Episode 28 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn proves hitting like a girl is a good thing.
Guess what! My dad met Katharine Hepburn. Decades before I was born, unfortunately, which seems like poor parenting on his part. Anyway, my dad was a professional tennis player in the early 1970s. Since he looked cute in shorts and was charming company (two traits I inherited from him along with his humility), he’d get invited to parties before tournaments in LA and Las Vegas. At one such party, he met Kate the Great. Dad’s words:
“I recall her as being very petite, wonderful husky voice, would look at you directly when speaking… Like so many actors, actresses etc., incredible charisma… Incredible spunk but not an outstanding athlete... By the then Hollywood standards, she may well have been great.”
Please keep in mind that this meeting was twenty years after Pat and Mike, so it’s possible my dad’s opinion may have been different if he’d seen her play in her prime. And have no doubts, Katharine Hepburn may have been 45 when she picked up a tennis racket and a golf club for Pat and Mike, but she was definitely still in her physical prime. Pat and Mike, Kate and Spencer Tracy's seventh film together, is a showcase for KHep’s mad sports skills.
Pat and Mike reunited the team that had created Adam’s Rib just three years before: Director George Cukor, Oscar-nominated writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and Spencer and Kate (all together nicknamed the Entente Cordiale). It's fluffy comedy designed to highlight its stars strengths. Kate, sporting the first of the iconic high collars and updos, plays a WASP-y PE teacher at a girls’ college who turns pro in golf and tennis. Spencer Tracy in not-so-iconic loud suits plays her two bit tough guy manager.
The plot goes thusly: Kate and Spencer bicker adorably. Kate plays golf. Kate and Spencer bicker adorably. Kate plays tennis. Rinse, lather, repeat, and throw in a young Aldo Ray for a bit of background color. The film grants more time to Kate’s athletic stunts than it does to her budding romance with Tracy. Take for example the famous driving range scene.
The comedy comes from Kate's self-righteous golf swings and her ex-partner's shocked expression. But rather than giggles, this scene usually elicits praise for Hepburn’s ability. I’m all for praising lady athletes, but I think that as a comedy Pat and Mike is only so-so. Without the sly sexuality of Woman of the Year or the silly subversiveness of Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike feels filmically flat. Maybe this time they tipped too far in Kate's favor. Like the film says, Kate and Spencer need to be 50/50, totally balanced. Unfortunately, Pat and Mike was the last film the Entente Cordiale made together. While the balance is off, the film still exemplifies how they could take an aspect of Kate’s image and craft a film around it.
One of the unique aspects of Katharine Hepburn’s star image has always been that she was athletic. She played golf! She swam every day! She boxed at Bryn Mawr played tennis till she was 90! She was what was so vulgarly referred to as "outdoors-y."* Kate’s athleticism was tied to every other admirable part of her image. Her spirit, discipline, stubbornness and lust for life all manifested in sports and in acting. The same year Pat and Mike opened, Kate performed GB Shaw’s The Millionairess in Manchester. Between playing pro sports onscreen and classic theater onstage, she was proving what we now know to be true: Katharine Hepburn has no expiration date.
One more thing before I wrap this up. See this ordinary looking staircase Kate is walking down?
That’s my alma mater, Occidental College! I took Japanese History in the building Kate exits offscreen left. I dropped it for Intro to Film. I think we can all agree I made the right choice there.
*Yes, I've been saving that reference for 28 weeks!
Previous Week: The African Queen (1951) - In which Kate goes to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston, and almost loses her mind.
Next Week: Summertime (1955) - In which David Lean's beautiful romantic classic gives Katharine Hepburn an eye infection and me a head ache. (Available on Amazon)