Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tracy and Hepburn: Pat and Mike and Adam's Rib

I watched these two Tracy and Hepburn movies in quick succession. Both were directed by George Cukor and written by the team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, but their effects on me were different.

Pat and Mike (1952) is the story of Pat, a college physical education teacher (Katharine Hepburn), engaged to a handsome but domineering college administrator (William Ching -- a familiar face who made guest appearances on numerous 50s and 60s TV shows). She's a great athlete unless her fiance is watching, which should tell her something. It's a little hard to believe in this romance from the start, as Hepburn is such a breezy free spirit and Ching plays such a stuffed shirt.

In a moment of discontent, Pat meets Mike (Spencer Tracy), a not-entirely-honest sports promoter, and agrees to join his stable of athletes, which includes a boxer and a horse. Mike puts Pat on a rigorous training regimen and they travel to golf and tennis tournaments around the country, which she wins handily unless the fiance shows up. (Pat is portrayed as a sort of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a natural multi-sport athlete; Zaharias, as well as other contemporary sports figures like Don Budge and Gussie "Lace Panties" Moran, make cameo appearances in the film.) Before long, Pat and Mike find themselves falling in love, not least because Mike's idea of the ideal man-woman relationship is, as he states, "5-0-5-0" -- fifty-fifty, on terms of equality. The relationship changes both Pat and Mike for the better. Aldo Ray adds comic relief as a not-too-bright boxer who is also managed by Tracy and is a little jealous of his interest in Hepburn. I'd recommend this one very highly.

Adam's Rib (1949) finds Tracy and Hepburn in a somewhat higher class of society -- he's an assistant DA in Manhattan and she's a lawyer in private practice. They have an apartment with a housekeeper in Manhattan as well as a farm in Connecticut of which much is made -- to the point of showing "home movies" to their dinner guests. All is going well until Judy Holliday shoots at and wounds her errant husband, Tom Ewell. Adam (Tracy) is assigned to prosecute the case, but Amanda (Hepburn) goes in for the defense because she doesn't think a man in a similar case would even be charged, and that women generally don't get a fair shake in the court system. In the course of the preparation and trial, we learn that Ewell's character was in the habit of beating his wife, but not very much is made of this, which is disturbing to modern sensibilities. The film foreshadows contemporary issues such as feminism, battered-woman syndrome, and "identity politics". Back in 1949, though, the trial and the disagreements between the two attorneys almost break up their marriage, until Tracy cleverly shows Hepburn the error of her ways by what I consider a dirty trick.

Adam's Rib is by turns funny, romantic, dramatic and sentimental. I can't say I didn't like it -- it's Tracy and Hepburn, what's not to like? But the issues raised and the way they were resolved left me with an icky feeling. In Pat and Mike, Tracy's character changes -- he sees (without her having to tell him) that he can't be with Hepburn unless he's willing to operate on the level, and he's willing to make that change for her, whatever it costs him. Hepburn in Pat and Mike becomes more herself, not less, through her relationship with Tracy. In Adam's Rib, Spencer Tracy's character just has to be right -- he can't really acknowledge any legitimacy to Hepburn's viewpoint, and is only happy when he gets her to accept that he's been right all along. It seems to me that both characters are diminished thereby, and that diminishes the movie for me.

1 comment:

  1. Good points on Adam's Rib. I've always liked _most_ of that movie, except the end, and you've summed up why very well. Thanks!