Criterion’s “Woman of the Year” finally gets the Blu-ray treatment!
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Spencer Tracy plays sports columnist Sam Craig and Katharine Hepburn the smart political writer Tess Harding, who wears an oversized hat at her first New York Yankee's game. Their back and forth exchange is right up there with the "Who's on First" comedy routine from Abbott and Costello.
"WOMAN OF THE YEAR: THE CRITERION COLLECTION"
Blu-ray, DVD, 1942, Not Rated
Best extra: "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" by his son, George Jr.
IT'S BEEN a long time coming.
Originally released 17 years ago on DVD, "Woman of the Year," starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, was lost on the 'Got to Have' Blu-ray list. It was the first of their nine films together and many consider it their best. So, when word came that the Criterion Collection was releasing "Woman of the Year," we expected the BEST!
And, boy, did they deliver!
Hepburn was the driving force behind the romantic comedy. Director George Stevens ("Shane," "A Place in the Sun") talks about the production during a 1967 audio interview in the bonus features. "Kate was the Sam Goldwyn for the picture; she got it going and put people to work," he says.
Hepburn had optioned the film rights to "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), in which she starred on Broadway after her Hollywood career sputtered. Headlining with Cary Grant and James Stewart, its box office success led to her to develop "Woman of the Year" for the same studio (MGM), with friend Garson Kanin. It's the story of two stubborn newspaper writers working for the same New York City daily, who, surprisingly, fall in love. Kanin pitched the concept to screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. Time Magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek writes in her enclosed essay, "They clash in print about something; meet, clash in person; both wrong, both right – not bad!"
Tracy plays sports columnist Sam Craig and Hepburn the smart political writer Tess Harding, based on journalist Dorothy Thompson, at the time considered the second most influential woman in America alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. The script bounced from Kanin, who had been drafted into the Army before Pearl Harbor, to his older brother Michael, who collaborated with Lardner.
Hepburn sold Louis B. Mayer on it and credited Joseph Mankiewicz as producer. Then she targeted Stevens, a friend and former lover, for director. Tracy was next, but their first encounter didn't go well. Meeting up in the MGM cafeteria, Mankiewicz gave Tracy the hard-sell, while Hepburn waited, nervous and alone. Tracy's first impressions were not kind. He didn't like women who wore pants and Hepburn was wearing her traditional trouser suit. He also thought her fingernails were dirty, Zacharek reports.
In time, the two got past their differences much like their onscreen characters. It soon became obvious they had become friendly both on and off the set. Tracy and Hepburn would continue to be one of Hollywood's hottest couples for more than 25 years. Tracy, a devout Catholic, refused to divorce his wife. An alcoholic womanizer, Tracy once hit Hepburn, while she was trying to put him to bed after a bad night. When asked why she didn't leave him, Hepburn replied in her autobiography, "What would be the point? I mean, I loved him. And I wanted to be with him. If I had left, we would both have been miserable."
Characters Sam and Tess are first introduced when the editor of the newspaper calls both into his office to cool off. The battle began when Tess made an insulting comment about baseball during a radio interview, leading Sam to retaliate in print. When Sam arrives in their editor's office, he sees Tess adjusting her stockings revealing her long legs. It acts as "a trip wire," and his interest is sparked, Zacharek writes.
As a peace offering, Sam invites Tess to a New York Yankee's game. It's a perfect setup in the Oscar-winning screenplay. He tries to explain baseball to Tess, who has no interest in sports. She's wearing a beautiful, wide-brimmed hat, blocking the view of the guy seated behind her. Their back and forth exchange is right up there with the "Who's on First" comedy routine from Abbott and Costello.
Another classic scene shows Tess inviting Sam up to her Manhattan penthouse for a night cap after night of carousing. Stevens purposely lit the scene dimly, and used a tightly framed silhouette of faces and bodies to heighten sexual tension. In a short interview, George Stevens Jr. says cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg was unsure about the lighting since Mayer liked his movies lit so the audience could see his stars. George Jr. recalls his father's response: "You can blame it all on me."
The disc is loaded with bonus features beyond the interviews with the director and his son. There's an interview with Stevens' biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, who compares him to the great Walt Whitman. An overview of his career covers the early years working with the comedy team Laurel and Hardy to his powerful, post-World War II films, "A Place in the Sun," "Shane" and "The Diary of Anne Frank."
"Katherine Hepburn: Woman of the Century" is an interview with writer Claudia Roth Pierpont. Pierpont examines Hepburn's career, calling her the kind of actress "who won't disguise herself and disappear into a role. You always knew exactly who she is." Hepburn had a unique look. "I'm angular. I have angular face, body and mind," the actress once said. She presented a very strong, feminist point of view on screen for decades.
Two documentaries have been ported over from DVD box sets. "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" (1985), directed and narrated by George Jr., runs nearly two hours and is sourced from 16mm stock in high-def. It covers Stevens' complete career from the silent era to talkies, documentaries made during World War II, and his post-war career. There are interviews from Hepburn; with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who starred in "Swing Time" (1936); directors Frank Capra, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann and Alan J. Pakula; Cary Grant, who starred in adventure film "Gunga Din" (1939); Warren Beatty in Stevens' last film, "The Only Game in Town" (1970); Millie Perkins, who played the lead in Stevens' adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959); Joel McCrea of romantic comedy, "The More the Merrier" (1943), and dozens more.
A second documentary, "The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn" (1986), is sourced from the original standard-def video tape which aired on PBS and Hepburn hosts. It has movie clips from his greatest performances including his back-to-back Oscar wins, "Captains Courageous" (1937) and "Boys Town" (1938); home movies; rare personal photos; readings from his diary, and recaps his drinking problems. Hepburn recalls their first encounter. There are several dozen interviews: Elizabeth Taylor, who played his daughter in "Father of the Bride" (1950); Stanley Kramer who directed Tracy in "Inherit the Wind" (1960), "Judgment in Nuremberg" (1961), "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967); and John Sturges, who directed "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955) and "The Old Man and the Sea" (1958).
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, "Woman of the Year" was scanned and restored in 2K from a second-generation 35mm fine-grain master-positive struck from the original camera negative, which is no longer available. Only a few stray vertical lines pop up here and there. Overall, it's clean without any noticeable marks or defects. Film grain is natural and intact with well-balanced gray-scale from highlights to shadows.
The original mono soundtrack has been remastered removing pops, hiss, hum and crackles for a front-and-center listening experience.
We can only hope Stevens' Oscar winner, "A Place in the Sun" (1951), gets the same fine treatment – and soon – from The Criterion Collection.
― Bill Kelley III, High-def Watch producer