“It’s the hilarious answer to who wears the pants!” That was the tag line used to get audiences to go see Adam’s Rib in 1949 and the pants still fit. This George Cukor classic offers great fun, real smarts and stars two of Hollywood’s greatest actors, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. It’s a romantic comedy for the ages but to say it is merely a romantic comedy is to do it an injustice. There are lessons and messages too.
Adam’s Rib is about a married couple, both criminal lawyers, Adam and Amanda Bonner (Tracy and Hepburn). Marital strife and some mayhem ensue when the couple takes opposing sides in a murder case. Amanda takes the role of defending the wife accused of shooting her husband and Adam tries to prove her guilt. This is one of the many films Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together and it is, arguably, the best of the lot – though, in my opinion, there are no losers in the bunch. Films like Pat and Mike (1952), Woman of the Year (1952) and Desk Set (1957) and others ensure this dynamic acting duo are perpetually listed as one of the greatest film teams in cinema history.
Chemistry always seems such a fleeting thing when speaking about films. After all, actors get paid millions per picture, so JUST HAVE CHEMISTRY! Obviously this is easier said than done, otherwise there would be a formula and no film would ever flop. The truth is chemistry is elusive and no matter how many millions actors are paid it just can’t be pulled out of thin air or manufactured – we may not know exactly what it is but we can certainly feel it when it’s present and miss it when it’s absent. And is it ever present whenever these two powerhouses are on-screen together! I must mention that this script is superb, no ifs, ands or buts about it. It is merely enhanced by the classic Tracy and Hepburn delivery and superb acting. This is a funny yet complex plot, which pits the sexes against each other and society’s view of the sexes against itself. But the exchanges between these two people are what really stand out. Their exchanges, the timing, the way they speak over each other yet none of the dialogue is lost, and all that is said between them with a look is priceless. This may be rehearsed but it can’t be learned – it’s movie magic.
I’d like to continue being a fan for another moment and discuss Tracy and Hepburn as individuals in films, because I enjoy their work so much. Spencer Tracy happens to be one of my favorite actors. His acting is so natural that he always seems not to be doing anything at all. When comparing him with many of today’s stars, whose performances seem so contrived, we can see what a gift he truly had. Physically he had an everyman quality and he brought that quality to a great range of roles throughout his career. I believed him to be every character he ever played, without question. As for Ms. Hepburn, well, she could do it all. She was a gifted comedienne and arguably the most accomplished dramatic actress American films have ever featured. I am no actress but I would venture to say that whatever quality it is Hepburn had you couldn’t obtain with money or rehearsal, you either have it or you don’t.
I’d be remiss not to mention a third acting phenom in Adam’s Rib, the accused, murdering wife, Doris Attinger, played by the fabulous Judy Holiday. Hers is not as meaty a role as the two main characters and she hasn’t many lines to speak. But as with all else Ms. Holliday did, she is brilliant in the role. She conveys more with a look here than any other actress could have. Her impeccable comedic talents are in full view and the film is that much better for them.
Aside from Adam’s Rib being a gem for its pure entertainment value, it has a lot of value in its message as well, the way it shows typical stereotypes and then twists them so that many views are shown on any one single issue. The overall theme is whether the law is capable of seeing men and women the same given similar situations in regards to crime. But that’s just one of the many levels in which this film looks at the differences in the sexes. The film looks at this in many ways from both male and female perspectives, something that is not easy to do while also creating a fabulously entertaining film. That’s why Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon received an Academy Award nomination for this script.
What Gordon and Kanin do is write a script about somewhat complex legal matters, add gender views and turn those any which way but loose. As a result in Adam’s Rib you get stereotypical views and attitudes of and about each gender, recognizable patterns, and then opposites views and opinions that fall well outside the norms. For instance, we are presented with the top-level view of the law and how it treats men and women, then society’s norms and how they judge men and women and finally, the personal views of each gender and how they conform, or negate the broader views. It’s a creative, multilayered approach to addressing age-old questions: who is the more emotional, who is the physically stronger, who is the more romantic, who is the smarter, and even who is more ethical. All these issues are very basic and are often taken for granted. We know what most people felt about each of these in 1949 and what most people feel about these today in reference to gender, but this film takes each aspect and turns in upside down to show there is no set rule, or at least tries to show that there shouldn’t be. Adam’s Rib further shows that both men and women are capable of much more than society gives them credit for – that blurring the lines between the sexes and our “assigned” roles may well be a positive thing in our understanding of each other.
Who is the more emotional? With a little show of force at the end of the film, Adam illustrates to us and to Amanda that we can be equally so, and not always in a sincere way. In the scene in the accountant’s office when their dream house is brought up, the house they bought to signify their life together, Adam begins to cry. Slowly the tears start flowing down his face and so indignant is he about these tears that he must step away and look out the window so as not to appear weak, as certainly tears would make a man seem (of course we know he’s milking it). Then Amanda, playing the “typical” male role in this instance goes after him to the window and, seeing his tears, suggests they drop everything and go to their house in the country. The tears worked for him as they would normally work for a woman who might use such tactics to get her way. Later, in the last scene he shows that he can indeed shed these “real” tears whenever a situation may call for it. Men too, it seems, have easy access to this commonly known “feminine” social tool. In my favorite scene, the rubdown, right after Adam spanks Amanda on the behind (which she calls “typical, instinctive masculine brutality”) with enough gusto to render her speechless for a moment, she breaks down into tears. His response is exasperation and anger, “female tears, stronger than any acid!” he says. Just when he’s about to break and feel badly about her tears she says, “let’s all be manly” and kicks him really hard on the shin. Here, she is the one who has a “typically male” physical response and resorts to violence as a result of an emotional outburst. These are just two examples of how Adam’s Rib shows that men and women are each very capable of reactions and behavior usually ascribed to the other sex. And it does so in very comical ways.
Who is the physically stronger? Again here, Adam’s Rib points to the fact that there are again no written rules as to how one sex behaves versus the other. Amanda illustrates this point in court by putting the strong lady on the stand as a witness for the defense. Not only does this woman consider her greatest talent lifting weight, but also she can lift any man alive. To demonstrate her talent and expertise she lifts a man, a live one, in open court. No need to mention whom the man is. Perhaps this stunt is a bit over the edge but the point is well made and very funny.
Who is more romantic? As my example to demonstrate this point I am picking the hat. That hat that Adam buys for Amanda, which she in turn gives to her client to wear in court almost immediately after he gives it to her. Aside from his wife being the obvious pain in his side, or woman being the rib from man’s side, this hat to me signifies another form of that rib. In other words, the hat is the literal “thorn” in his side or “Adam’s rib” because it is tossed in his face every day as he feels he is being made a fool of and, as I see it, it does hurt his feelings that Amanda would have given this gift to someone else. He can’t ignore it, as we see so brilliantly by his reaction every time he turns his head, until he finally grabs it from Mrs. Attinger’s head (the accused) during his closing arguments. Meanwhile, Amanda doesn’t blink an eye about giving it to Mrs. Attinger to wear, completely disregarding her husband’s feelings in the matter. In fact, it seems a bit cold that she wouldn’t even mention it to him or that it doesn’t occur to her that he’d mind. Maybe that was part of the defense strategy, just another “thorn” to rattle him. Again here I see the gender roles reversed ever so slightly. He is more sentimental about the gift and she is practical and puts zero weight on it.
Who is the smarter? The point is well made in Adam’s Rib that either sex is as smart or as dumb as the other. Amanda presents another witness for the defense who has several degrees from several countries in several languages (female). We have a married attorney (he) fighting in court against another married attorney (she), and she wins. But perhaps the best example of the brilliant writing in this film and how it fits these characters and story so well is in a line that Adam says to his wife. During one of the many arguments they have about the case and about the law he says to her “No matter what you think you think, you think the same as I think.” In these words he says volumes. On the one hand we see that he feels the same way most husbands felt at the time, that their roles as husbands included telling their wives what and how to think; on the other he admits she is his equal. Simple yet complex.
Who is more ethical? (Or who is better at following the rules?) Adam makes several statements to Amanda about how she is making a mockery of the law. How the law is to be taken seriously if it is to work. He insinuates that what she is doing in the courtroom is not ethical, but he goes further to say that it is out and out wrong. Well, her shenanigans are ethical and although at times she seems to cross a line, in the interest of her client she does what is required. If the cutthroat attorneys (all male) most were used to seeing at that time did any of the things she does they would have seemed tame. And, perhaps as a sign of the times, Adam sees much of what she does as “wrong” because the papers are not portraying him in a favorable light, attacking his masculinity. She is definitely the aggressor and what red-blooded American man likes his wife to be the aggressor? At least in public.
Aside from all the smaller issues where the lines are blurred mentioned above, Adam’s Rib also has a fair share of representatives of the typical stereotypical characters who don’t vary from expected gender behavior. For instance, in Mr. Addison we see the ever popular “husband/man can do no wrong” character, the man is the king of the castle whose wife is expected to shut up and put up with him. While Mr. Attinger is on the stand he is asked a series of questions – “Do you yell at your wife? Do you scold your wife? Do you strike your wife? Do you stay out all night?” All to which he answers a resounding “yes.” “Do you consider yourself a good husband?” And again he says “yes.” This is what was expected then and sadly is still expected today by many people. Conversely, Mrs. Attinger portrays a stereotypical wife. She stays at home with the kids, has no career outside of the home and wouldn’t mind putting up with her husband’s antics as long as he wasn’t too blatant about them. By her demeanor and language we can see Mrs. Attinger is not well-educated, as a wife and mother wouldn’t be expected to be then. This is a good time to bring up that when Amanda is thinking about taking the murder case she is citing the details to her secretary who has the stereotypical response – when asked about what she thought about the husband cheating on his wife she says “that’s not nice.” When asked what she thought if the roles were reversed she said “that’s something terrible.” So, societal views are well represented in this film in that we see men are “allowed” to do certain things that are just not acceptable for women.
Another stereotypical character is Kip (played by David Wayne), the musician, songwriter, and neighbor. He is a typical playboy who takes the first chance he sees and makes a pass at Amanda. It makes me laugh when he pledges his love to her and says that it would have been the same toward any woman who lived just across the hall – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And a final stereotypical role represented here is the dumb blond other woman. Of course I am referring to Beryl Caign and we need not mention any example other than when she is on the witness stand answering questions about the attempted murder she was present at, “…and then I heard a noise” she says, describing the moment in question. Adam asks “What kind of noise?” and she replies, “like a sound.” Need I say more?
The main argument Amanda has is both a feminist attitude and something very important for all, equality before the law – she says “We don’t want advantages! And we don’t want prejudices!” And perhaps the best thing this film does is argue the importance of this in a way that no one group feels threatened by the fact that ultimately this is the least anyone could ask for. No one can argue with the weight of her argument, justice should be blind to our differences. But the final message of this film, something Amanda learns toward the end of the trial, is as important as all else. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the fighting for a cause that we forget, or lose, what’s really important in our lives. This film takes no one side and doesn’t commit itself to a right versus a wrong. In the end it allows us each to be the judge.