Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a total of nine films together, but, for my money, Adam’s Rib is the best. It’s a film with just about everything, from a sharp script to a great performances by the central couple as rival lawyers. It was also ahead of its time in its trenchant querying of the sexual double standard, a theme flagged up in the title. And there is a fine supporting cast, headed by Judy Holliday. You can see why this film was such a shot in the arm for the romantic comedy at a time when the genre was starting to struggle.
I’ve always been fond of films where couples work together, which tends to make for great dialogue as their personal relationship becomes messily entwined with rivalries and tensions in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had already made one good film where they are rival journalists, Woman of the Year (1942), though that one is marred by a cringe-making ending. In Adam’s Rib they are married colleagues again, but this time they play lawyers.
The film was inspired by the true story of lawyers William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney, who represented actor Raymond Massey and his wife Adrienne Allen in their divorce case. The lawyers then went on to divorce each other… and marry their respective clients! However, all that remains of this real-life case in the film is the idea of the married lawyers representing a warring husband and wife. Adam and Amanda Bonner take opposing sides in the courtroom, as they fight it out in the case of a wife (Holliday) who shot and wounded her philandering husband – and tear their own relationship apart along the way. The film has all the fire and energy of the best screwballs and brings to the forefront the battle of the sexes which is at the heart of many such films – between the more conventional hero, determined to uphold the rules, and the more intuitive/irreverent heroine, who questions every convention and regulation in sight. (Hepburn had played several such characters, including the infuriating Susan in Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby.)
Scriptwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, a married couple, drew on their own working relationship for the dialogue between Tracy and Hepburn, but they also had the actors in mind for the roles from the start and tailored the characters to their screen personalities. Tracy’s grumpiness and Hepburn’s upper-crust assurance are central to the roles. The couple’s ease and warmth with one another really make the movie and you can see how much they enjoy a host of quirky moments along the way, from Hepburn’s outrageous stunts in the courtroom to Tracy’s mischievous wielding of a liquorice gun.
George Cukor, who is one of my favourite directors, was known as a “woman’s director” – something he resented – but I’ve seen it argued he was really more of an “actor’s director”, giving his actors, of either sex, the time and space to make a strong impression. He worked with Hepburn on many films, including her first role in A Bill of Divorcement, and the smash hit which put paid to her ‘box office poison’ reputation, The Philadelphia Story.
However, in Adam’s Rib, the actress who noticeably gets the time she needs to put her stamp on the film is Judy Holliday, in her supporting role as downtrodden wife Doris Attinger. Holliday is absolutely riveting in her long opening scene, brilliantly shot by cinematographer George J. Folsey, as she stalks her cheating husband Warren (Tom Ewell) through the street and the subway. She finally stops to check the instruction book for her new gun before attempting to shoot Warren and his mistress (Jean Hagen before Singin’ in the Rain). Then Holliday has two more long scenes, in the prison and the courtroom, where she again gets the time and space to make an impression. According to the imdb, Hepburn generously persuaded Cukor to keep the camera on Holliday most of the time during their shared scenes, only allowing herself a few brief reaction shots, and this certainly paid off. Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn is said to have been opposed to casting Holliday in the film version of her stage hit Born Yesterday because he thought she was too fat… but he had to change his tune after her acclaimed performance in Adam’s Rib. Holliday (despite looking lovely and not at all overweight to me) deliberately plays on the fat, unglamorous image here, sniffling all through that opening scene and also nibbling on snacks – then constantly referring to food in her courtroom scene. ( ‘And after you shot your husband, how did you feel? ‘Hungry.’)
Central to the court case, and the film, are the questions of just how different men and women really are. Amanda claims that society would be far more outraged by the cheating partner if it was an unfaithful wife – and, following on from that, far more forgiving of the gun-toting spouse if it was a husband getting his revenge. Both Holliday and Ewell are glimpsed in startling drag to emphasise the point, and a number of women are called into the witness box to have their say on sexism – including a weightlifter who demonstrates her skill by picking up a surprised Adam. Later, Adam demonstrates how he can cry at will to get his own way. This is a scene I find slightly uncomfortable because it is Tracy letting us see him acting, but it is yet another moment where the traditional sex roles are questioned. (There are some similar moments in Woman of the Year, like the one where Tracy sulks because Hepburn has failed to compliment him on his new hat.)
Adding to this theme of gender is the presence of supporting player David Wayne, cast as the sexually ambiguous Kip, a songwriter who lives in the flat across the hall from Adam and Amanda. This scene-stealing character is said to have been modelled on Cole Porter, and he performs a song at the piano written by Porter for the film, Farewell Amanda. (Porter was originally asked to write a song using the name ‘Madeleine’, which was the original name of the heroine – but it didn’t lend itself to rhymes as well as ‘Amanda’, so the character’s name was changed to fit the song he came up with.) The Hays office apparently warned against Wayne’s character appearing to be gay, but Kip is still defiantly camp in the movie – even though he makes a pass at Amanda in one scene. You wonder how the scriptwriters got away with him saying: “Amanda. I’m on your side, I guess you know that. You’ve got me so convinced, I may even go out and become a woman.”
Something which can’t be ignored while watching this film is the wealth of the Bonners, with their effortlessly expensive lifestyle and the mortgage for their holiday home which they have paid off in just six years. James Harvey’s stimulating book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, describes the film as a “gentrification” of romantic comedy, drawing attention to arch little details like their shared nickname, ‘Pinky’. He comments: “But finally there is nothing, they make us feel, that can’t somehow be reduced to the dimensions of that ‘small, perfect kitchen’ and the life of discreet, tasteful affluence that the movie both evokes and enacts. This coziness was precisely the sort of feeling that screwball comedy at its best had seemed to challenge.” I take Harvey’s point here and can see that the film does make the Bonners’ lifestyle seem very appealing – yet, to my mind, it is indeed challenged by the glimpse we have had of the very different and not at all cosy world of the Attingers. I think the hints of cuteness in the Hepburn/Tracy relationship may be deliberate, to suggest how removed they are from the lives of the couple they have just been representing.
Following on from this, when I first saw the film, I was disturbed by the moments of comic violence between Adam and Amanda, where she kicks a door into him or he slaps her accidentally on purpose during a massage session. I felt this element was misjudged. Now, however, while still finding these moments disturbing, I realise they are a deliberate echo of/contrast with the sordid violence in the marriage of the Attingers. Warren admits in court to beating Doris up, but in the next breath says he thinks he is a good husband. Sometimes the humour in this film can turn black, despite its sparkling surface – and so the overall effect perhaps isn’t all that cosy after all.
This piece first appeared during the Comedy Countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website. Most of the photos are gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.