Film Flick Friday: Pat and Mike

Friday, May 18, 2012

The seventh of nine films Kathrine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together, Pat and Mike might not live up to the prestige of some of their earlier collaborations, such as Adam’s Rib or Woman of the Year. It was however, Kathrine Hepburn’s favorite, and what it lacks in finesse of storytelling, it makes up for with comic gold. Reviewing the film on its first release in 1952, Bosley Crowther described Pat and Mike as “a shaky combination of, let us say, "Woman of the Year" and (if you can imagine without music) the theatrical "Guys and Dolls." Its a pretty accurate description of the movie’s tone.

When gifted woman athlete Pat Pemberton, played by the lovely, if aging, Kathrine Hepburn, gets up to perform in front of her fiance, she just seems to fizzle out. Frustrated at herself, and feeling she needs to be something more than what she is now, she takes on pro sports. Mike Conovan, played by Spencer Tracy, is the slightly shady, none-too-refined manager she finds to take her on. Despite his domineering attitude and history of cooking the gambling books, her own insecurities, and playing against some of sports real-life bests, attraction between athlete and manager starts to grow. What results is a more equal partnership than either has had before.

Modern viewers might have a hard time swallowing some of the male and female relationships seen up on screen. All Hepburn and Tracy films include some battle of the sexes, though some may feel more like all-out war and others are mere skirmishes. Mike (Tracy’s character) defines the term “heavy-handed.” In one scene, he orders Pat’s (Hepburn) meal, tells her what to drink, when to sleep, and who she’s allowed to see (or more precisely, who she’s not allowed to see). Though she balks at that initially, some of that same sort of action still takes place throughout the film . Meanwhile, Pat’s fiance, played by William Ching, is unconcerned by Pat’s issues of self-worth and even says she should be fine with being the “little woman.” Problematic men, indeed when viewed fifty years later from the much more equality-conscious new millennium.

But Pat and Mike’s messages may ultimately be much more positive for women than even the more famous Adam’s Rib. Hepburn’s Pat is a woman with a career and goals, who is cheered on to victory. She’s never told to settle down or give up on what she wants, and anyway, we all know that in a Hepburn and Tracy film, she’s not going to end up with the other guy! So it should be taken for granted that the fiance’s actions are meant to portrayed as bad. More important are whether Pat and Mike’s relationship reflects a sense of equality- and to that I can only say, yes, it does. They ultimately admit to not only wanting, but needing the other. They enjoy one another, and see each other as partners. Tracy’s Mike never exactly stops being heavy-handed, he’ll still tell her to drink milk, not beer, and to sleep more, but he is after all her manage- and anyway, the movie might reflect something of the actors’ off-screen relationship as well. Kathrine Hepburn herself later wrote, “ [Spencer Tracy] didn’t like this or that. I changed this and that. They might be qualities which I personally valued. It did not matter. I changed them.”

Still, its a progressive film for the time, and it’s other charms are not to be discounted either. Despite the earlier comments about the film’s messages, it is a light-hearted production who’s main idea is to entertain. We get to enjoy Hepburn show off her natural athletic prowess, and if she isn’t up to the standards of some her character’s opponents- all real, famous athletes of the time- then she’s certainly good enough to have us fooled into thinking she is!Tracy gets to ham it up in a Bronx accent, and both the dim-bulb boxer, played by Aldo Ray, and a trio of small time gangsters will keep the audience laughing. Pat and Mike is a good film and as Mike himself might have said,” [ there’s] not much meat on her, but what's there is 'cherce.'”

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