Sunday, January 17, 2010

Adam's Rib (1949)

By Eric Jessen January 17, 2010

It was convenient for director George Cukor and particularly for writing duo Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, that they had a sweet couple in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to play with. No amount of marital chirp would annoy us with these two. They're perfect leads for a light and wonderful comedy: warm, lovable, and also intelligent enough to convey a serious message. But I still wonder if Adam's Rib is a statement first and a comedy second or vice versa.
Gordon and Kanin certainly came up with the most logical set up to prove women are equal to men. Hepburn as Amanda Bonner and Tracy as Adam Bonner are a marriage made in courtroom heaven. She's a defense attorney and he's a prosecuting attorney. He believes in justice. She believes in equality. With those values, no matter what happens, they're both winners. And is there a setting more reasonable, more civilized, or more American then a courtroom? Perfect that women's equality would be decided by a judge and jury.
At first Amanda seems to be a stereotypical wife. In her silk nightgown, very dutifully, she serves Adam breakfast in bed. But just as she begins to smooch-up to her husband, his grumpy reaction gets her blood boiling. Terrific that a case came along Amanda thought perfect to prove a point. The very innocent and desperate looking Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shot her cheating husband Warren (Tom Ewell) after catching him in the act, but the fact that she trembled with fear, closed her eyes and turned away just as she pulled the trigger proves she didn't mean it. And she says she was just trying to scare him. Even more terrific that this very case fell into Adam's lap.
But who would make the better argument? I was very interested to see. Given the circumstances it seemed to be an open and shut case. I wondered how Amanda would possibly create suspense leading to the verdict. So when Adam and Amanda's daily arguments finally made the courtroom I was thoroughly disappointed.
Screwball comedy or not, Adam proves himself an absurdly incompetent attorney. And really Amanda isn't any better. Her argument for why Doris should be acquitted assumes men frequently get away with shooting their cheating wives. Do they? She claims they were only trying to protect their home, and so was Doris when she shot her spouse. Picture the defendant as a man, she pleaded to the jury, then what would your verdict be? I did and wasn't convinced.
However Adam's Rib still has its moments. Hepburn and Tracy are funny here. Certainly Judy Holliday and even Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen as Ewell's mistress in supporting roles are exceptional. It's unfortunate they're rarely given anything but easy gags. Gordon and Kanin write a pretty good comedy but a weak, at best, statement.
So they fought, they bickered, they patted each other on the bum and a few times it got raucous. A few times it got personal. But really, it never went that far. It was always all in fun. And in the end the man, Spencer Tracy, won the battle. But for a while, the woman, Katherine Hepburn, got the better of him. Long enough, I guess, for 1949 to earn Adam's Rib a brief mention for being “ahead of its time.” Some went as far as to call it “pioneering.”
It seems all that matters is that they had a battle, Hepburn even put up a fight. She wasn't a doll, she was a woman, a woman that deserved as much respect as Spencer Tracy. So she didn't win and didn't even really pack much of a profound or though-provoking punch, but for once a woman had made her way into the ring. I hope you're satisfied.

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