Wednesday, March 15, 2017

WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Blu-ray (MGM 1942) Criterion Collection

Hollywood's bygone dream merchants were savvy businessmen to be sure. But they were also blessed with an inborn creativity, essential for recognizing the next ‘big thing’ in an industry that today, tragically, is almost entirely hell-bent on producing pre-processed cookie-cutter carbon copies of better talent seen elsewhere.  One of the most enduring ghost flowers from that mythical ‘golden age’ is the creation of magnificent ‘screen teams’; perfect pairs of thoroughly gifted actors apart that, together, became icons of our shared movie-going experience and boffo box office besides. Audiences looked forward to seeing these familiar faces doing familiar things, but always in new and interesting stories. Over the years there have been many such alliances; Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Gable and Lana Turner, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and, of course, who can forget Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney? But if you had to pick just one screen team to exemplify the template, I have a sneaking suspicion the vote would be unanimously cast for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
By the time they made their debut together in George Stevens’ razor-sharp kitchen comedy, Woman of the Year (1942), each had already become something of a household name, working steadily - if unevenly - in the movie biz for more than ten years. Their respective bodies of work apart made them easily identifiable. So it might appear, at least in hindsight, as though their coming together was inevitable. Both had box office cache, although Tracy's was more secure than Hepburn’s in 1942. If, apart, they held their own (and, they did!), then jointly they were nothing less than dynamite; the quintessence of a sort of congenially caustic martial perfection, witnessed at the height of the unassuming ‘family comedy’ in 9 movies made between 1942 and 1967, the year of Tracy's untimely passing. The truth, of course, was far removed from this idyllic on-screen portrait. Tracy, a devote Catholic, was already married to Louise with two children of his own, while Hepburn, a divorcee, had since managed a string of highly publicized affairs – including one with Howard Hughes - that, like her movie career, had seen more downs than ups.
Professionally, it seemed to be all over for Hepburn by 1938 when, after a string of flops at RKO, Variety branded her ‘box office poison’; a moniker that forced her into a momentary retreat from the movies; resurfacing in the surefire smash on Broadway for playwright, Philip Barry; The Philadelphia Story. Years later, asked to qualify the reason for her meteoric tumble from grace at the box office (indeed, she had run off the rails after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1934’s Morning Glory and, for a brief wrinkle, having been considered a contender for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, with other memorable parts peppered throughout her RKO tenure, including A Bill of Divorcement 1932, Little Women 1933, Alice Adams 1935, and the now legendary screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby 1938), Hepburn was quick to reply – “Dull pictures!” Yet perhaps Hepburn had been her own worst enemy; that indomitable New England spirit, married to those impossibly un-sexy (at least by Hollywood’s standards) angular features, a rather awkward drawl and raspy voice, and that astutely forthright sense of self, impossible to mask (not that Hepburn ever even tried), even behind the overblown accoutrements of glamorous Hollywood-ized femininity.
Again, years later and this time, rather infamously Hepburn, when idiotically pressed by Barbara Walters to apologize for preferring pants to skirts instead crisply replied, “I have one, Miss Walters…I’ll wear it to your funeral” Hepburn, resetting the tone in her favor for being a no-nonsense gal with both guts and brains, still flying generously in the face of midtown prudery and big city degradation.  Put bluntly, Hepburn took crap from nobody. There is another fascinating story about Kate Hepburn that bears mentioning; her initial ‘cute meet’ in life with Spencer Tracy, exiting the commissary at MGM with Joseph Mankiewicz and awkwardly acknowledging their difference in height, to which Mankiewicz rather nonchalantly replied, “Don’t worry about it, Kate. He’ll cut you down to his size!”  The grand amour that followed in life from their on-screen antics appeared, at least to the public, to be genuine. And Kate, while never considering marriage or children ahead of her career, was, for all intent and purposes, to become the main staple in Tracy’s mid to later years; his rock as well as his lover; easing him away from his periodic alcoholic binges that had interrupted his life and career during those formative years in Hollywood. When Tracy died, it was at the home he shared with Hepburn. 
And yet, for all her love and affection for him, or perhaps because of it, Hepburn was to abstain from attending Spence’s funeral at which Tracy’s wife and family were present. “He was a difficult man to know,” Hepburn would later reflect, “He certainly didn’t want to talk about his problems.” To this end, Hepburn remain incredulously silent, agreeing to read out loud, the letter she had composed to her beloved almost eighteen years after his death, still teeming with admiration, bewilderment and wounded affection for this man she had shared so much in life, yet still felt so isolated from in the end, “Why the escape hatch…always open…the getaway from the remarkable you? What was it, Spence’? I meant to ask you. Did you even know what it was? What…what did you say? I can’t hear you.”
Woman of the Year finds Tracy and Hepburn at the beginning of their unusual, and, not always ‘happily ever after’ affair to remember – both, on the screen and in life; Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin’s screenplay (with an assist from John Lee Mahin) an escalation and, in some ways, total departure from the oft bastardized, and even more rarely sublime rom/com, delving into virtually every commitment and counterproductive strife the promise of love can bring. Woman of the Year is a picture that typifies, I think, the sort of tradition Hollywood peddled in throughout the thirties and forties; clear-eyed and frankly funny, gingerly exploring human foibles, or rather, the juncture where aged prejudices and well-cured, though perhaps still youthful, optimisms collide. Hence, it remains a radiant exemplar of the ageless comedy; peerless in the hallmarks of its studio-bound eclecticism; earthy and genuine, thanks mostly to Kate and Spence’s wonderful sparring; the sparks really flying between them. Neither manufactured nor over-embellished in its precepts and timber, Woman of the Year excels at drawing an immediate parallel between its fictional characters - political columnist (and woman of many 'un-womanly' virtues) Tess Harding and brass tacks sports writer, Sam Craig - and exactly the sort of affair de coeur Tracy and Hepburn would chart for themselves after the cameras stopped rolling. He finds her mildly irritating and somewhat pretentious; she chooses to see his ‘salt of the earth’ as charming…well…sort of.  
The picture begins inside the New York Chronicle, a fictional news outlet that employs both Tess and Sam. Socially speaking, they are polar opposites; Tess, who is educated, speaks several languages fluently and is well-travelled, is a true renaissance gal, navigating the rough seas of world politics; a female progressive long before the notion was either main stream, much less fashionable. By contrast, Sam is a no-nonsense sports writer who prefers the vibrant, bullying company of the lowbrow to Tess’s more chichi, pinkies-up hoi poloi, whom he increasingly finds intolerably showy, particularly Tess’ social secretary, the too-too officious and rather effete, Gerald Howe (Dan Tobin). The Lardner/Kanin screenplay presents the challenges facing Tess and Sam from a multitude of perspectives, stemming from their disparities in class, gender-biases and finally, emotional needs. Tess is amused by Sam and sees him as a ‘work in progress’; someone she can shape into her own image of the ideal suitor and keep, merely as another appendage added to her already cluttered lifestyle. In comparison, he initially sees her as someone who could use a good dressing down, put in her place, or rather, the ‘place’ where all womanly women ought to remain…yep, in the arms of their guy and, of course, in the kitchen…the one area of expertise where dear ole Tess is decidedly not the expert. 
Tess and Sam’s confrontationally charming ‘cute meet’ arises because of a feud in their respective columns over baseball, Tess suggesting the sport should be abolished for the duration of the war; a casual faux pas first expressed during a radio interview overheard by Sam at his local watering hole managed by Pinkie Peters (William Bendix). In response, Sam pens a column that blatantly suggests Tess is so self-absorbed in her pontifications, telling the American people what they should be doing that she has forgotten what it is like to have a meaningful conversation with anyone outside of her own isolated clique. Well aware of their built-up animosity, the Chronicle’s editor, Clayton (Reginald Owen) attempts a reconciliation. He will brook no nonsense amongst his staff. Both Sam and Tess are absorbed by this turn of events; also, almost immediately attracted to one another. To set Tess straight, Sam invites her to a baseball game where she inadvertently rewrites the unspoken ‘men only’ rule of the press box. Mildly confused and wholly unfamiliar with the finer points of the game, Tess nevertheless smartly picks up both its lingo and rules in a single afternoon, enjoying herself immensely and gaining the respect of the fellas, who initially had looked upon her as an interloper. Sam is impressed. Moreover, he has begun to think a smart woman might be exactly what he needs in his life.
All evidence to the contrary when Tess extends the proverbial olive branch in the other direction, inviting Sam to her fashionable apartment for dinner. He mistakenly believes this to be the beginnings of a ‘hot date’ when in reality Tess has brought Sam to meet a gaggle of her more socially affluent and upwardly mobile friends, come for a ‘meet and greet’ after one of her nightly broadcasts. The dinner party proves a disaster for Sam who can never seem to fit into this milieu. Unable to converse in any language other than English, Sam finds his lack of social graces and other shortcomings increasingly awkward; the proverbial goldfish dropped into the Sahara as it were, and quite unable to make inroads. The next afternoon, Sam finds a bottle of wine on his desk; an apology from Tess. Charmed by the gesture, he attempts to engage her in her office; momentarily dissuaded by Gerald into ‘waiting his turn’ while Tess irons out the details of a planned political détente with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar in Havana. Again, Sam tries to play the amiable suitor; again, he is sideswiped by Tess’ more prescient slate of passion projects. She suggests a late afternoon get-together after her speech on women’s rights at Riverside Hall, settling their differences during a quick cab ride to the airport as she prepares for another trip to Washington. Inadvertently, Sam stumbles into the midst of her all-female lecture; the all-woman panel and audience tickled by the sudden appearance of a man, decidedly out of his element and forced to take his awkward seat next to the greatest progressive among them; Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter, sadly forgotten today), who also happens to be Tess’ aunt.
Time has obscured the origins of this character, but Ellen Whitcomb might just as easily been the on-camera surrogate for Hepburn’s own mother, Martha Houghton Hepburn who took up the cause of women’s suffrage as a social reformer long before either feminism was in vogue or actually could be classified as ‘a movement’. And Bainter’s portrait of Ellen is both plainspoken and clear-eyed, perhaps ever so gingerly hinting that no woman can have it all, while any who dare try are similarly doomed to loneliness or sacrifices made to keep up the illusion of absolute success in both a public and private life. Yet, one of the curious oversights in traditional feminism is the myth that men throughout history have somehow occupied an enviable possession of ‘having it all’ while women were merely expected to fill in the gaps their counterparts had neither the time nor inclination to master. While it is nevertheless true certain opportunities for men were more readily available to men than for women before the dawn of the 20th century, so were the grave responsibilities, insurmountable challenges and level of societal expectation for them to be self-sustaining simply because they were men; masculinity hard won, rather than a right automatically ascribed on the basis of sex alone.
At first intimidated by Ellen, Sam soon discovers he has absolutely nothing to fear. Ellen is a candid woman, but she has also seen enough of life to know a real woman’s place in it is where she can find her own happiness and not necessarily shake up the status quo, merely to prove her points. Sam and Ellen hit it off. Fundamentally, they are two very genuine and sincerely lonely people. Moreover, Ellen possesses a real woman’s heart; something Tess has momentarily set aside. Only having met him, Ellen nevertheless confides in Sam a few family stories to better help him digest the reasons why Tess is so driven to succeed; how Ellen ventured to China where Tess was born after her own mother died; a maiden aunt, left to rear a child while Tess’ diplomat father, Senator Harding (Minor Watson) took care of the business of business. Sam tells Ellen he enjoys his work, writing about people most other people would consider as ‘unimportant’, referring to himself as the most inconsequential of them all. But Ellen sees Sam more clearly as a great man for the common man; moreover, perhaps exactly the tonic her niece needs to realize being a woman of the world is not all it is cracked up to be. Henceforth, Woman of the Year moves into the first ever Tracy/Hepburn love scene; unconventional as the actors portraying it because it seeks to investigate the core of a not-so-obvious mutual admiration about to boil over into an epic love story. Taking advantage of Tess’ mild inebriation after a few drinks shared at Pinkie’s bar, Sam confides his love for her in the back of a taxi. “You mean you love me even when I’m sober?” she astutely inquires, to which he even more generously admits, “…even when you’re brilliant.”
In short order, Sam and Tess are married by a Justice of the Peace; Senator Harding almost missing the ceremony because of his meeting with the President. “Since when is the President more important than I am?” Tess half-jokingly/half-seriously inquires. “Since 1789!” her father replies. Sen. Harding is most openhanded in welcoming Sam into the family. But only a few moments after the ceremony, Tess is called away by a quick byline concerning a Yugoslav diplomat, Dr. Lubbeck (Ludwig Stossel) whose whereabouts have been unknown since a political coup in the Balkans. On the home front, it takes Tess’ maid, Alma (Edith Evanson) a little time to adjust to referring to her employer as Mrs. Craig. Alma suggests Sam take up residence in the spare bedroom. Tess, however, plans for a grand seduction just as soon as Alma has gone home for the night; quickly changing into her silken nightgown and sprawling across her bed in wait for Sam’s return. Instead, Alma sneaks in Dr. Lubbeck, who has newly arrived in America after a perilous journey and escape out of Europe. Sam is not amused. After all, he hardly expected to share his honeymoon with a European dissident.
Sam is, at first, mildly put off by Tess’ inability to fit him into her busy schedule; suggesting it is time they amalgamated their lifestyles into a singular endeavor as one couple rather than two separate people merely living together under the banner of ‘holy matrimony’. Quite frankly, Tess does not really get what Sam is after, believing their current arrangement is equitable. Thus, and increasingly, Sam begins to realize the place he occupies in his new bride’s life is relatively inconsequential to her other priorities. As time passes and Tess allows circumstances to intrude upon virtually every private aspect of their lives, Sam begins to resent Tess and the couple grows apart. While Sam’s work/home balance is firmly affixed to an understanding both fronts must be satisfied if either is to succeed, Tess misguidedly believes her total investment in work will merely be tolerated by Sam once he settles in and because of his innate love for her. Senator Harding offers Sam some very solid advice; suggesting that his own life has been filled with activity masquerading as one driven by purpose. He confides in Sam that for fifteen years he made a similar mistake. It cost him Ellen’s love; his political aspirations ahead of being happy with someone to stand by his side.
Perhaps partly to disprove Sam’s point about her lack of feminine warmth, Tess agrees to look after a Greek refugee. Through a slight misdirection, Sam believes Tess to be pregnant, and then becomes indignant she has decided to introduce ‘another man’ into their lives without his consent. Alas, the six year old boy, Chris (George Kezas), just like Sam, quickly becomes just another accessory in Tess’ life, rather than the focus of it. Unable to converse with the child in his native tongue, Sam nevertheless can empathize with Chris’ sense of abandonment, and steadily, a gentle bond forms between them. Tess has modeled herself largely on her aunt or rather the way she perceives Ellen has lived her own life less ordinary. But Tess fails to see how unhappy and alone Ellen really is; a situation rectified when Ellen and Sen. Harding finally take each other as man and wife; a decision that blows Tess’ mind. Meanwhile, Sam returns Chris to the orphanage without Tess’ knowledge; not from spite, but out of respect for the boy as well as the fact that every child needs a real mother and a real father; not two people as diametrically driven to succeed, who look upon ‘parenting’ as simply another status symbol or ‘false front’; play at being ‘the happy family’ without actually being one.
Bewildered by the marriage of her progressive aunt to her politico father, and the sudden downturn in her own crumbling marriage, Tess prepares to accept an award as ‘America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year’; still unaware Sam has already taken Chris back to the orphanage and decided also to recuse himself from the life to which he never truly belonged. Tess is wounded by this abandonment and makes a half-hearted attempt to reclaim Chris. But the child is not so easily fooled and sincerely refuses to return with Tess again. Faced with her latest photo-op - a puff piece on a day in the life of a worldly woman – Tess arrives back at the apartment to discover Sam has already cleared out his closet. Unnerved by this betrayal, Tess carries on with the interview. But her heart is set on getting Sam back. To this end, Tess decides to sneak into Sam’s rented digs in New York while he is still asleep; playing the part of the devoted domestic she believes he wants. Alas, lacking even the necessary basics to cook a simple breakfast, Tess’ entre into the culinary arts is a complete and riotous disaster; the waffle maker oozing runny pancake batter, the coffee pot, bubbling over with thick goo, the toaster incinerating its bread, and the kitchen cast into disarray. Sam awakens to this mess, utterly charmed by Tess’ desire to please him on his terms. She really does love him after all. Gerald intrudes upon their scene of domestic tranquility run amok; Sam, finally standing up to this thorn in his proverbial side by ‘launching’ Gerald out the front door when he suggests the latest political crisis is more important than Sam and Tess’ life together. The picture ends with the couple locked in a solid embrace; their appetite for one another and verve for a healthy marriage restored.
Woman of the Year is the sort of romantic comedy Hollywood wouldn’t even know how to conceive these days, much less execute with half as much erudite good humor, wit and sophistication.  For starters, it treats its adults as adults; with a frank and unvarnished attitude for the mistakes that can be made but, just as easily, rectified when ‘love’ is the answer to all other inquiries. The picture’s reflections are so vast and multifaceted, repeat viewings only ripen its overall appeal as a very astute ‘battle of the sexes’. Woman of the Year touches upon class distinction and social prejudices, the value of a woman’s contributions, both professionally and in the home, and, ultimately, provides a template and a time capsule for a way of American life that, in many ways has been irrevocably altered by the times and yet, most fundamentally of all, has not advanced all that much since 1942.  The story outline was actually developed by Garson Kanin, a close personal friend of Hepburn’s, before being sold to Joseph L. Mankiewicz at MGM for a paltry $250,000.00; half that amount going to pay for its star. Only three years earlier it looked as though Hepburn might never see the inside of a sound stage again. Now, she was decidedly in the driver’s seat; thanks to the smashing success of The Philadelphia Story; the play to which she bought and refused to relinquish the movie rights, forcing L.B. Mayer (who was hot to produce it) to take on the project on her say-so and okay. For Woman of the Year, Mayer proved even more generous, granting Hepburn script, directorial and co-star approval. She approved of George Stevens and Spencer Tracy. And thus, as Kanin was off fighting in WWII, his brother Michael, together with Ring Lardner and Hepburn herself, ironed out both the wrinkles and the details of the final polished screenplay.  
The first of their nine on-screen sparring sessions, Woman of the Year remains one of Hepburn and Tracy’s best. And yet, the ending – Tess’ fouled up entre into quaint domesticity – remains a rather weak addendum to an otherwise brilliant and introspective romantic comedy. The reason for the kerfuffle might best be summed up thus: Mayer disliked the original finale – a hunch proven when sneak prevue cards also tested negatively. Hence, he ordered Mankiewicz and Stevens to do a rewrite on the double. Kanin returned for the trims, but Hepburn was left out of the loop and nonplused by their intervention, reluctantly shooting the new ending but disavowing it as ‘silly tripe’. The original ending ought to have had Sam skip out on his duties as a sports columnist to take up French and Spanish lessons; presumably to become a more worldly figure in Tess’ life. To spare him a missed deadline, Tess skulks off to cover the boxing match and writes his column for him. When he reads it in print he is incensed, for it bears the hallmarks of an amateur. But when he learns Tess did it out of love, Sam softens and the two are reconciled.  In 2002, Ring Lardner, Jr. reasoned that “(Hepburn) had to get her comeuppance for being too strong in a man's world…some of the worst lines we rewrote, but we couldn’t really fix it – fundamentally.” Very loosely remade by MGM in 1957 as Designing Woman, costarring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, Woman of the Year is a brassy, classy comedy with heart, guts and the inimitable Tracy/Hepburn magic on full display. They certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore. Permit us to worship.
Worship is a good way to describe the exemplary PQ of Criterion’s new to Blu; with a 2K restoration performed by WB that leaves Warner’s own DVD in the dust.  Not only is the image crisp and subtly nuanced, but contrast is bang-on perfect with some extraordinary gray scale tonality and a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. Fine details pops. The extraordinary clarity truly impresses. A few vertical scratches persist, but overall this is a pristine presentation with virtually no complaints. Typical, Criterion has preserved the original 2.0 mono soundtrack as PCM. It’s flat, unremarkable and completely acceptable as a vintage track with virtually no hiss or pop. Best of all is Criterion’s extras: six minutes with George Stevens Jr. recorded exclusively for this release just this past January. We also get an archival interview with Stevens Sr. from 1967 lasting almost 20 minutes and 15 minutes with Stevens’ biographer, Marilyn Ann Moss. Another 20 minutes from journalist, Claudia Roth Pierpont, recorded in Dec. of last year, weighs in on Woman of the Year’s significance in establishing Hepburn as a feminist icon.
Vintage extras include 1984’s feature-length documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a comprehensive look at the director’s legacy with wonderful stuff from Frank Capra, John Huston, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and a host of other luminaries. Not finished yet: we get the eighty-six minute tome to Spencer Tracy - Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn. It should be pointed out that these extras have had multiple reissues on DVD, the latter, a part of the Tracy/Hepburn DVD collection released via Warner in 2007; including reflections from Stanley Kramer, Joseph Mankiewicz, Sidney Poitier, and, of course, Hepburn herself. Finally, critic, Stephanie Zacharek provides us with some eloquent liner notes; more introspection and critique and well worth the read. Bottom line: Woman of the Year is box office gold. Criterion has put together a fairly impressive package of extras ported over from various sources. You get the picture.  Woman of the Year on Blu-ray is a must have. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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