It was by pure chance that I happened upon this one, merely acquiring it as part of a "buy one get one" type deal to decrease the cost of Robert Redford's Quiz Show, but trusting in Cukor and the reputations of Tracy and Hepburn, especially the two of them together, though Tracy was the only one I had never seen in a role before (that I can recall). It wasn't until later that my brain finally stumbled with a thundering thud over the obvious fact that I have a set of twins for an aunt and uncle on the maternal side, and they happen to be named Patricia and Michael--who go by, well, Pat and Mike. Even more surprising is that Pat (naturally also short for Patricia) in the film is sports-oriented--as is my aunt. Of course my mother put a bit of a damper on my enthused coincidence-ometer by noting that they were born in 1951--a year prior to the release of this film. Oh well.
Pat (Katharine Hepburn) is a physical education teacher at Pacific Technical College, engaged to Collier Weld (William Ching, who reminds me a bit of a smoother-faced Kevin McCarthy). She specializes in no sport in particular, with talent in most any, though we first see her at golf, where Collier is attempting to gain the financial support of the Bemingers (Loring Smith and Phyllis Povah) in building a new gymnasium.* He maintains that this rides partly on Pat's performance against Mrs. Beminger, which he reminds her of repeatedly. Mrs. Beminger offers advice to Pat as she repeatedly fails at the game, putting or driving--whatever the aspect, she can't seem to get it right. After taking too much of Mrs. Beminger's condescension, she sits her in a chair and drives five balls in a row without pause, perfectly, then leaves in a huff. Charles Barry (Jim Backus) tries to cheer her with nudging her toward professional playing, encouraging her to enter a tournament, which she eventually agrees to. After one day's play, she returns to her room, and there she finds two men have broken in and attempted to hide from her in her bathroom--Mike Conovan (Spencer Tracy) and Barney Grau (Sammy White). Mike offers to make them all plenty of money by setting up future rounds, but Pat is infuriated by this and ejects them. When Collier appears again and ruins her game yet again, she changes her mind and Mike draws up a contract, taking her under his wing. He tries to build Pat up and make her the number one female athlete in the world.
It was sort of interesting to see what was obviously a romantic comedy where the romance really didn't enter into things for 90% of the film. Also of note to me was the fact that Hepburn was 45 at the time of filming, an unusual age for a romantic role for a woman in Hollywood (though perhaps somewhat less rare then) and not even too far off in age from Tracy (who was about 52). Admittedly, they notoriously had an offscreen romance and this was their seventh film together, but it was still a pleasant surprise. This sort of advancement of, well, one woman anyway, continued a bit within the film, with Mike eventually noticing that Pat's skills were ruined only under the endless control and disapproval of Collier, suggesting that in fact the best relationship would be "five oh, five oh" rather than Collier's "75%" control. I wasn't expecting any of that and it was indeed nice to see, even if it was par for the course (argh, sorry!) when dealing with these two, and often with Hepburn in general.
George Cukor continued to bring out the best in Hepburn in his direction, with nice sharp sparring (often seemingly, probably intentionally, suggestive) between Tracy and Hepburn, and a nice dichotomy between Pat's sporty "tomboy" elite and Mike's gruff "palooka" style mannerisms. Around them can be found Aldo Ray as the punch-drunk Davie Hucko (who has an entertaining broken record conversation first with Barney and later with Pat), and a slew of then-sports stars (of whom I recognized approximately zero, to the surprise of no one). Tracy surprised me, I'd always expected a deeper, gruffer voice out of him, but he has an easygoing manner that was very pleasant and definitely made me want to see more of his work. Cukor, while on the subject of impressions, continued to impress me--I definitely want to see more with him at the helm.
The surprises of the film came in a few odd casting choices. Not odd as in bad so much as retrospectively surprising. The first was Sylvester "Spec" Cauley, who was played by George Mathews, who I stared at the whole time he appeared, waiting and waiting for my brain to connect that distinct voice and doughy look with some flittering memory. It finally struck me--he was in the New Jersey "PSA" type film, X Marks the Spot of all things, which I naturally knew from Mystery Science Theater 3000 rather than regular viewing. The next I didn't identify until I wandered around the web afterward--a fight between Mike and his "business partners" (hoodlums, of course!) is re-enacted by an excitable busboy at the police station--played by none other than Carl Switzer, who is most known for his role as a child which involved an artificial cowlick and the name "Alfalfa." But most surprising of all is someone I'll often shruggingly pick up a movie to see--the aforementioned "business partners" were Cauley, who I've already identified, and one Charles Buchinski, who made me respond involuntarily with an audible, "Charlie!" You may know Buchinski from after that all-too-common story where someone (be it himself, his agent, a random passerby or his goldfish) said "Buchinski" was not a good name for a star and he became, yes, Charles Bronson. And Pat kicks his ass, adding an extra layer of amusement.
*Gods, I've typed out both "physical education" and "gymnasium," someone help me!