Adam’s Rib (1949)
March 3rd, 11:30AM EST
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy starred in nine films together, some of them quite good (1942’s Woman of the Year, incidentally their first on-screen pairing), some quite forgettable (the same year’s Keeper of the Flame, anyone?), and still others slightly overrated (1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, incidentally their final pairing). Even the less enjoyable films in their shared repertoire, however, still have more sparkle and heart than some of the crappy excuses for rom-coms being churned out by Hollywood these days. More than perhaps any other couple in screen history, Tracy and Hepburn had a sharp, witty repartee that did not overshadow or disguise the genuine, mutual respect and love that existed between the pair, both on and off the screen.
The funny, yet moving partnership of these two is perhaps most evident in what I believe to be their best pairing, 1949’s Adam’s Rib, a riotous comedy in which they play husband-and-wife attorneys arguing opposite sides of a case. When Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shoots her cheating husband (Tom Ewell) at his lover’s apartment, the ensuing case attracts lawyer Amanda Bonner’s (Hepburn) attention. Though her husband, Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner (Tracy) is assigned the case at trial and discourages her from interfering, Amanda decides to defend Doris in order to challenge societal double standards attached to male and female behavior (which Amanda sees as the root of the case). Throughout an increasingly nutty trial, Adam and Amanda continue to challenge one another, both in the courtroom and at home afterward, each trying to get the other one to admit that their line of thinking just might be wrong.
The credit for the film’s amazing verbal volleys belongs to husband-and-wife writing team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who loosely based the story on a real-life case: actor Raymond Massey’s 1939 divorce. Massey, who is perhaps best remembered for playing Cary Grant’s scary brother Jonathan in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, had been married to stage actress Adrianne Allen for ten years when they sought to end their union. After the divorce was finalized, their husband-and-wife attorneys then divorced each other, and each of them proceeded to marry one of the Masseys. Obviously, that plot line didn’t make it into the film, but the idea of sparring, legal-eagle spouses provided great inspiration, and the guiding hand of George Cukor, one of Hepburn’s favorite directors, helped make the movie a great success for its stars.
Not only is the film hilarious, it seems somewhat ahead of its time in its depiction of Hepburn’s Amanda as a so-called “New Woman,” demanding equality with men and deriding society’s ingrained patriarchal bent. Her argument in the closing statement of the trial sounds almost revolutionary for 1949:
“An unwritten law stands back of a man who fights to defend his home. Apply the same to this maltreated mother. We ask no more. Equality! Deep in the interior of South America, there thrives a civilization older than ours, a people known as the Loreanoes, descended from the Amazons. In this vast tribe, members of the female sex rule and govern and systematically deny equal rights to the men, made weak and puny by years of subservience–too weak to revolt. And yet how long have we lived in the shadow of a like injustice?”
Tracy’s response throughout the film is interesting, too. A man’s man through and through, he ably conveys a somewhat expected sense of confusion in the face of his wife’s seemingly new-found feminism, gazing at her in some moments as if she is a strange creature in a stranger zoo: “I want a wife, not a competitor! Competitor! Competitor! If you want to be a big he-woman, go ahead and be it, but not with me!” And impressively, though this statement gives Amanda pause, she doesn’t sway from her viewpoint … not until later, anyway. With Adam’s Rib,we see one of the first pop culture celebrations of feminism, at least throughout the first two-thirds of the film, and f0r me, that’s a large part of why I enjoy it as much as I do (though, as I’ve indicated, the denouement leaves something to be desired, in my opinion; but in the spirit of not spoiling the ending, I’ll refrain from further remark).
Thankfully, the delightful snap and fire of Hepburn and Tracy’s pairing doesn’t overshadow the equally delicious supporting performances from Ewell, Jean Hagen (as Ewell’s illicit lover), and, in her first major film role, the fantastic Holliday. In fact, Hepburn, realizing Broadway veteran Holliday’s talent, pushed for her co-star’s scenes to be padded and for her performance to be talked up in the publicity for the film–all of this an effort to convince Columbia studio head Harry Cohn that Holliday should be cast as the lead in the upcoming film adaptation of Born Yesterday (a part she originated on the stage). And it worked; the rave reviews for Holliday’s performance led to her star-making (and Academy Award-winning) turn as Billie Dawn.
If you miss this one, it will air again on April 1st at 8PM EST, or you can get it for a great price right now at Amazon (but try not to miss it, because that would make me sad. Do you really want to make me sad? Or make Carrie’s lip tremble? Because that lip tremble’s like a nuclear weapon).
Nomination: Best Screenplay