Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirty-Eight

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#38 — Pat and Mike (George Cukor, 1952)
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. That, of course, is the pairing, the classic onscreen team that effectively defined the wonder of ever elusive cinematic chemistry, even for those who’ve not seen one of their nine films together from start to finish. This is the goal when tandems are brought together, and it is the yardstick against which all others, especially classic film pairings, are measured and found inadequate. Despite the legend, the screen partnership wasn’t even all that uniquely prosperous. This was an era, after all, when stars cranked out multiple films a year, all in the service of a single studio which held their contracts, meaning they were constantly circling around the same indentured players. William Powell and Myrna Loy shared prime billing more often and arguably just as prosperously, but they weren’t Hepburn and Tracy. Part of that divide comes from the real life backstory of Hepburn and Tracy’s longterm, necessarily secretive romantic relationship in real life, one that was more codependency than fairy tale, but that’s an uncomfortable detail that doesn’t serve the romanticism, meaning it is gladly and quietly put aside. But a major part of the enduring appreciation for Hepburn and Tracy is simply because their shared pinnacles were indeed uniquely grand. They had a winning rapport in even the weakest of their films together, but the soft charms of those outings only serves to emphasize an undervalued truth: magic, even movie magic, doesn’t just happen. It requires a wizard or two who understand the mechanics of casting a spell.

George Cukor directed Pat and Mike, and there’s no question he had a mighty impressive spellbook. In this instance, though, there are other filmmakers who I think merit the spotlight. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin were a tremendous writing team who has among their credits 1949’s Adam’s Rib, perhaps the finest of the Hepburn-Tracy vehicles. That stood as the last of their onscreen pairings until Gordon and Kanin decided it would be interesting to come up with a script that gave Hepburn a chance to showcase her considerable athletic skill. Surely further inspired by the accomplishments of multi-sport athletic Babe Didrikson Zaharias (who cameoed in the film), Gordon and Kanin came up with Pat Pemberton, a champion-level participant in a variety of sports, including tennis, archery, and golf. Tracy plays Mike Conovan, a manager who takes Pat on as a client, helping her to shake the impeding influence of her fiance, Collier Weld (William Ching). If one side effect of shaking off his problematic presence is making Pat available for romance, well all the better.

Gordon and Kanin plainly knew how to play to the stars’ strengths, as individuals and as a team. Tracy exhibits his trademark lovable gruffness, which plays marvelously against Hepburn’s refined composure and self-contained strength. And worrisome hints that Tracy can be an offhand, almost accidental bully are entirely offset by his obvious appreciation when Hepburn shuts him down with a protofeminist assertion of superiority. He’s never happier–or maybe “more turned on” in the ideal phrasing–than when Hepburn is showing that she can not only stand up to him, but easily best him if she wants to. This naturally makes the moments when she wilts into his arms all the most attractive to him. She’s tough, but wants him to be to be even tougher, when it all comes down to it. Pat and Mike showcases that dynamic perfectly, the plot built around athletic competition a natural fit for the duo’s robust, witty, mutually enamored dueling. Gordon, Kanin, and Cukor, collaborators on Adam’s Rib, knew they had choice performers at their disposal. Better still, the knew how to give Hepburn and Tracy the proper tools to make the most of their gifts, elevated when they shared the screen with one another.

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