Sometimes you just need to watch a movie that makes you feel good, and the current pandemic is exactly that kind of situation for me. One film I keep in my back pocket for such occasions is George Cukor’s Pat and Mike, a 1952 romcom/sports movie featuring Katharine Hepburn as the remarkably accomplished female athlete Pat Pemberton, and Spencer Tracy as her somewhat shady manager and later romantic interest Mike Conovan.
I’m not a big fan of contemporary romcoms, mainly because they tend to be so retrograde—who needs a movie that reinforces existing sex roles and offers nothing more? Pat and Mike, even though it was made almost 70 years ago, offers something much more interesting—a view of a man and a woman who find their way to equal partnership, each making the other better in the process. As Spencer Tracy near the film’s end, “I don’t know if you can lick me, or I can lick you, but together, we can lick the world.” OK, maybe that’s a bit of a spoiler, but considering the age of this film, the breadcrumbs tossed throughout, and the way Hollywood made movies in the 1960s, you’re probably not watching it in earnest suspense about who ends up with whom.
When we first meet Pat, she’s a widow trying to fit in to the conventional post-war world, teaching at a college while perpetually deferring to her fiancé, Collier Weld (William Ching), a vice-president at the same college. Collier takes her for granted, and it’s clear from the opening minutes that not all is well with this romance. A golf pro, Charles Barry (Jim Backus) encourages Pat to enter the U.S. Open, which she does, eventually (this being a match-play tournament) teeing off against one of the greatest women athletes of the 20th century, Babe Didrikson Zaharias (played by the Babe herself, one of a number of appearances of real-life athletes in this film).
Playing in the Open also brings Mike into Pat’s life. He offers her a deal to throw the tournament (“to win is a sick bet,” as another character later notes), but she’s not having it. After Pat legitimately loses to the Babe (word has it that the latter refused to lose a match, even on film), Pat wakes up, claims her piece of the sky, and embarks on a career as a professional athlete. With Mike as her agent, of course, because he’s the first person to show her that her talents have value, while Collier wants her to be his “little woman” who magnifies his limited abilities while suppressing her own. Sad to say, that’s not an outdated story line.
Before Pat and Mike can get together, however, the film has to exorcise the dead-end relationship represented by Pat and Collier, and Pat and Mike must come to see each other as they really are. This is standard-issue romcom stuff, but it feels surprisingly fresh here. A sense of humor always helps, of course, with comic relief provided by another of Mike’s clients, the dimwitted boxer Davie Hucko (Aldo Ray), and some mobsters straight out of Damon Runyan.
The basic premise of Pat and Mike is very simple—does your significant other (or intended significant other) bring out the best in you? Or does that individual expect you to tamp down the best aspects of yourself, in order to fit into his or her already existing world? That’s a question that never goes out of date. | Sarah Boslaugh
You can find where Pat and Mike is available for streaming on ReelGood, or do like I did and see if your local public library has a copy. The Saint Louis Public Library does.