Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Pat and Mike

Home Movies video columnist Charles Taylor on George Cukor's 'Pat and Mike,' starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

By Charles Taylor
Published February 1, 1999 5:43PM (EST)

"Pat and Mike" (1952) saunters through its 96 minutes with a casual, unassuming
air. Exuding the ease of very sophisticated people who've attained the
relaxation that comes only from confidence, "Pat and Mike" presents
self-assurance as a gift that people give their partners as a result of
their complete faith in each other.

So it's no surprise that there are two experienced sets of partners behind
"Pat and Mike," writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and stars
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; the four of them are like perfect
charade partners. Taking their cue from Kanin and Gordon's script, Tracy
and Hepburn toss off the trickiest exchanges as effortlessly as if they
were saying "Pass the cream" at breakfast. Their banter is so gloriously in
tune that even when they're completely at odds with each other amid the
ruckus of the lunch-time crush at Lindy's, they're on the same wavelength.
"Pat and Mike" is a celebration of confidence and competence and comfort --
qualities that were director George Cukor's partners throughout his career
-- and here his style reaches a casual apotheosis. The movie is one of the
masterpieces of American romantic comedy, but it's so offhand you'd never
think to describe it that way. Its perfection is unobtrusive.

Hepburn plays Pat Pemberton, a phys. ed. teacher at a California college and
a dumbfoundingly gifted athlete. Or she would be if she didn't turn into a
quivering mass of doubt whenever her dullard fiancie, Collier (the
oleaginous William Ching), gives her his stricken moo-cow look, a look that
says he doesn't really believe she's capable of anything. Determined to get
back her confidence, she takes up a management offer from Tracy's Mike
Conovan, a sports promoter who's had a gander at Pat when she's operating
free of Collier's jinx. Mike knows there's a bushel of money to be made
from a lady athlete, but he's also got an eye for talent, and one of the
movie's neatest jokes is how Mike's appreciation of Pat's athletic beauty
turns to love. This is the movie where Tracy observes of Hepburn, "Not much
meat on her, but what's there is cherce."

Mike talks about Pat as just another of his investments -- like his
heavyweight contender, a dumbly sweet palooka named Davie Hucko (Aldo Ray
in a honey of a performance), or his racehorse Little Nell -- but there's
real tenderness in his solicitous care of her. In one great moment, Mike is
thinking about Pat while stroking Little Nell, and Cukor superimposes
Hepburn's angular patrician features on the horse's mug. That's about as
dreamy as Cukor allows the movie to get. Henri Langois said the world of
Cukor's movies was one in which "everything is in half-tone, suggested and
never over-stressed." The romance here is all implicit. The clinch that
seals it consists of Tracy giving Hepburn a firm handshake and saying, "OK,
Kid, ya gotta deal."

Setting a movie about learning to trust your instincts in the world of
sports is an inspired idea. "Even they don't understand how they do
what they do," Mike says about athletes at one point. What he means is
that, in athletes, instinct and action are almost inseparable. Like Robert
Towne's "Personal Best," "Pat and Mike" is a movie that truly understands
that athletes think with their bodies. Cukor's direction reflects that
exultation in the physical. In "On Cukor," his delightful book of
interviews with the director, Gavin Lambert noted Cukor's penchant, in his
early '50s films, for shooting on location, giving his confections some of
the same documentary feel that the French new wave directors brought to
their films later in the decade.

The long golf championship sequence early in "Pat and Mike" is a great
example of this mix of the stylized and the real. One of the sequence's
pleasures is the chance to see the great golfer Babe Didrickson Zaharias
(Pat's opponent in the match) in action. And it's Hepburn herself, not a
double, whom we watch hitting a series of beauties straight down the
fairway. Less tangibly, there's also a strolling rhythm to the sequence,
the sense of the match unfolding as the crowd and players move from green
to green, as if Cukor's camera were simply following life, and doing it
with the unhurried sense of curiosity that informs the whole picture.

What has kept "Pat and Mike" so contemporary is its notion of love as an
equal proposition. Another film might have depicted Pat as simply
exchanging one master for another. But "five-o, five-o" is Mike's version
of how things should be, in work and love. "Remember you're the best," he
tells Pat, "even if you don't think so, I do." And that's what frees her up
to be herself, just as she frees him up, emotionally and professionally ("I
never knew there was so much money to be made legitimate," he says). Tracy
could sometimes never get beyond his baked-potato lumpiness, but we see him
through Hepburn's eyes here.

Mike (and his shady associates) inhabit the stylized street milieu of Damon
Runyon, complete with slangy lingo. He and Hepburn are from two different
worlds, but one of the marvels of how they play together is how well they
communicate, as in this doozy of an exchange where they're slowly
accommodating themselves to each other's speech patterns. He: "Well ya done
the right thing -- did." She: "What would I have did if you hadn't been
around? -- done." Tracy sums up the unlikely pairing in one beautiful line:
"An upper-cruster like you and my kinda type that can't even speak
left-handed English ... the whole gizmo is hard to believe." This gizmo
purrs like a kitten. It's what Cole Porter meant by a perfect blendship.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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