**This post is written as part of The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. Click here to read the work of other participants.**
Long-time readers of Journeys in Classic Film know how I feel about positive portrayals of femininity in cinema and how difficult that can be when discussed films created during the 1930s-1960s (and while it’s far from better today, we’ve definitely made progress). An actress keenly aware of feminine perception was Katharine Hepburn. Her work with director George Cukor created some enduring and wholly positive depictions of female friendships (Little Women) and relationships, none more so than Adam’s Rib. Adam’s Rib is far from perfect, suffering from a third-act “apology” for its progressive views of the “fairer sex,” but the humor transcends time.
Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy and Hepburn) are married attorneys whose domestic lives never mix with their professions. When a mild-mannered housewife (Judy Holliday) shoots her philandering husband (Tom Ewell) in front of his mistress (Jean Hagen), Amanda takes up the wife’s case. The very case Adam is simultaneously prosecuting! A battle of the sexes ranges, both in and out of the courtroom.
Based on actual facts, Adam’s Rib takes a daffy comedic premise and, with the aid of a bristling script by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, turns it into an examination on gender. There’s an air of neutrality from the outset: Adam and Amanda’s names unite them while their last name, Bonner, conjures up phallic imagery, and their mutual nickname of Pinky/Pinkie connotes them as one-person, free of gender. Despite their differing genders, they’re equally matched in a profession dominated by men and Amanda’s predominant argument in the case is that perceived “woman’s professions” are no more. Although she brings in an extreme case, particularly a female bodybuilder played by Hope Emerson, along with a woman boasting several degrees, the intention is placing women on an equal pedestal with men; the WWII mentality of women clashing and butting up against the burgeoning tide of 1950s domesticity.
Despite Tracy and Hepburn receiving equal placement on the marquee, Hepburn’s story and the court case are where the fascination with Adam’s Rib is held. Judy Holliday’s Doris Attinger is the picture perfect depiction of a wife and mother desperate to keep her family together despite how horrible her husband is. In fact, Holliday so impressed Hepburn that the veteran actress leaked stories about Holliday’s performance, leading to the ingenue receiving her Oscar-nominated role in Born Yesterday (1950). And you need an actress squeaky clean enough to get the audience on her side. Holliday’s testimony, revealing she wanted to scare her husband’s mistress because “she was breaking up my home,” is heartfelt, just as it is when she clutches her children at story’s end.
It helps that Tom Ewell’s Warren Attinger is an out-and-out cad who acknowledges beating his wife and stepping out on her because “she got too fat.” Ewell excelled at playing scumbags with a rather all-American edge, and when he tries to sneak in a kiss on his wife’s cheek at the end, you can’t help but see him for the slimy, ineffectual man he truly is. There’s also a great role for Jean Hagen as the appropriately named Beryl Caighn. The fact her named is pronounced “Cain,” connects her to the Biblical Cain, another moment of gender neutralizing. The scene stealing moment involves Hepburn’s summation, asking the jury to envision each of the three in the triangle as alternate gender (thus we see Hagen and Holliday dressed as men and Ewell in bad drag). Not only is it hilarious seeing Ewell in a dress, but you can’t deny Holliday and Hagen look even hotter dressed up as men (or maybe that’s just me!). Either way, it’s a fun bit, forcing the male audience in a theater to envision their own genders, silently judging the double standard that still abounds to this day.
The gender attitudes are played out in the courtroom, so it makes sense that Hepburn and Tracy’s outside interactions aren’t as strong or compelling, particularly because the script knows the men are in the wrong. Not only is Ewell’s character a jerk, but Tracy comes off as incredibly unsympathetic and jealous, particularly of Amanda’s songwriter paramour, Kip (David Wayne). The film’s finale seems to undo most of Amanda’s goodwill by having her in a compromising position so Adam can use a gun, mimicking the situation with Doris and Warren as a means of showing no one has just cause to break the law. Yes, no one has the right to break the law, but Amanda would be a poor attorney if she didn’t present a good defense for her client, right? And obviously the jury believed there was a right or they wouldn’t have acquitted her (and considering Warren admitted abusing his wife…isn’t that cause?). Furthermore, Amanda’s “compromising position” isn’t necessarily of her own doing, so Adam storming in with a gun looks like a juvenile and utterly insane thing to do. But, it’s a comedy so I guess it’s all supposed to make sense, even when it doesn’t.
For 1949, Adam’s Rib is an incredibly progressive comedy with Katharine Hepburn providing biting commentary on the relationships between men and women. The premise has been tweaked in modern movies here and there, but it’s hard to top the power of Hepburn/Tracy. The trio of Ewell/Hagen/Holliday are equally up to the task and provide a ton of laughs.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.