Comic Nourishment: Amanda McQueen on ADAM'S RIB

September 8, 2015 - 10:42am
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on George Cukor's Adam's Rib was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A recently struck 35mm print of Adam's Rib, courtesy of the Library of Congress, will screen in our "35mm Forever!" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, September 13 at 2 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In their sixth on-screen pairing, Adam's Rib, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play Adam and Amanda Bonner, married lawyers arguing opposite sides of an attempted murder case. Designed as a star vehicle for the two actors by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Adam's Rib became the highest grossing Tracy-Hepburn film to date, ensuring future production of similar vehicles – such as Pat and Mike (1952) and Desk Set (1957) – and helping cement them in the public's mind as the perfect American couple.

Production on Adam's Rib went remarkably smoothly, perhaps because Kanin, Gordon, Tracy, Hepburn, and director George Cukor were all friends, and this facilitated a trusting and affable working environment. In fact, Variety noted that the film was completed in record time. Kanin and Gordon wrote the script in only 30 days. Three months later, in late-May 1949, principal photography began. Thanks to a streamlining of the procedure for granting shooting permits, Adam's Rib was one of a dozen projects that filmed in New York City that year, and Cukor used various locations, including the Women's House of Detention, to provide a feel of authenticity. In June, the cast and crew returned to the MGM sound stages in Culver City, and production wrapped after 36 days. Six weeks later, the film was complete and ready for preview screenings.

MGM released Adam's Rib in mid-November 1949, as part of a larger boost in the studio's production activities. Well-received by critics and the public, it remained one of the top ten films at the box office for three consecutive months. Gordon and Kanin were nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and Judy Holliday was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Doris Attinger, the housewife on trial for shooting her husband.

A number of critics, in fact, felt that Holliday nearly stole the film. Variety claimed that "A better realization on type than Miss Holliday's portrayal of a dumb Brooklyn femme doesn't seem possible," while The New York Times noted that her "perfect New Yorkisms, her blank looks, her pitiful woes are as killingly funny – and as touching – as anything we've had in farce this year." The scene in which Amanda interviews Doris about her crime – which Cukor filmed in a single, static take – is one of the film's standout moments. Some of the positive press about Holliday was actually a marketing strategy devised by Hepburn, who was championing the actress's burgeoning film career, and it succeeded in convincing Harry Cohn to allow Holliday to reprise her Broadway role in Columbia's adaptation of Born Yesterday (1950) (also written by Kanin), for which she won an Oscar.

Holliday was one of four "new faces" recruited from Broadway for supporting roles in Adam's Rib. Tom Ewell played philandering husband Warren Attinger. Jean Hagen played his mistress. And David Wayne played Kip Laurie, a songwriter who rivals Adam for Amanda's affection. Despite the Production Code Administration's insistence that "There should not be even the slightest indication that Kip is a pansy," there are suggestions that he's gay, and many scholars have viewed him as a stand-in for Cukor or for Cole Porter, who wrote the song Wayne performs in the film. Incidentally, "Farewell, Amanda," a reworking of a song Porter had composed on a cruise called "Bye, Bye, Samoa," was not very well received. Time quipped that it sounded like Porter had written the lyrics while waiting for a bus, and Cukor was reportedly unhappy with it as well (I've always had a soft spot for it, however).

Ultimately, though, Adam's Rib belongs to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Undoubtedly aided by their real-life chemistry, the two are in top form with what Variety called their "delightfully saucy" banter, and it's little wonder that this is often considered one of their best comedies. Further contributing to the film's strong reputation – and to Tracy and Hepburn's status as one of Hollywood's greatest romantic teams – is the "democratic" nature of their relationship. Tracy and Hepburn embody what Molly Haskell calls "intelligent love:" they instruct, inform, and educate each other, and their union is based on the relative equality of the partners.

For this reason – and because of the larger legacy of both Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor – many have seen Adam's Rib as a feminist film, ahead of its time in its critique of male supremacy and gender inequality. Amanda Bonner is a competent career woman, whose self-identity is not limited to being a wife, and she successfully proves not only the varied and impressive accomplishments of women, but also how the law discriminates against them. The film also complicates traditional gender stereotypes by demonstrating that each sex is capable of adopting traits associated with the other: Amanda can be a bully in the courtroom and Adam can fake manipulative tears.

Some have countered, however, that the film's ending actually reinforces the traditionally submissive role of women in both the marriage and society at large. Indeed, Hepburn later hypothesized that part of what made the couple America's "romantic ideal" was that Tracy portrayed a strong, "sports loving . . . man's man," while she portrayed a woman who, at the end of the day, could still be squashed "if he put a big paw out." Ultimately, though, even if Amanda does capitulate to Adam – this is 1949, after all – the Bonners' marriage seems to be a partnership founded on mutual love and respect. And we shouldn't forget that the film ends with Amanda still fighting the battle-of-the-sexes, eager to square off against Adam once more.

Overall, Variety found Adam's Rib to be a clever and "knowing" film that "gets away with a lot because of the comedy treatment." And there's no denying that it remains genuinely funny. In fact, Variety added that "Subtitles or hearing aids are needed to break through the wall of audience laughter" threatening to obscure the witty dialogue. Our enjoyment as viewers is only enhanced by the obvious fun Tracy and Hepburn are having on screen. As The New York Times put it: "A line thrown away, a lifted eyebrow, a smile or a sharp, resounding slap on a tender part of the anatomy is as natural as breathing to them." Over sixty years later, Adam's Rib is still "meaty and juicy and comically nourishing."