertising of her column title and the radio interview. Her concern on global politics is demonstrated by her multi-linguistic skills and constant phone calls and gathering with foreigners. Sam’s unsuccessful attempt in having a conservation in English during the party filled with foreigners is a awkward but funny moment. Nonetheless Tess’s feminine body is sexualised immediately at the scene of her first physical appearance, from her extended sexy legs with stocking, the camera moves upward to reveal her face. Sam is instantly attracted by her, inviting her to watch a baseball game afterwards. The film tries to make fun of her by showing her ignorance on the rules of the game, as well as her large hat that keeps blocking the field from the male spectator behind her.

Apparently Tess is not a woman of compromise, and the narrative of the film mainly focuses on how the male could overcome the obstacle, or how Sam would tame the woman he loves to achieve a sort of harmony. Marriage seems to be a obvious solution but ultimately fails. Sam marries Tess, but the date of marriage is set by Tess without notifying him, and the ceremony is cut short when both Tess and Tess’s Senator father (Minor Watson) are busy in running their own business of politic. To make things worse, the first night of their marriage is interrupted by the sudden visit of Dr. Lubbek, a Yugoslavian statesman escaped from concentration camp whom Tess desperately searched for beforehand.

The impression of how European affairs keep interfering the American domestic life is illustrated as an annoyance, and Tess embodies the intruding European force. In Marilyn Ann Moss’s book “Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film“, Tess is compared as the perfection body in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) that should be defeated, it’s the propaganda film which prompted George Steven to join the force for the greater cause. Yet it’s confusing to me that I find Tess to be the only one in the film that actively concerns on the war affairs, and logically t should be she to play the role in “defeating” the narrow-visioned American males by diverting their attention from baseball to the war-zone across the sea.

Yet the film keeps condescending her effort and presents her as a failed wife, or a failed mother when she adopts a Greek refugee child without Sam’s consent and later leaves the child alone at night while she’s going to accept the award of “America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year”. It’s ironic that she is giving that award and the film is called Woman of the Year, since the ultimatum of the film is to tame Tess to be a cooking housewife, even that is presented as a comical moment when the kitchen is transformed into a battlefield, and her attempts in frying eggs or making toast and coffee are deemed to be hilarious failure. The writers of the screenplay, Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, seem to be too focused in presenting her domestic inability that they forget the intellectual independence and the domestic sensibility are not mutually exclusive.

Sam, our hero and supposed surrogate in the film, is unchanged throughout and only reaccepts Tess if she is willing to be Tess Harding Craig, not a reformed housewife. The male’s perspective is prominent, and the resolution involves compromise in one side only. The political aspect of Tess’s career and the attention on European affairs are lost halfway through the film, what remains is the reconsideration and meaning of marriage. Is it a “happily ever after” ending? I highly doubt it. I could imagine the moment after, highly likely they will, their divorce, Sam and Tess could be another pair of Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson as in His Girl Friday (1940), minus the witty wisdom and the rapid fired arguments. 

Woman of the Year is a flawed film pervaded with old fashion patriarchal ideology, it may serve the woman well during the wartime when their men were sent to the battlefield and they are left to be home-caring housewife, they would leave the theater with the superiority over the independent woman who can’t even serve a coffee by herself. But viewing the film now after 75 years have elapsed, it’s solely the chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn keeps holding the film together, and thankfully they are magnificent.

Film Rating: 2.5/5
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