Released 70 years ago today (on January 19, 1942), "Woman of the Year" came to define combustible romantic chemistry, thanks to the two fiery, evenly-matched leads. It launched a partnership that lasted until Tracy's death in 1967, a quarter-century union that resulted in nine films and an extramarital affair that was Hollywood's worst kept secret.
What fans may not know is how the partnership came to be, who the real-life inspirations were for Hepburn's high-minded columnist and Tracy's earthy sportswriter, or the forgotten screen pairing of the two stars that came four years earlier. Read on for the untold story of "Woman of the Year" and its long afterlife in the realms of Broadway, TV, and magazines.
1. "Woman of the Year" was not actually Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's first on-screen pairing. That forgotten milestone occurred when they were both cartoon caricatures who were pictured together in the Silly Symphony cartoon "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" in 1938.
2. The screenwriters had Clark Gable in mind for the male lead of "Woman of the Year," but then MGM player Spencer Tracy became available. He'd been committed to a production of "The Yearling" that suddenly fell through. (It would be made a few years later, with Gregory Peck in the lead.)
3. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was producing the movie, introduced the two stars on the MGM lot. In her memoir, Hepburn recalled that she was wearing high heels at the time and said, "I'm afraid I'm a bit too tall for you, Mr. Tracy." Mankiewicz replied, "Don't worry, Kate, he'll cut you down to size."
4. Hepburn had been a Hollywood star for a decade, yet "Woman of the Year" was one of the first movies to play up her sex appeal, thanks to the MGM team of Adrian (costumes), Sydney Guilaroff (hair) and Jack Dawn (makeup).
5. Actor/director/playwright Garson Kanin came up with the initial story idea, but in 1941, he was drafted into the Army, so he farmed out the screnwriting duties to his younger brother, Michael Kanin, and fellow screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr.
6. The inspiration for foreign affairs columnist Tess Harding was real-life journalist Dorothy Thompson, well known to Americans as a columnist and radio pundit, and generally considered the second most-respected woman in America at the time -- after Eleanor Roosevelt.
7. The apparent inspiration for Sam Craig was Lardner's father, Ring Lardner Sr., who had been a nationally syndicated sportswriter, one who is still famous today for his short stories.
8. With the help of Hepburn (a friend of Garson Kanin's), Michael Kanin and Lardner sold their screenplay to MGM in a record-breaking deal, for $211,000. $100,000 of that was for the screenplay, another $100,000 was for Hepburn's services as star. Hepburn took another $10,000 for her agent and pocketed the last $1,000 for her expenses.
9. Much was made at the time of the screenwriters' relative youth. Lardner was just 26. Kanin was 31.
10. Hepburn suggested MGM borrow George Stevens from rival studio RKO to direct. He'd already directed her twice, in 1935's "Alice Adams" and 1937's "Quality Street."
11. The movie initially ended with the couple trying to reconcile by walking a mile in each other's shoes: she tries to cover a boxing match, while he tries to learn French and Spanish. The ending was scrapped after a test screening. There was a sense that Tess didn't get enough of a come-uppance, though whether that sense came from viewers or from MGM brass taken aback by such a strong proto-feminist character, Lardner never knew. The revised ending, in which Tess tries to cook Sam a breakfast but proves hopelessly inept in the kitchen, certainly seemed to put Tess in her place; Lardner grumbled that the new ending undid all the effort the rest of the movie had made in establishing Tess as a confident, competent, and independent woman.
12. The film marked the first major screen roles of frequent TV character actor Dan Tobin (Tess' annoying assistant, Gerald Howe) and "Life of Riley" star William Bendix (bartender Pinkie Peters).
13. MGM publicity materials for the movie called Hepburn "Kate the Great," a nickname that stuck for the rest of her career.
14. The movie was nominated for two Oscars. Hepburn earned a nod for Best Actress, while Lardner and Kanin won the Academy Award for their screenplay.
15. Tracy and Hepburn reprised their roles in a half-hour radio drama version in 1943, on "Screen Guild Theatre." It was their only joint radio appearance.
16. Michael Kanin went on to earn another Oscar nomination, along with wife Fay Kanin, for the original screenplay of 1958's "Teacher's Pet," in which Kanin finally got to write a part for Gable.
17. Garson Kanin had been in love with Hepburn when he came up with the story idea for "Woman of the Year" that he passed along to his brother. He had even wanted to marry the actress, though she seems not to have shared his feelings. A few months after the movie's release, Kanin married writer and future Oscar-winning actress Ruth Gordon. The couple went on to write two movies for Tracy and Hepburn: "Adam's Rib" (1949) and "Pat and Mike" (1952). In 1971, Kanin wrote a book about working with the couple, "Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir." He and Gordon were married nearly 43 years, until her death in 1985.
18. Producer Mankiewicz, who introduced Tracy and Hepburn, became an acclaimed writer/director of such films as "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve." Two decades after serving as the catalyst for the long-running Tracy-Hepburn affair, he was responsible for pairing an even more notorious, adulterous Hollywood couple when he cast Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in his epic "Cleopatra."
19. Stevens remained one of Hollywood's A-list directors, peaking in the 1950s with such landmarks as "A Place in the Sun," "Shane," and "Giant." Curiously, despite their more than pleasant experience working with him on "Woman of the Year," neither Tracy nor Hepburn ever made another film with Stevens.
20. Lardner's career was derailed in the late 1940s by the Hollywood blacklist. He was one of the Hollywood 10, the best-known group of blacklistees; like the others in the group, he served a year in prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of erstwhile Communists working in Hollywood. After his release, Lardner continued to write without credit, mostly for television. His name didn't appear in a movie's credits for 16 years, until 1965's Steve McQueen drama "The Cincinnati Kid." In 1970, he wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's groundbreaking film version of "M*A*S*H." His work adapting Richard Hooker's novel earned him his second Oscar, 28 years after his first.
21. In the 1970s, McCall's magazine created a Woman of the Year award. Hepburn was its first winner.
22. A 1976 TV movie version of "Woman of the Year" starred real-life couple Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna
23. "Woman of the Year" was adapted into a 1981 Broadway musical, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (of "Chicago" and "Cabaret" fame) and a book by Peter Stone ("1776," "Titanic"). It starred Harry Guardino and Lauren Bacall, who won a Best Actress Tony for her performance. The showran for two years, with Raquel Welch, then Debbie Reynolds taking over the lead.
24. The musical was filmed for TV in 1984, starring Barbara Eden and Don Chastain.
25. The first meeting of Tracy and Hepburn, as they began work on "Woman of the Year," was dramatized in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" in 2004. Kevin O'Rourke played Tracy, alongside Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning turn as Hepburn.