Kate and Spence have returned, all…
When Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy come up, people often talk about how well-matched they are. They’re like two peas. Whatever Spence gave Kate, she gave back to him, and their love for each other was always evident. This dynamic played successfully in nine feature films, and one of the absolute best in my opinion is 1949’s Adam’s Rib. It’s a hard look at the differences and similiarities between men and women while showing the workings of criminal court with a minimum of Hollywood touch-ups. As a bonus, it introduced or made stars of some soon-to-be familiar faces.
Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn) are top-notch New York lawyers who are equal in every way. They really respect each other and play off each other, they’re very romantic and very much in love. In addition to their posh Manhattan condo, they have a swanky farm in Connecticut with dogs and a swimming pool. Nothing can touch their little world…or can it?
Then Amanda is assigned to defend Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a wife and mother who suspects her husband, insurance salesman Warren (Tom Ewell) is cheating on her with Beryl (Jean Hagen), one of his clients. Doris tails Warren to Beryl’s apartment, where she finds them in flagrante delicto on the sofa, pulls out a handgun, and starts shooting all over the place. One of the bullets hits Warren. He’s not dead, only wounded, and the city wants to know if Doris meant to do it or not.
A criminal trial is nada without the prosecution, and guess who nets that job? Yep, our guy Adam. Small world, isn’t it?
Okay, it’s a little awkward, but at first Adam and Amanda take things in stride. They’ve got this. It won’t disrupt their home life. It may even give them more time together, like at the jury selection when Amanda blows Adam a kiss under the table.
Once the trial gets going, though, keeping home and work separate isn’t that simple. Adam’s case seems open and shut because Doris already confessed to firing the gun. Reasonable suspicion? No problem.
Heh. Not so fast, Mr. and Mrs. Bonner. The funny thing about practicing law is that lawyers often have to bring their work home. Adam and Amanda can’t help talking about the case while they go about their evening. To add to the fun, there’s a composer named Kip (David Wayne) across the hall who’s got very big eyes for Amanda, and he even writes her a song, “Farewell, Amanda.” Adam glowers, and well he might because “Farewell, Amanda” is truly annoying, but he may have a few tricks up his sleeve.
Amanda’s end of things in the courtroom isn’t so easy. As a defense attorney, her job is to create reasonable doubt, and since it’s already known that Doris fired the gun, Amanda decides to work the justification angle. Doris wasn’t happy at home. Her husband neglected her. They fought on a regular basis. Doris gave Warren every chance to come clean and fix their marriage, but no go. Amanda paints Doris as a desparate woman who just wanted to scare her husband’s paramour away.
In response, Adam tries to put the blame back on Doris. Warren was the one getting hurt and abused. Warren was the one who wanted to save his marriage but Doris forced him into Beryl’s arms. Doris got fat. Doris isn’t smart enough to keep Warren happy. No woman is all that smart. By the time Doris takes the witness stand she’s sobbing uncontrollably.
Amanda fires back by filling the courtroom with women, one of whom is a chemical engineer and another is a tumbler who’s spent many years in show business. Adam is incensed when this woman lifts him high above her head, much to the delight of the crowd and the consternation of the judge.
So, in the battle of the sexes, who will come out victorious? And will Amanda and Adam ever be at peace with each other again? Who knows, but seeing as it’s Kate and Spence, it’ll be a wild ride getting there.
Speaking of wild rides, the film has a basis in fact. It was inspired by the 1936 divorce of Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen, who hired attorneys William and Dorothy Whitney to represent them. Funny thing, though, once the divorce proceedings were over the Whitneys divorced each other, with Dorothy marrying Raymond and William marrying Adrianne.
Holidays must have been fun at the Whitney and Massey houses.
The film was real on another level as well. As preparation, director George Cukor sat in on the murder trial of Betty Ferreri, an abused wife who stabbed her philandering husband. Ferreri was eventually acquitted, but the real takeaway for Cukor was the way the woman’s looks got more and more subdued as the trial went on. According to film critic Emmanuel Levy, this was worked into the character of Doris. Cukor also no doubt incorporated real courtroom protocol into the scene composition and rhythm, which proceeds with rat-a-tat precision.
What’s also nice about the film, and many historians have pointed this out, is that Hepburn and Tracy, two towers of strength, made a concerted effort to promote the new talent in the cast. Adam’s Rib shows the early screen work of Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, Judy Holliday, and David Wayne, all of whom had been stage actors. There are points throughout the movie where the attention is subliminally playing up these four bit players, giving them better lighting and better angles.
Judy Holliday in particular got a big assist from Hepburn and screenwriter Garson Kanin. Hepburn suggested Holliday for the role of Doris, and Kanin scripted the jail scene so that the camera focused on Holliday, not Hepburn. Kanin and Hepburn wanted Holliday to make a big enough impression that Columbia chief Harry Cohn would change his mind about casting her in the film version of Born Yesterday. It worked; Cohn was so fooled by the scheme that he stormed into L.B. Mayer’s office demanding answers. Long story short, Holliday got the part.
This doesn’t mean Hepburn and Tracy were shrinking violets, though. Hepburn went into the film thinking she’d don slacks like Rosalind in As You Like It, but for the movie to work she had to look as feminine as possible. Well, for Katharine Hepburn, anyway, who favored clean lines in her clothing and not a lot of frillies, if any.
As for Spencer Tracy, he insisted on top billing. When Kanin challenged him on it because “Ladies first,” Tracy’s response was, “This is a movie, Chowderhead, not a lifeboat.”
Adam’s Rib was a rousing success, bringing in approximately three million for MGM in its initial run and placing sixteenth on Variety‘s “Top Moneymakers of 1949” list. Tracy and Hepburn were called “an ideal couple” by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Bosley Crowther raved about the movie as well, calling Adam’s Rib “a nimble and fragile little tale of a violent courtroom rivalry between a lawyer-husband and his lawyer-wife that makes this current picture bounce and spin with thorough glee.”
The movie certainly has worn well over the years. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, and I envy those who are seeing it for the first time. It’s one of those films that should be Exhibit A in the Court of There Is Nothing New Under the Sun.
For more of the great Kate and Spence, please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting this, ladies–it’s always a blast. Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope to see you all on Tuesday for another Reading Rarity…
Adam’s Rib is available on DVD from Amazon.