If the beginning of a movie shapes your expectation for what’s to come, then the ending of a movie serves to reframe what the movie has already shown you. Interestingly, Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first film together, had two different endings: The intended ending, which was scrapped after it tested poorly with audiences, and its replacement. This second and final ending dramatically changed the meaning of the film and how it addressed and “fixed” Hepburn’s wonderfully flawed protagonist, Tess Harding.
Tess Harding is a top-notch political affairs columnist who hosts dignitaries in her apartment, plays the piano and speaks a dozen languages. When she gets into a flame war with sports reporter Sam Craig over whether or not baseball should be canceled during the war (Tess is pro, Sam con), sparks fly. The pair rush into marriage, and it becomes immediately apparent that Tess, who has lived her whole life independently, doesn’t know how to make space in her life for a husband. Sam, on the other hand, is hopelessly out of place in Tess’s world and quite confused by the fact that a lot of what he expected to do in the marriage is already being accomplished by Tess herself.
Part of this marital disconnect comes from the fact that Tess is an independent woman who considers Sam and her marriage an afterthought. You see, Tess is Important, and it’s difficult for her to see the value in anyone or anything that isn’t Important. Because Sam is Unimportant, she doesn’t see any reason to change her life to fit their partnership. She doesn’t want to move to a new place with Sam because it would be inconvenient for her to change addresses, she ignores him on their wedding night due to the awkwardly comedic escape of a statesman from the Nazis, and she doesn’t invite his mother to their rushed wedding. For Tess, the Important will always come before the Unimportant; so Sam moves into Tess’s apartment, Sam chats with the statesman on his wedding night, and Sam lives at the edge of Tess’s life instead of within it. It doesn’t really work, but it also doesn’t break—until Tess’s thoughtlessness leads to her absolute worst action: Adopting a child refugee without consulting Sam or changing her life in any way to raise a child.
While we have seen problems in the marriage already, Tess’ neglect of the child and the child’s needs is Sam’s final straw. As Tess rushes Sam out the door so they can attend the gala where Tess will be named Woman of the Year, Sam realizes that the housekeeper is not there. Tess informs Sam that the housekeeper will be attending the gala instead of watching the child, and Sam decides to stay behind with him. Tess is frustrated about this, and when he asks her to make excuses for him, she replies, “Who would believe that you would have anything that was important enough to do?”
It’s a sharp moment, a painful moment and a clear moment. While we have seen the little problems that have come from the way that Tess dismisses the “unimportant” parts of her life, it is never quite so clear. But it isn’t just Sam that she’s dismissing. She cannot comprehend how anyone would consider staying home with their child instead of attending a gala in honor of her. At the height of this argument, Sam asks what the world would think if they learned that “the outstanding Woman of the Year isn’t a woman at all.” That line has always stuck with me as ambiguous. What does Sam mean by “woman?” Well, the meaning sort of shifts, depending on which ending we consider.
Tess is clearly the cause of most problems in Sam and Tess’s relationship, but the way that the film labels and then addresses what is wrong with her behavior differs with each ending. In the final cut of the film, Sam decides to leave Tess for good after they fight about the child and he returns the child to the orphanage. Days later, Tess finagles her way into Sam’s new apartment and promises that she is going to give everything up and become a housewife. Then she sets out to try to make breakfast. The whole enterprise devolves into poorly executed kitchen chaos gags with waffles expanding improbably and burnt toast skyrocketing into the air.
Tess is quickly overwhelmed by the noise of the kitchen gadgets and breaks down, crying for Sam to help her. He unplugs a machine and turns off a burner. Sam calmly coos that he doesn’t want Tess to give up her career, that she’s being too extreme and that he doesn’t want her to be Tess Harding or Tess Craig, but instead to be Tess Harding Craig. When Tess’ assistant interrupts to remind Tess that she needs to launch a ship, Sam assaults him with the champagne bottle, and Tess and Sam embrace. It’s an unsatisfying ending, and one bearing hints of meanness and distrust of where Tess might be coming from. Instead of addressing Tess specifically, it seems to be saying something about womanhood and how womanhood is supposed to look.
The film’s original ending, preferred by Hepburn and screenplay writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, shows Tess making a different sort of compromise. After Sam returns the child to the orphanage, he goes missing, even though he’s supposed to be covering a big fight (in fact, he’s taking a French course, so that he can fit in a little better into Tess’ world). Tess fills in for him, visiting the gym and writing Sam’s article so she can be a “good wife.” Sam responds with the same line that he doesn’t need her to be Tess Craig, but would instead prefer Tess Harding Craig.
When looking at these two endings, we’re presented with two different arguments. The re-filmed ending frames Tess as the sole problem, exploding into a commentary on what should happen to women like Tess Harding, who can’t even cook breakfast for her husband. It takes her out of her element and frames her as a failure for being unable to perform even the most mundane tasks. To be redeemed and worthy of love and marriage, Tess must be willing to fully give up her career. But perhaps even worse, Tess remains completely passive at the end of the film. She has a meltdown, and her calm, logical husband tells her what to do and how to live her life. Then Sam (masculinely) beats the personification of Tess’ career into submission. The problem of Tess’ career has been solved, by Sam, and he returns to a shocked and grateful Tess, who pulls Sam into a hug as the film ends.
Here, Tess is the sole problem. She needs to be fixed, and she needs to be fixed by her wiser, more practical and more grounded husband. She is portrayed as helpless and hopeless, needing Sam to show her the way. In the original version, Tess compromises, but that compromise doesn’t mean giving up everything that’s important to her. Actually, she is only really able to fill Sam’s role because of who she is. Instead, the compromise is about putting her own interests aside for someone else’s, for something “unimportant.” It’s selfless, but it isn’t self-immolating. Almost as importantly, in the original ending, Sam tries to compromise too, framing the solution to their marital troubles as one that must be accomplished as a pair.
Let’s go back to that line that Sam says about Tess “not being a woman at all” and how the reading of it changes with each ending. When paired with the final ending, where Tess wants to give up her job to keep her husband, the line feels like it is saying that Tess does not have the makings of a “proper” woman, that she has failed because she cannot do what women are supposed to do, and that she should change so she does fit in a little more. In other words, the movie seems to be asking: What’s the point of a woman who can write a political column but can’t make toast? (Though, to be fair to Tess, I’ve never seen a toaster as monstrous as the one she attempts to wrangle.)
When considering the film’s original ending, though, the meaning of the line shifts. Sam’s statement about Tess being a “woman” does not read as a statement about womanhood or femininity or even gender expectations, but as a statement about the humanity that Tess loses when she too heavily weighs the “important.” There is no value judgment about what Tess can do or should do “as a woman.” The film instead criticizes the harm she causes when she loses sight of what actually matters. That’s the distinction that lies in between these two endings and the stories they tell. Where one ending tells the story about two people struggling to adapt to a marriage neither fully thought through, the other tells the story about a woman who has flown too close to the sun and needs to be brought down before she is accepted. As for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year was the beginning of both a 26 year long romantic relationship and their famed on-screen partnership. They would go on to star in eight more films together, and their chemistry always remained notable due to the balanced weight of their characters’ wills, strengths and abilities.
Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art.