Criterion Blu-Ray Review: George Stevens’ ‘Woman of the Year’

George Stevens’ Woman of the Year is a film betrayed by its own ending. As the Criterion Collection bonus features repeatedly make clear, the ending of the first Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film that we all know was not the one the filmmakers initially wanted. Their first ending saw Hepburn and Tracy’s characters on equal footing, with neither of them compromising what they do best to save their marriage. But in a world where men were still fighting a war and women were just starting to be allowed to take a large role in the workforce, that ending just wouldn’t do.

Before we get to the ending, a quick run-down of the plot: Sports columnist Sam Craig (Tracy) and foreign affairs columnist Tess Harding (Hepburn) fall in love after arguing in their own newspaper about the importance of sports during wartime. The two rush into marriage, and Tess realizes too late that can’t be the traditional wife Sam wants her to be.

woman of the year

In the ending – which we can talk about because this is a 75-year-old movie – Tess decides that the only way to save the marriage is to become the traditional housewife Sam wants her to be.

In the original ending, Tess ends up having to cover a boxing match, while Sam tries to learn to speak another language. When Sam finds out what she’s doing, he runs to her and Tess says she did it to be a “good wife.” She still agrees to change everything about her, but he says he doesn’t want that to happen. He just wants her to be “Tess Harding Craig,” as he does in the ending we all know. Even if both endings end with the same line, they do two very different things.

What we get goes against the 90 minutes that preceded it. For one thing, the final ending gives Sam exactly what he wants without acknowledging that Tess can be his equal. It forces Tess – at least within the 114 minutes of the movie – to give up what she’s best at. In the original ending, they realize that they are equals in that they both do what they are best at. Neither of them have to change for their marriage to survive. Unfortunately, that original ending no longer survives. All we have are descriptions and stills.

Thanks to the change, Woman of the Year became a box office hit and launched one of the great screen duos in Hollywood history. Audiences preferred seeing Hepburn knocked down a notch after watching her high-and-mighty characters torment her men. That’s why The Philadelphia Story revived her career. She probably didn’t like it, but Hepburn wasn’t about to derail her comeback, so she agreed to work with Stevens on the new ending.

Woman of the Year is still a great film and a wonderful mix of the serious direction Stevens’ films would take after the war, and his early comedies. There’s a wonderful delicacy with which he directs his post-war films that’s already present here. He lets the audience live with these characters, and doesn’t force the action to move as quickly as possible. This is not a frenetic movie at all. Today’s audience might even think it moves at a glacial pace. Stevens would go on to make The Talk of the Town and The More The Merrier, two other comedies that had more serious undertones, just before he left to film the war.


The Blu-Ray

Woman of the Year is the first Tracy-Hepburn film from the Turner library to reach Blu-Ray. (Desk Set was released on Blu-ray by Fox and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is also available from Sony.) In its growing relationship with Warner Bros., Criterion has released the film in high definition, with a new 2K digital restoration.

Despite the film’s (nearly) two-hour running time, Criterion presents a really packed edition. The two biggest bonus features are both films fans of Stevens and Tracy have likely already seen, but are still good to have here.

Interviews

  • George Stevens Jr. – No release of a Stevens film would be complete without a quick interview with his son, American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr. He’s always fascinating to listen to since, unlike other living children of famous directors, he was actually old enough to work on his father’s films. (He was 10 when Woman of the Year was made, but worked on GiantShaneThe Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told.) His interview is about his father’s directing style. Unfortunately, it runs just seven minutes.
  • Marilyn Ann Moss – Moss, who wrote Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film, discusses how Stevens went from making Laurel and Hardy shorts to directing A Place In The Sun. The interview runs 15 minutes.
  • Claudia Roth Pierpoint – Titled Katharine Hepburn: Woman of the Century, Pierpoint gives an overview of Hepburn’s career and how Woman of the Year fits into it. It runs over 20 minutes and provides the most in-depth reading of the original and final endings on the disc.
  • George Stevens – This is a 17-minute excerpt from a 1967 audio interview with Stevens, where he goes over the making of the film and working with Hepburn, who he also directed in Alice Adams. 

Documentaries

  • George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey – This is the same 112-minute film included on a DVD with the Warner Bros. Blu-ray digi-book release of Giant and in the James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set. It was directed by Stevens Jr. and is a great overview of his father’s career.
  • The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute By Katharine Hepburn – This is the same 87-minute film included in the Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection and the Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection sets. (There was also an individual DVD release.) It was made in 1986 and features Hepburn talk about Tracy’s life and career. Sure, it’s a little rose-colored, but it’s still nice to hear from his contemporaries.

Extras

  • Trailer
  • A Woman’s Place – The leaflet includes an essay by Time Magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek that provides another critical perspective on the film.

Woman of the Year is overall a special film, and it’s more important than just capturing the magic of Tracy and Hepburn growing on screen. You can write about the ending forever, but as Zacharek and Pierpoint note, you can always imagine that the ending is just the beginning of a new chapter in the Harding-Craig household. The best movies don’t have definitive endings, so if we think Stevens, Hepburn, Tracy and writers Ring Lardner Jr. & Michael Kanin (who won an Oscar, by the way) didn’t intend the new ending to be finite, maybe it works better than we know.

As for the Criterion Blu-ray, it’s an essential purchase, end of story.

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