Let’s talk about chemistry, shall we? You know, like in a movie, when certain actors just seem to have that connection. It’s a concept not limited to, but most often discussed in terms of, romantic comedies … whether or not we believe the main couple as a couple. Do they seem like they’re really in love with each other? Or are they completely wooden together, with all the spark of a wet mop? I would put forward as some more recent good examples (admittedly these are rom-coms I love) Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) and Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer).
For every good combination, there’s a bad one, of course. And for all of those bad ones, I have the remedy. They should sit down and watch Pat and Mike. Or Desk Set, for that matter, or Adam’s Rib. They should embark, in other words, upon a detailed study of the dazzling chemistry of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “Ah, but,” I hear you say, “that’s cheating. Hepburn and Tracy were lovers in real life.” To which my reply is quite simple: Gigli. And any number of other movies in which the main characters were actually involved but still fizzled onscreen. It’s not a given, people. I would argue that it’s maybe even harder to actually convey real, complex feelings onto the screen. But this is a review, so I’ll get back on track.
Pat and Mike is a cute little story, directed by George Cukor, about a phys ed. teacher, Pat (Hepburn) who decides to go semi-pro in golf in order to prove to herself and her chauvinistic fiance (William Ching) that she can do it. She’s a really strong athlete, but her problem is that she goes to pieces whenever said fiance shows up, because she senses that he doesn’t actually believe in her. He just wants to her marry him, stay at home, and let him take care of everything else. The man doesn’t realize he’s engaged to Kate Hepburn, clearly. Enter Mike Conovan (Tracy), a promoter of questionable ethics, who thinks that he can make “bushels of money” by representing Pat. She, being an honest and upstanding citizen, rebuffs his offer at first, but then decides to accept in a further attempt to gain independence. Amid training and dominating both the golfing and the tennis world (she’s a total bad-ass), Pat and Mike both learn something about themselves, and each other. And of course, fall in love.
There’s nothing particularly complicated about the story happening here. What’s cool about it, though, is what it is saying about equality of the sexes. There are discussions about Pat’s tendency to wear slacks on the golf course, her own focus to “show herself” what she can do, and an utterly hilarious scene in which Pat beats up two would-be attackers in order to save Mike. Mike’s mantra as a manager is that everything be “five-oh, five-oh” between himself and his athletes, but Pat really teaches him the true meaning of that sentiment. They are, naturally, a perfect match. In the end, it is she who “proposes” to him! They’re not big statements, but I appreciate that they’re there.
Hepburn is, as always, spot-on. She was really a very gifted athlete, and so this movie was designed to showcase that ability. All other athletes in the film were real golfers and tennis stars of the day. William Ching is appropriately smarmy as the fiance, and Aldo Ray is hilarious as Mike’s other star, a dumb-as-rocks heavyweight boxing champ. And then there’s Tracy, who fascinates me with his ability to be at once slightly thuggish and utterly charismatic. He does it with the barest hint of a smile or a slight wink, or a gesture … he’s so completely charming. And, as previously mentioned, the chemistry between the two stars is nothing short of inspirational. Their every glance speaks volumes, whether it’s adoration, confusion, irritation, or pride. We should all be so lucky as to have the real kind of chemistry with someone as these two manage to portray onscreen.
It’s interesting to me that in this movie, it being 1952, I suppose, there is very little physical interaction between the two. And they don’t need it. If the movie were made today, we would need the scene where the two stars inevitably fall into each others arms (and probably even bed) to really get the point across. In this case, Hepburn lets us know how she feels about Tracy just by looking at him, and he shows us by gently tucking in his sleeping golf pro. It’s what takes a simple story, a reasonably funny (but not blazingly so) script, and an unsurprising plot, and turns those elements into something special.
Seriously, rom-commers of today, take notes. I don’t know how they do it, but somebody needs to figure it out. And for everyone else? Watch, and enjoy. Nothing special, just two of the greatest American movie stars to date, some golf, some tennis … an enjoyable way to spend 90 or so minutes.