Adam’s Rib, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 100 minutes.
A distraught wife (Judy Holliday) seeks out her husband (Tom Ewell) as he meets with his paramour (Jean Hagen). With a great lack of expertise and a shaky aim, she shoots him in the shoulder, wounding his ego more than his body. Their story is headline news, and particularly captures the attention of Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn), married New York attorneys on the opposite side of the courtroom.
Amanda, a defense attorney, seeks to represent the bewildered and aggrieved wife, while Adam, part of the prosecuting attorney’s team, is assigned the case. For Adam, it is cut-and-dry; the defendant shot her husband and admitted to it, therefore, she is guilty of a crime. Amanda, however, sees a double standard in the way women are treated in the court system and believes a just sentence would be no sentence at all.
The happily married Bonners find their union strained as a result of the courtroom drama, and their belief in each other challenged.
The movie was nominated for one Academy Award for screenwriting. It was greeted with favor by the press, including The New York Times, whose critic called it “a bang-up frolic” and Variety, who reported the film was “a bright comedy success, belting over a succession of sophisticated laughs.”
This was one of the first major motion picture roles for Holliday, who had come to the attention of the theater-going public in the Broadway production of Born Yesterday. Holliday would go on to make a career of playing scatterbrained yet inadvertently insightful blondes, the same way she portrayed her character in Adam’s Rib.
The script was written by the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. Unlike many screenwriters of the time, Gordon and Kanin wrote independently and sold their scripts to the studios, so they remained free to write the stories they wanted without studio oversight. Working with George Cukor was beneficial, Kanin said in a later interview, because he “was a great respecter of the text.” Cukor, Hepburn and Tracy had input into the story, but the screenwriting remained the domain of Gordon and Kanin.
The sixth of nine films Hepburn and Tracy would star in together, it is perhaps one of their best, along with Woman of the Year. Their chemistry is obvious and, as we know, very real, and their talents equal and balanced. Both are masters of the use of subtle expression and moves, pure communication without words.
Adam’s Rib was timely in its portrayal of the woman’s issues of the day, and in many respects, the message is just as relevant today. The courtroom drama may become slapstick and story line a bit improbable at points, but that is part of most comedies, and this is a gem of a comedy.