The nine films Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together may vary in quality, but it is always fascinating to watch these two together. I was reminded of that as I recently watched two of their collaborations on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive. Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952) are in different leagues: one is a pleasant enough romance, the other is a classic, but the magic of Kate and Spence infuses both with the kind of intimate mood only these two could inspire.
Without Love is an adaptation of a play by Philip Barry. Hepburn had first performed the role on stage opposite Elliott Nugent. It was a lackluster pairing and the production did not do well. Perhaps Hepburn felt she had something to prove by giving it another go? With Tracy by her side, she undoubtedly felt she could do better.
Hepburn plays Jamie, an heiress in search of a caretaker for her massive home. Tracy is a government scientist who takes the job because he is in desperate need of space to conduct his experiments and housing is scarce in World War II D.C. They eventually enter into a marriage of convenience, which inevitably leads to love.
While it has its amusing quirks, I didn’t find the story of Without Love all that compelling. Basically, Tracy and Hepburn make something of the essentially decent material because they can’t help but be mesmerizing together. The pair rehearsed their roles extensively and they were so in tune with each other that you always feel you are intruding when they are deep in conversation.
Keenan Wynn does his familiar unreliable scamp shtick and he does it well, because he has some of the film’s funniest lines. As a calmly wise girl Friday, pre-TV Lucille Ball gives a remarkably controlled performance. She doesn’t waste a word or gesture; it’s beautifully disciplined and it is a pleasure to watch her. In the thankless discarded lover roles, Patricia Morison and Carl Esmond are both oddly alluring, the former for the force of her personality, the latter for a more laidback warmth.
Special features on the disc include the vintage crime short Crime Does Not Pay: Purity Squad, the cartoon Swing Shift Cinderella and a theatrical trailer.
Pat and Mike offers a complex cocktail of sprightly female athleticism and toxic romance. The role of multi-talented sportswoman Pat was a perfect fit for the athletic Hepburn, especially as written by her good friends, the husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (they also wrote the screenplay for Adams Rib).
Hepburn is Pat Pemberton, a phenomenal sportswoman, as long as her fiancé Collier (William Ching) is out of sight. Every time she locks eyes with him, her mojo fizzles. Right away you can see this fellow is no good for her. He picks apart her wardrobe, cringes at her behavior, and seems to think she exists to be an extension of him. No wonder she freezes up.
When sports promoter Mike (Spencer Tracy) shows up to woo Pat into a business relationship, it’s such a relief, because he looks at her like she’s worth something. Yes the something is money, at least in the beginning, but his respect for her talent quickly turns to love. He looks deeply into her eyes without a single thought of changing her and he shows his growing regard with little signs of affection, like an arm draped casually across her shoulders or his careful preservation of a handkerchief used to wipe her lipstick off his forehead.
That budding relationship is the core attraction of the film, but there are so many other delights. Jim Backus is a comforting presence as Pat’s supportive and perceptive friend, Chuck Connors makes a striking film debut in a bit part as a police officer, and Charles Bronson, in his Charles Buchinsky days, already shows perfect comic timing as a hood in his second film role. As a disgruntled boxer under contract to Mike, Aldo Ray is pleasingly unique with his gravelly voice and big galoot persona. The whole enterprise is bolstered by that witty, Oscar-nominated script and George Cukor’s sensitive direction.
The sports sequences are also a delight. In a lengthy, elegant scene on the greens, the camera drifts between long shots and close-ups as it observes the action at a golf tournament. The crowd reactions and the tension of the competition is beautifully woven into the drama of the film.
As Hepburn mingles on the green with several real lady golfers, or sets fire the court on fire with her powerful tennis game, she seems right at home. It’s also a lot of fun to watch the pros at work; what an excellent way to preserve the images of sports legends like Alice Marble, Gussie Moran, Babe Zaharias, and Betty Hicks.
The disc special features include a pair of trailers for the film.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.