Woman of the Year

by Bob Stepno

Tracy and Hepburn

Film poster, from Wikipedia

Woman of the Year (1942) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was adapted for radio by the CBS series Screen Guild Theater in 1943, with the movie’s original stars.

On film or on radio, this is one of the best “battle of the sexes” newspaper stories.

She is a brilliant young radio commentator, a serious political columnist, and a remarkably Hepburn-like feminist — as he puts it, “a career woman who placed her career above everything else…”

He is a sportswriter for the same paper, an old-fashioned newsman, a male chauvinist, but a sucker for a combination of beauty and brains.

As a radio quiz show contestant, Tess Harding proves an expert on history, politics and international law — but an out-of-left-field question gets her to propose abolishing baseball for the duration of the war.

Sam Craig, who writes a “Man About Sports” column, takes offense. He calls Tess “the Calamity Jane of the fast international set” when it comes to baseball — setting off a duel of columns in their newspaper. She calls him “an ostrich with amnesia.” In the radio version, the actors deliver their lines over rapidly clacking typewriters.

Of course their editor intervenes, calling for an end to “intramural scraps,” and they begin to get to know each other…

Sam takes Tess to a ballgame and starts to win her heart — after she gets in a zinger comparing the newspaper’s coverage of the World Series in baseball with the news staff covering Vichy. He has a quick response: “Are they still in the league?”

(Some 21st century students may need coaching to appreciate the double joke, but a deconstruction-minded communication science student with a good 1941-1943 history book chapter on American attitudes toward the occupied-France government might get a thesis out of the two-sentence exchange.)
While she’s whiz at world affairs and politics, Tess doesn’t know an out from a run or a strike from an out, but — like any good reporter — she is willing to learn. (“Which one is the pitcher?” “He’s the fellow in the middle.”)

A journalism or media studies class could mine the story for discussions of all sorts of issues: serious news versus entertainment and sports, or journalists as celebrities, or the role of “experts” versus “average person” reporters, or themes of anti-intellectualism in American media — as well as the obvious “a woman’s place” sexism, or the World War II period’s “while the boys are away” support for women in nontraditional roles.

Perhaps the main journalism message has to do with the risk of losing touch with that Hollywood favorite, “the people.” As a foreign affairs columnist (and daughter of a diplomat), Tess isn’t much of a populist until Sam comes along and takes her to a ball game. And perhaps she (and the child she insists in adopting) affect Sam’s single-minded focus on sports, making him aware of more important things in the world. In 1942, there is, after all, a war on.

(I’ll fill in more of the plot here after I watch the movie again and listen to the radioplay a few more times. Don’t let my delay stop you from enjoying either one…)

One last journalism connection: Much later in the story, Tess offers to quit her job to keep the couple together, and Sam sets her straight — with a newspaper metaphor: “…cook and sew and order the groceries? You’re off your beat. It wouldn’t work.”

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