#202) Adam’s Rib (1949)
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Class of 1992
The Plot: Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn) are happily married and successful lawyers. One day they argue about an article in the paper about a woman named Doris (Judy Holliday) who shot at her husband (Tom Ewell) when she learned of his infidelity. Adam goes to work to discover that he is the prosecuting attorney in Doris’ seemingly “open-and-shut” case. When Amanda learns this, she becomes Doris’ defense lawyer and makes the entire case an argument of if women are truly equal to men. Heavy stuff, but it’s Tracy & Hepburn so it’s still charming.
Why It Matters: No specific reasons, other than Gordon and Kanin’s script “pokes fun at the double standards between the sexes”.
But Does It Really?: This is one of filmdom’s most endearing battle of the sexes, but it comes from a time before male-America was ready to consider women as equals. There are a lot of great speeches from Hepburn about equality waaaaay before it was fashionable, but there’s also a lot of your standard ‘40s era sexism. It’s the “two steps forward, one step back” of feminism in film, but Tracy and Hepburn’s natural chemistry help smooth over the rough patches. “Adam’s Rib” is an enjoyable romantic comedy, and still funny, but like Kanin’s other work, its foundation doesn’t quite hold up the way it used to. Either the film’s gender politics will weigh it down in the years to come, or Tracy & Hepburn’s radiance will help carry it along.
Everybody Gets One: Producer Lawrence Weingarten, actors Hope Emerson and Tom Ewell, and “Farewell, Amanda” composer Cole Porter. Bonus: This is Ruth Gordon’s only appearance on the Registry as a writer.
Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the “battle of the sexes” stance that permeates this film, we also get a “You lady drivers!” joke. I am here to tell you from my own experiences that bad driving transcends gender.
Seriously, Oscars?: Although it premiered in New York in late 1949, “Adam’s Rib” didn’t play Los Angeles until 1950, and therefore eligible for the 1951 Oscars. Gordon and Kanin got a nomination for Original Screenplay (A married couple sharing an Oscar nod: it was the “Big Sick” of its day!). Had they made it to the 1949 ceremony they would have competed against such now forgotten films as “Passport to Pimlico” and “Jolson Sings Again”. But no, they waited a year and lost to “Sunset Boulevard” instead.
- Warren cheats on his wife (Judy Holliday: Broadway’s Billie Dawn and the first choice for Lina Lamont) with Beryl (Jean Hagen: a replacement Billie Dawn and the eventual Lina Lamont). He has a type.
- Tracy & Hepburn are so wonderfully casual with each other. Off-camera is one thing, but to replicate it on-camera is no easy task. You almost feel like you’re spying on them.
- I can’t confirm he actually said it, but apparently when Spencer Tracy was asked why he got top billing over Katharine Hepburn, he replied, “Because you chowder-head it’s a movie, not a lifeboat!”
- A large number of these scenes are done in long, uninterrupted takes. Amanda’s interrogation of Doris is one five-minute take. It helps that most of the cast had been or were Broadway actors.
- Adam’s mom is Madge Blake, aka Aunt Harriet from “Batman”!
- And then there’s David Wayne as Kip. The character is pretty obviously gay (a professional songwriter with a pithy quip at the ready? Please.), and yet he is attracted to Amanda and tries to woo her away from Adam. I don’t think 1949 America was ready for any of these gray areas.
- Kip may be providing the first audio commentary on Adam and Amanda’s home movies of their farm. Side note: that’s Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s real farm in Connecticut.
- Wow, the Bonners are the friskiest married couple since the Huxtables. Aw man, that comparison is no longer innocently adorable.
- I don’t know how I feel about this stage motif going on throughout the film. It’s as if the film is saying, “this is all pretend”. Takes some of the feminist punch out of it.
- Oh how I wish that were actually Hope Emerson doing her own tumbling. On the one hand, she was a professional strongwoman in her youth. On the other, she was 51 during filming, so probably not.
- Speaking of, you can see the strings holding up Spencer Tracy from a mile away.
- This movie has drag kings! And a drag queen! Progressive points for all!
- Apparently licorice guns were a thing in the ‘40s. This movie is the only reason anyone remembers them.
- Shortly after filming wrapped, the Hollywood Reporter ran an article saying there were “serious talks” about Tracy & Hepburn performing “Adam’s Rib” on Broadway. Sadly, that never came to pass.
- Judy Holliday was originally not considered to reprise her stage role for the film version of “Born Yesterday”. Katharine Hepburn was instrumental in making sure Holliday was highlighted as often as possible throughout “Adam’s Rib” in the hopes that Harry Cohn of Columbia would take notice. The strategy worked, and Holliday won the role and the Oscar.
- Tracy, Hepburn, Cukor, Gordon, and Kanin all reunited for 1952’s “Pat and Mike”. Like “Adam’s Rib”, the film was written for Tracy & Hepburn and, while successful, wasn’t quite the hit “Adam’s Rib” was.
- They never erected a statue of Spencer Tracy, but Hepburn did make a bronze bust of him some years later. It’s the one featured in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
- The early ‘70s seemed like the right time to update “Adam’s Rib” for the Women’s Lib movement, but the TV series starring Blythe Danner and Ken Howard never took off, and was cancelled after three months. The film’s plot was adapted for the show as a two-parter called “The Unwritten Law”. Catchy theme song, though.
Further Viewing: Despite 12 nominations and 4 wins, Katharine Hepburn only showed up to the Oscars once, to present “Adam’s Rib” producer Lawrence Weingarten with the Irving Thalberg Award. For whatever reason, Weingarten gets to awkwardly stand there while Hepburn gives her speech about him. This is why they don’t give out the honorary awards on-air anymore.