Katharine Hepburn was famously athletic for most of her life. She played sports of all kinds and loved swimming in the ocean. It was only a matter of time before a role came along that would show off her abilities, and that was the title character in 1952’s Pat and Mike.
Pat Pemberton is a widow and a physical education instructor at Pacific Technical Institute. Her fiancee, Collier, wanting to make some money for the school, takes her to play golf with the dean and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Beminger. He tells Pat she can’t wear slacks because the company is conservative, and she has to pretend to be a bad golfer to keep Mr. and Mrs. happy. It’s not just that he wants to make a good impression; Collier really wants to micromanage everything about Pat. She’s not happy about this dynamic, but she feels trapped.
At the golf game, Mrs. Beminger pounces on Pat’s seeming ineptitude, even giving her pointers, among others: “You’ve got to tense the gluteous muscle!” By the end of the game, Pat is so fed up, she marches over to the driving range, shoves Mrs. Beminger into a chair, and hits a row of balls into next week, one after the other, before storming off. Pat knows it’s time for a change, and her friend, Charlie, convinces her to train for a golf tournament that’s coming up.
Also competing in the tournament is the legendary Babe Didrickson Zaharias, no less. She and Pat face off in the finals. Meanwhile, a mysterious guy (Spencer Tracy) in a fedora is seen observing Pat, which seems creepy enough, but later on he and his buddy climb through her hotel room window while she’s out. Pat is just about to get into the shower. She’s understandably freaked out to find two strange guys in her room, and uncomfortably listens as Fedora Guy introduces himself as Mike Conovan and offers to train her.
Pat ends up losing the match, but only by a narrow margin, and coming in second to Babe Zaharias means Charlie’s hunch was right. Mike hunts her down and asks her if she’s ever been properly managed. “Not even by myself,” she says. As she walks off, Mike observes, “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.”
For her part, Pat doesn’t wait long to take Mike up on his offer–the fact that Collier is bent on controlling her and clearly threatened by her athletic ability is all the nudge she needs. When her train back to California is leaving the station, she throws her luggage overboard and jumps off, after which she makes a beeline for New York and Mike’s office.
Mike takes charge. No, really. He takes charge. When they go to lunch at Libby’s, he orders a beer for Pat when she wants a dry martini, rare steak when she wants it medium, and milk when she wants a large coffee. When Pat lights a cigarette, Mike pulls it out of her mouth. He’s obviously used to micromanaging everyone and everything, kinda like Collier. Another one of his clients is a young boxer named Hucko (Aldo Ray), who seems to be a bit dopey, or at least he talks that way. Hucko is jealous of the attention Mike is paying Pat, and makes pouty faces while Mike gives Pat pep talks.
One of Mike’s favorite pep talks is to ask his clients the Three Big Questions:
- Who made you?
- Who owns the biggest piece of you?
- What would happen if I ever dropped you?
Does anyone else think The Three Big Questions look like a recipe for codependency? Yep, that’s exactly what they are. When Hucko pouts because Mike can’t go with him to a match, Pat tells him to not do the fight for Mike, but for himself. The lightbulb begins to visibly shine over Hucko’s head. He not only wins the fight, but his confidence suddenly blossoms, and he becomes Pat’s friend for life.
As for the sporty side of things, Pat works on her golf and tennis games in particular. Athletics have changed a lot in the past sixty-five years, and sports medicine as we know it didn’t really exist until the nineteen-seventies. While I’m no athlete, I do like to work out, and I winced when Mike stretched Pat’s hamstrings after having her hop on one foot fifty times. Sure enough, she gets a charley horse. Nowadays, fitness professionals advise working with the body instead of against it, so what Mike puts Pat through probably isn’t done anymore.
It was a kick watching Pat run full-out in plain old Keds, which look cute but have very little support or traction. To be fair, except for cleats, Keds and Converse were all the athletic shoes they had in America during the fifties. Adidas was around, but it was still a fledgling German company. Bill Bowerman certainly hadn’t commandeered his wife’s waffle iron to make the first Nikes yet. Nowadays, of course, we have athletic shoes for every possible activity or surface.
Anyway, Pat progresses swimmingly, but her major problem is Collier. Whenever this guy comes to watch her matches, she falls flat on her face, sometimes literally. All of a sudden, she can’t hit a ball to save her life, she can’t run, and tennis court nets look twenty feet high. It’s like Dumbo’s feather in reverse. Unfortunately, life for Pat becomes a tug-of-war between Mike and Collier, because they each want control over her. She gets so annoyed that she tearfully throws a towel over her head and begs both of them to leave her alone.
Everyone’s controlling someone in this movie. Pat goes from being controlled by Collier to being controlled by Mike, who also controls Hucko. Mike himself is controlled by an underground gambling ring who bet on sports. What a shock, right? A fella who meets a potential client by climbing through her window is probably not exactly dealing above the board. Fortunately for all those around her, Pat begins to manage herself and manage everyone else in the process. She’s never been a milquetoast, but she breaks out of the mindset of always giving in to other people. It’s intimidating for some, but they come around. In fact, her new moxie rubs off on them, and is it ever sweet.
Pat and Mike is an entertaining movie. While it’s Hepburn’s show, Tracy is an effective compliment for her as always, and their repartee in this film is sparky and satisfying.
That wraps up Day Three for me, and Day Four is on the way. Until then, Crystal has more for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Hope you had fun today, and see you tomorrow!