After she was branded “box office poison”1 alongside other female stars like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford in an infamous 1938 article, Katharine Hepburn took a break from the screen and went to Broadway. There, she appeared in Philip Barry’s hit play The Philadelphia Story, and in 1940 returned triumphantly to Hollywood to star in the film adaptation. It was MGM’s second highest grossing film of the year—Hepburn was poison no longer.2 Better yet, as a free agent—without a contract to one studio—she was free to pursue any films that interested her. Collaborating with a team of writers, she put together Woman of the Year, another hit for MGM; the film also teamed her with Spencer Tracy for the first time, creating a pairing that would last for decades both on-screen and off.

However, Hepburn’s focus wasn’t solely on crafting a fun romantic comedy. Throughout her career, Hepburn made great strides for women in the industry, as well as dictated the representation of women in her films. She told The Washington Star, “the picture ought to throw some light on the problem of the modern woman who is financially independent of a man. For her, the marriage problem is very great. If she falls in love with a strong man, she loses him because she is concentrated too much on her job. If she falls in love with a weakling she can push around, she always falls out of love. A woman just has to have sense enough to handle a man well enough so he’ll want to stay with her. To keep him on the string is almost a full-time job.”3 Yet Hepburn only managed to push boundaries so far without successful pushback, and in the end she found her progressive film altered by the industry men around her to better suit the normative views of the day.

Take It Or Leave It

The plot of the film didn’t come from Hepburn, but rather her friend, director Garson Kanin. “Once, after I had spent an evening with Dorothy Thompson, and had received a letter in the following morning’s mail from Jimmy Cannon, an idea for a movie struck me,” Kanin wrote. “Lady political pundit and hardheaded sportswriter work on same newspaper; clash in print about something; meet; clash in person; both wrong, both right—not bad!” He also saw Woman of the Year as the perfect next vehicle for her. “Since I had just been greeted by the Selective Service System, I turned the germ over to two of the brightest screenwriters I knew: my brother Michael [Kanin], and Ring Lardner, Jr.4

Neither of the two had more than a couple screen credits, but together they quickly developed Garson’s idea into a treatment and sent it to Hepburn. Enthused by the story, she flew out from her home in Connecticut to California to try and sell it to MGM. However, she kept the writer’s names off the script, and refused to tell anyone who was behind it. Michael Kanin explained, “if she had told them who we were they would easily find out that we were each working for something like $300 a week [at another studio], and she couldn’t justify asking what at that time was the biggest price ever paid for an original screenplay.”5

“I took it to L.B. Mayer and I said ‘if you want this it’s yours, but I want to play the columnist and I want Spencer Tracy for the sports writer,” Hepburn explains in the documentary Katharine Hepburn: All About Me. “The bargain price for the script and me is 250,000 bucks.’ Well L.B. Mayer wasn’t used to doing business like this, and he said ‘who wrote it?’” Savilly, Hepburn knew that leaving the names off would get it even more attention at MGM as people tried to figure out who wrote it—producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz guessed names like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, some of the top writers of the day. Mayer claimed he wouldn’t buy it unless she told him who was behind it. “‘I won’t tell you who wrote it Mr. Mayer. Take it or leave it.’ He took it.”6

This was particularly unusual—no one sold scripts in this era of Hollywood, or at least, no one except for Katharine Hepburn. Writers worked steadily like any other studio employee with a weekly salary. Hepburn exaggerated a bit when she later claimed the price was $250,000. It came down to $211,000—today, over 3 million dollars. She could practically demand anything she wanted,” Ring Lardner Jr. explains in this interview. “She said $100,000 for me, $100,000 for the script, $10,000 for my agent, and $1,000 for my expenses in coming from Connecticut.” And that’s what she got. And that $100,000 we got was at that time the highest price paid for an original screenplay. We hadn’t written it in screenplay form, we then proceeded to do that.”7 However, Kanin and Lardner Jr. only had a weekend to write it.

The Garden of Allah hotel on Sunset Boulevard
The Garden of Allah hotel on Sunset Boulevard

“We had a treatment of it, you see,” Michael Kanin explained. “And finally—they grudgingly said, well, all right we’ll pay the price if you—if we can see some screenplay, you know. And she—They said, is there any screenplay written and she says, oh, yes, they have about 75 pages of it written. Let me see it. Well, this was like on a Thursday or so and she said she’d give it to them on Monday. We had nothing written, you know. So we holed in—we hired a couple of rooms at the Garden of Allah and got plenty of benzedrine and scotch, and . . . we holed in there with a couple of secretaries, and Katherine Hepburn would come all the time, my brother would come, and so on, and by Monday we had the 75—we had even more than that. She took the screenplay into the studio and the deal was made.”8 That is—still without a written ending. While the writers worked on that issue, Hepburn assembled the rest of the team by securing the director and co-star—the latter of whom ended up truly immortalizing the film.

Opposites Attract

Enter Spencer Tracy. The forty-one-year-old two-time Academy Award winner was one of MGM’s most prized stars, and one of the more respected actors of his generation. He made Oscar history by winning the lead actor award back-to-back in 1938 and 1939. Hepburn had been a big fan for a while: “I knew he was a brilliant actor. And he represented just the sort of American male of that era. That’s why I was anxious to have him do it.”9 She had even tried to get him and Clark Gable for the male leads in The Philadelphia Story, but they were already busy with other films. This time, however, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Victor Flemming and Spencer Tracy on the set of "Captains Courageous"
Victor Flemming and Spencer Tracy on the set of “Captains Courageous”

While she and the writers worked on developing the script, Tracy was down in Florida shooting The Yearling, based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawling, the bestselling book of 1938. Victor Fleming was directing. He and Tracy were old friends, and he had guided Tracy to his first Oscar on Captains Courageous. Fleming was reliable—MGM pulled him from The Wizard of Oz to help save the troubled Gone with the Wind—but even he couldn’t save The Yearling. Bugs and heat made the location shooting unbearable; Tracy was miscast in his role; and delays kept pushing the project back until it was suddenly summer, unsuitable for a story set in the spring. They pulled the plug after spending $500,000 on it—later, in 1946, MGM finally shot the film with a completely different team.

With Tracy free of The Yearling and without a new project, Hepburn’s timing was perfect. The two had never met, but soon bumped into each other on the MGM lot. As Hepburn recalled, their first interaction wasn’t as charming as those on-screen.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on the set of "Woman of the Year"
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on the set of “Woman of the Year”

“I said ‘How do you do,’ and, uh, I had on very high heels, I was about 5′ 7″ and a half then, I’ve been shrinking steadily, I doubt if I’d hit 5′ 5″ now. Spencer was about 5′ 10″, and there was a silence, and I couldn’t think of anything to say so I said ‘Sorry I’ve got these high heels on, but when we do the movie I’ll be careful about what I wear.’ And he just looked at me with those old lion eyes of his and, um, [producer Joseph Mankiewicz] looked at me and said ‘Don’t worry Kate, he’ll cut you down to his size.’ [Laughs] I didn’t know what to say, I just stood there like a goof.”10

Supposedly, Tracy was not impressed, as she later discovered. “I don’t think Spencer had any idea who I was. I don’t think he was that much of a movie fan.”11 He complained to Mankiewicz, “How can I do a picture with a woman who has dirt under her fingernails and who is of ambiguous sexuality and always wears pants?”12 Little did Tracy know that when Hepburn cast him, he wouldn’t simply appear as her leading man—after the film, the two began an affair that would last for the rest of Tracy’s life, and an on-screen partnership that continued through nine different films.

With Tracy onboard, Hepburn’s next task was picking a director. “My great buddy George Cukor had to be offered things first, but he didn’t know a baseball game from a swimming match, so I thought this picture had to be directed by a very male man, and that’s George Stevens.”13 Hepburn’s stereotyping would come back to bite her in the end, but initially Stevens seemed like an excellent choice.

George Stevens in 1942
George Stevens in 1942

“Kate called on me and gave me this script to read,” Stevens said. “I said, ‘Kate, this is the only time in my life that I’ve read a motion picture script that I think is ready to go.’ [Hepburn said] ‘Well, why don’t we make it?’ I said, ‘What about the last part?’ She said, ‘Well, the boys are working on it.’ And it didn’t seem very difficult to finish it. I said, ‘That’s a good idea. Bring it over to Columbia and we’ll make it.’ She said, ‘I can’t.’ I said ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I promised it to Louis B. Mayer. I thought you’d leave here and make a deal at Metro.’ I said, ‘Things are so pleasant for me I really shouldn’t do it.’ So I don’t know what happened, but I agreed to go to Metro to make the picture. And we hadn’t had the last act written.”14

Both Kanin brothers and Lardner continued to struggle with the ending; finally, it was none of the three writers, but rather Hepburn, who pitched an idea that worked. Shooting began August 27, and it quickly became clear that the two stars were a perfect match—on film at least. Mankiewicz testified that their opposing styles of acting brought them to a midpoint, with Hepburn becoming softer and Tracy becoming more energized. But they were still opposites when it came to approach. As Hepburn explained, “We never rehearsed together. He hated to do more than one take. I never cared how many takes I did. That was curious. But Spencer’s peak concentration was the first take. And it was usually the best.”

Hepburn worked intensely with her directors, debating their every decision to make sure each was the right choice. On the other hand, Tracy went in knowing exactly what he was doing without much mind to change it, despite what a director might want. And yet, they were perfect together—maybe the ultimate example of opposites attracting. On October 25, they wrapped, and it seemed like the film would turn out well. Then, on November 14, the first preview screening was held, and the audience enjoyed the film—that is, until its ending.

“She had to get her comeuppance”

According to Hepburn, “The minute my end came up in the preview, the interest dropped dead. So Mayer came to me and said, ‘It was a wonderful preview.’ And I said ‘Mr. Mayer, it was a great preview up to such and such, and then, at the end, which I’m totally responsible for, [it] laid an egg.’ And he said, ‘How much to fix it?’ And I said ‘About two hundred thousand dollars.’ And he said ‘Go ahead.’ So I rushed back, and everyone was, you know, suggesting ends, ends, ends.”15

For whatever reason, audiences rejected Hepburn’s original ending. She was able to get the money from Mayer to come up with a new ending, a solution that ultimately backfired on her. Lardner recalled how “Mayer and Joe Mankiewicz who was the producer and George Stevens the director [felt] that she had to get her comeuppance, for trying to be too strong in a man’s world, and so they wrote a scene in which she was trying to fix breakfast for Tracy and doesn’t even know how to operate in a kitchen and gets everything wrong. And it was just kind of a silly scene, and Kate didn’t like it at all, neither did we, but we were powerless, and uh, so it was the ending that… they had shot our ending, and it seemed to work, but that was just chopped and this one put on.”16

Stevens, who early in his career worked as a gag man for the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, seems to have come up with the idea for the final ending, assigning John Lee Mahin to write it while the original writers were away. Stevens reasoned, “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. Audiences 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.”17

Tracy was already shooting his next project, the John Steinbeck adaptation Tortilla Flat, and had to be pulled off of it for eleven days to come do the reshoots. “We came back before they shot it and were allowed to make a few changes,” Lardner said. “Some of the worse lines we rewrote, but we couldn’t fix… couldn’t change it fundamentally.”18 Mankiewicz reasoned, “the average housewife was going to look up at this beautiful, accomplished goddess up there on the screen […] and, well, hate her guts. Now women could turn to their […] husbands and say, ‘she may know the president, but she can’t even make a cup of coffee, you silly bastard!’”19

Hepburn was less pleased with the ending; she called it “the worst bunch of shit I’ve ever read.”20 But it seems her power only went so far—MGM tested the new ending mid-December, and audiences loved it, so that was that. On February 5, 1942, the film opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to huge business and plenty of rave reviews.

“Properly Subdued”

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Woman of the Year"
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in “Woman of the Year”

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “triumphant,” and was a fan of the ending in particular. “[Miss Hepburn’s] best scene is the one in which she tries to make breakfast in a terrifying modern kitchen, all thumbs and confusion.”21 Variety was far more critical, writing that “Lardner and Kanin had an amusing starting point—a sports writer and a young and beautiful counterpart of Dorothy Thompson spatting, then falling in love and marrying—but wend it torturously through every hackneyed and expected plot device without a surprise at any turn.”22

Regardless of positive or negative impressions of the movie as a whole, everyone agreed that the two were great together. Even James Agee, no fan of Hepburn, wrote in The Nation that “for once, strident Katharine Hepburn is properly subdued.”23 Ultimately, no one would remember the film nosediving in its last act—they would simply remember the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn, and how it started a collaboration lasting over two decades. Even those bothered by the turn the film takes in the last act can admit that it’s a total delight to see the clearly genuine sparks fly between the two stars—it’s the kind of screen chemistry you rarely see, especially today.

The picture was a hit, one of MGM’s highest grossing films of the year; despite all the issues with the ending, Kanin and Lardner went from virtual unknowns to winning best original screenplay at the Oscars (Hepburn received a nomination for best actress as well). Unfortunately, years later both were blacklisted—it figures that two writers who dared to work outside the regular confines of the studio system would eventually be deemed “too radical.” And although Hepburn found her feminist message neutered here, some later films with Tracy and her more trusted collaborator George Cukor, such as Adam’s Rib, let her further the boundary-pushing she achieved with Woman of the Year.

Where to Watch

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

Buy it on DVD

For More on Woman of the Year

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Read our review of the film

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. “WAKE UP! Hollywood Producers,” Hollywood Reporter, May 3 1938, 3.
2. Mark H. Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger,” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 14, no. 1 (1994): 127-44.
3. William Mann, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006), 307.
4. Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn : An Intimate Memoir (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 80.
5, 8. Michael Kanin, interview by the Writers Guild Oral History Project, 1979, transcript, Writers Guild Foundation, Los Angeles, CA.
6, 10. Katharine Hepburn: All About Me, directed by David Heeley (1993, Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2005), DVD.
7, 16, 18. Ring Lardner Jr., interviewed by Michael Rosen, Archive of American Television, YouTube, July 1, 1999.
9. James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2011), 433
11. Curtis 2011, 434
12. Mann 2006, 314.
13, 14. Curtis 2011, 433
15. Curtis 2011, 442
17. Curtis 2011, 443
19. Marilyn Ann Moss, Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 82
20. Mary Anne Melear, “Woman of the Year,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed Dec. 24, 2016, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/31487%7C0/Woman-of-the-Year.html
21. Bosley Crowther, review of Woman of the Year, MGM, The New York Times, February 6, 1942, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F03E5DA153BE33BBC4E53DFB4668389659EDE
22. Herb, review of Woman of the Year, MGM, Variety, January 14, 1942, film reviews section.
23. “The Critic’s Corner: Woman of the Year,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed January 14, 2016, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/191525%7C191529/Critics-Corner-Woman-of-the-Year.html