At Long Last Love

Woman of the Year - 1942
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. & Michael Kanin
Directed by George Stevens

Now, me, I never had much use for prissy, unimaginative women. I've always been more of a Lois Lane/Princess Leia/Veronica Mars kind of man. Naturally that put Katharine Hepburn on my radar, but this is the one where she sinks my battleship. Hepburn's character, Tess Harding may well be the ultimate refinement of that archetype. She's a smart, classy, fast-talkin', wise-crackin', tough-as-nails yet warm-hearted newspaper reporter -- because aren't all the best ones? I had assumed that Tess was the proto-Lois, but a little background research sounds like they both owe a debt to the Torchy Blane series from the 30s, and the entire river seems to flow back to Nellie Bly (who, herself, is legitimately fascinating). Regardless, it wasn't long before I was completely in love with Tess. Which works out well, because Spencer Tracy's character, Sam falls just as hard.

As writers for the same newspaper, on very different beats, they begin at loggerheads. Sam is something of an uncomplicated hump, a sports reporter who is completely at home in his world, with very little interest in shaking anything up -- the everyman. Tess is dynamic, almost a caricature of an FDR Liberal but not derisively so. She falls somewhere on the activity scale between "activist" and "activities freak" with a finger on the pulse of every issue of the era. A flip remark in an interview leads to a war of words in the press as the two debate the merits of baseball. This culminates in an educational field trip to a Yankee game (and an hilarious bit of schtick with a large hat). Naturally, Tess falls in love with baseball, and Sam falls in love with Tess.

Their romance is problematic. Though they both recognize early on that they are headed for Big Love, Sam is often frustrated. He just wants to be with Tess, but Tess lives at the center of a tornado of activities, demands, causes and hangers-on (later abbreviated into her disapproving personal secretary played by Reginald Owen). After a few confusing and/or disappointing get-togethers, Sam (with the encouragement of her uncle) decides to cut-out the time-wasting period of acquaintance and cut straight to the matrimony.

It's not long, however, before the go-go lifestyle of the modern woman gets in the way of wedded bliss. Their honeymoon is crashed by a political refugee and his supporters -- a fire upon which Sam throws more fuel by inviting his buddies from the bar, after having just told them not to expect him. Once Sam explains to an old girlfriend that they JUST got married, word of mouth spreads and both groups excuse themselves with wide-eyed knowing looks. This highlights one of Tess' main flaws; she's just a girl that cain't say no, even if "no" would be a perfectly acceptable answer.

The demands on Tess continue to ratchet up. She's more and more engaged in the cause of Italian refugees, and Sam feels more and more sidelined. This highlights Sam's main flaw; he's a bit of a baby. This part of the story feels very much like The Love Parade (Lubitsch; Chevalier/MacDonald, 1929), with the mas masculino male feeling/acting like a pouty little boy because his strong wife is gettin' it done. I appreciate that this is a very realistic reaction for a lot of men in their times (and sadly, ours), but I have little-to-no respect for that. Fortunately, Sam manages it a little better than Count Renard. Tess, less fortunately, handles it fairly poorly.

What Sam takes to be a discussion of having children turns out to be the very sudden introduction of their new son, an Italian refugee Tess could not refuse. She tells Sam and herself that she believes the child is what their marriage needs to hold them together, but it has far more to do with her own weakness. She can't say no. She tends to want to solve every problem on her own rather than engage Sam on a vulnerable level. Tess herself seems to have come from a fairly WASP-y, Ivy League family where children were often left to the care of household staff, thus assumes that she will be able to do the same after no consultation with her spouse. Granted, the little boy is also one adorable bambino.

Farm-raised Sam has a problem with this, and it will eventually be the element that drives them apart. It was one thing to neglect him -- he's a man, and though hurt, he can take it -- but to throw a child into that world just isn't fair or right. This was my least favorite wrinkle in the movie, because even while scolding Tess, the filmmakers themselves were fairly callous about the way they used the child as a plot device to come and go as needed.

I suppose most of the things that I find somewhat bothersome (mostly in retrospect) can be explained by historical context. In the end, Tess tries -- and fails disastrously -- to become the "perfect wife" that she thinks Sam wants. Of course, if that's what he'd wanted, he never would have married Tess, and finally says so.

Then he immediately treats her as an invalid, because how else is an already-married couple going to round out a 40s romantic comedy other than "expecting?"

The thing I loved about the film -- indeed the predominant thing TO love -- is Hepburn's embodiment of Tess. Tracy stands back and lets her light up every scene with her fire. There's lots of great verbal, physical and situational humor here, but it would all matter far less without her seductive energy.

AFTERWORD: I must admit that, while familiar, George Stevens wasn't a household name for me. It is now. Stevens, if you're equally as unaware as I was, directed Gunga Din, Swing Time, Shane, Giant and The Greatest Story Ever Told (you know, because he was humble) among others in his 30+ year career in feature films. Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the Hollywood Ten; writers and directors who defied the HUAC on the basis of the First Amendment, and thus he was jailed and blacklisted. Much of his work remains officially uncredited, including Laura and episodes of the 50s Robin Hood TV series, but his greatest triumph (and vindication) would have to be the screenplay for M*A*S*H as well as uncredited contributions to the TV series. He won Oscars for both Woman of the Year and M*A*S*H, and is rumored to have won another one using a borrowed name.

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