Pat and Mike (1952): Cukor-Tracy-Hepburn Last Film, Feminist Sports Comedy

As a feminist sports comedy, Pat and Mike didn’t have much of a plot, but the dialogue was bright, and the roles were tailor-made for the two stars, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

An avid golfer and tennis player, Hepburn performed all the sports footage in the film herself. Thus, in Pat and Mike, Hepburn demonstrates with physical strength what in Adam’s Rib she has proven with intellect: that women can be–and often are–equal to men.  A companion piece to the 1949 Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, like its predecessor, was thematically ahead of its time.

Read our review of Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib (1949): Cukor’s Gender Comedy Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

 

The picture was made under friendly, intimate conditions, and it showed: Pat and Mike is a more relaxed film than Adam’s Rib. Cukor, the Kanins, Tracy and Hepburn were like an extended family working together, particularly now that Tracy was renting one of Cukor’s houses. Early readings of the script–in its various phases–took place in Cukor’s library.  Tracy sat in one corner, with his glasses on, and gave a brilliant reading of his part. Hepburn, who sat in another corner, also read her part well. The Kanins and Cukor read all the other parts–“It was a happy period for everybody,” Cukor recalled.

“Garson was interested in writing those stories,” Hepburn told me, “and I certainly enjoyed working on them.” “Spencer was interested too,” said the actress, “but, unlike me, he did not like the chores of sitting in on script conferences.”

Shooting started in January 1952, at the L.A. country club, then switched to the MGM backlot. Like The Marrying Kind, the film boasts a quasi-documentary quality, using authentic backgrounds whenever possible. To enhance the film’s authenticity, Cukor had Hepburn take on famous golf and tennis athletes, Gussie Moran and Babe Didrikson Zacharias, who played themselves. Cukor had Frankie Parker, the glamour boy among the tennis champions, teach Hepburn tournament form. “She was a little bit afraid about her form and thought she ought to use a double in the long shots,” Parker said, “but I told her there was no reason why she couldn’t do all the shots herself.” She did.

As in his later film with Judy Holliday, The Marrying Kind, Cukor staged an interesting fantasy sequence: Pat’s tennis game goes off because her fiance is watching. The net suddenly becomes huge, her own tennis racket the size of a tablespoon, and her opponent as big as a spade. Cukor got the idea from Bill Tilden, a great tennis player, who told him that was the impression one got when not playing well.

In an unguarded moment, Cukor told a N.Y. Times interviewer that he didn’t know the first thing about golf. But he looked on his lack of familiarity as an advantage rather than a handicap. “Too many pictures dealing with golf have been approached from the expert’s point of view,” Cukor said, while he looked at it from the audience’s viewpoint.  He reasoned that if he could stage a golf match that interested him, it would also look good to the audience.

Aldo Ray played a small, but funny, part in the film, a dumb heavyweight prizefighter. He provided the equivalent comic relief of Holliday’s frumpy housewife in Adam’s Rib. Ray was introduced to Tracy and Hepburn by Cukor humorously, as the constable from Crockett. When Ray was assigned to do Pat and Mike, Cohn made it a condition that MGM gave him star billing with Tracy and Hepburn. The two veteran stars were apparently shocked. “What” they said, “The constable from Crockett Star billing with us” But Cukor convinced them, “You watch, Aldo will be a big star when The Marrying Kind comes out.”

But once Ray’s position was settled, the two pros accepted him graciously as an equal. “They were beautiful,” Ray recalled, “They watched over me.” “Great stars, like Tracy and Hepburn,” Ray said, “are always easy to work with. If you’re cocky and go in with an attitude, they would probably discipline you.” But Ray was humble–“What the hell, I was the constable of Crockett.”

Cukor’s fondness for Ray did not lessen his expectations. One morning, when Ray showed up unprepared for work, Cukor took him for one of his famous “little walks.” “He lectured me about self discipline, telling me repeatedly, ‘The one thing you’ve got to learn is to discipline yourself, otherwise you’re finished.” On another occasion, Ray was late because of some party the night before. “Cukor admonished me,” Ray said, “but gently, he was a very gentle man.” “When you come to work, you’ve got to know what you’re expected to do and be prepared to do anything that’s in the script.” Cukor was much more relaxed with Tracy and Hepburn, because he knew them better and had such respect for their work. “George was almost like a big brother to Kate and Spence,” Ray noted, “He was like a Mother Hen, nurturing them, holding them together.”Photo: Aldo Ray on the left. Tracy, and Hepburn

 

In one funny scene, where Ray explains how he won a fight, the actor had one solid page of dialogue to memorize. They talked about how he was going to do this scene. In the script, the character says: “I was looking at him. I was fighting him. I thought it was me, and I was beating up me.” When Ray first did the scene, Cukor broke out laughing; he broke up every time they did it, losing his own discipline. “He was laughing so hard, I had to start all over again,” Ray said, “but to break George up behind the camera pleased me–I knew I was doing a good job.”

Ray also learned to avoid looking at Cukor while acting. “If you looked at George,” he said, “he could throw you.” Many actors complained that, because Cukor had a habit of mouthing their parts, it was as if somebody was speaking behind the camera. But for Ray, Cukor’s presence was important psychologically.

With Cukor’s near-perfect direction, Pat and Mike received good reviews and did moderately well at the box-office (small profit). For some reason, the film is not as fondly remembered as Adam’s Rib, though recently New York film critic David Denby singled it out as the best film of 1952.

Pat and Mike was Cukor’s eighth and last feature with Hepburn, though later on, they made some TV movies together, such as “The Corn Is Green.”  “We didn’t work together in the 1960s,” Hepburn told me, “because we couldn’t find the right scripts.”

Pat and Mike was also Hepburn’s last role at MGM after a decade or so.  Unhappy about MGM’s new regime, now under the rein of Dore Schary, Hepburn decided to go her own way.

In contrast to Hepburn who, liberated from MGM, entered the most exciting era of her career since the 1930s–on stage and screen–Cukor’s career suffered tremendously during the declining studio system, because, great as he was with actors, he didn’t possess producing or writing skills

It was also Cukor’s last film with Ray, who wished they had done more pictures together. “I was hoping we could have done at least one more,” he said mournfully, “I had some great directors, but none was ever like George Cukor.”

To increase authenticity, Cukor insisted that real-life notable athletes appear in cameo roles as themselves, including golfers Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Betty Hicks, and Helen Dettweiler, and tennis champions Don Budge, Gussie Moran, and Alice Marble.

Other notables in the cast include Charles Bronson (credited as Charles Buchinski) in his second credited movie role, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Jim Backus, and, in his acting debut, former athlete Chuck Connors, later known as the star of The Rifleman TV series.