Adam’s Rib (1949)
Adam’s Rib (1949)

Genre: Romantic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.

Release Date: November 18th, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Cukor Actors: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, David Wayne, Jean Hagen, Hope Emerson, Eve March, Clarence Kolb

 


 

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oris Attinger (Judy Holliday) stalks a man, clearly fearful of being found out, yet persistent in her tailing. And she has a gun in her handbag. When she catches up to him, it’s revealed that it’s her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell), and that he’s with his mistress. In a wave of fury (preceded by a quick glance through the gun’s instruction manual), Doris shoots the two-timer (putting him in critical condition), resulting in her arrest for assault with a deadly weapon.

The following morning, Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) and his wife Amanda (Katharine Hepburn), who also happens to be a lawyer, have a cup of tea in bed and read about the murder attempt, which leads to a discussion in the car ride to work concerning inequality between men and women and the various things they can get away with in the societal standards of the time. When a man cheats, he’s not nice; when a woman cheats, she’s terrible. As luck would have it, Adam is assigned to prosecute Doris Attinger, causing Amanda to get all riled up. Intent on thwarting a conviction against the woman, who must have a reason for her frenzy, Amanda rushes to secure Doris as her client. “She’s crazy, that’s all. That’s the only explanation.”

The case is going to be a tough one, considering that Doris freely admits to planning the attack on her husband. She elaborates on being in a dreamlike state, and coping with years of physical abuse. But getting the woman off the hook seems practically impossible; she bought the weapon with the sole purpose of gunning down Warren. Unfittingly, this bleak premise is supplemented by a comical intertitle that transitions the case into an evening of gaiety with friends and family, as if a separate comedy-of-manners among the rich and elite. It is, of course, the perfect opportunity for Amanda to break the news of her spontaneous legal representation. “Dinner is served.”

Not surprisingly, Adam is furious. Like many of Tracy and Hepburn’s cinematic pairings, there’s far more drama than humor in this romantic comedy. The potentially enormous conflict of interest is completely overlooked for the sake of whimsical sparring; and, indeed, the married counselors engage in various cutesy games, some of which are gentle prodding, others of which are mild flirtations. From jury selection to the actual trial, time is routinely allotted for frivolities. Sticking to a blithe formula, the days are reserved for legal battling while the evenings are opportunities for flightiness (and even a Cole Porter song, performed by comic relief character David Wayne, who, though pleasant, seems to belong in a different picture [“You’ve got me so convinced, I may even go out and become a woman!”]). Jean Hagen as Warren’s home-wrecking side-woman is also an odd choice, playing a ditzy persona who is difficult to take seriously (a trait that should have been reserved solely for Holliday).

“Do you believe in equal rights for women?” The primary theme of equality for the sexes is definitely poignant, despite its handling with conspicuous levity. It’s a strangely significant topic to be approached with such buoyancy, particularly when Mr. Attinger casually comments – on the stand – about beating his wife and falling out of love due to her weight gain. To make things more complex, however, Doris admits to physically mistreating her husband in return. But for every thought-provoking argument presented, the two Bonners engage in some laughable courtroom theatrics to soften the severity of the masculine-versus-feminine debate. “Your honor, I object to this farce!”

As the film nears its conclusion, it feels as if it’s more about how a couple can playfully fight and make up while facing off in a courtroom rather than whether or not women should be treated impartially in the eyes of the law; the Bonners’ relationship seems to mean more than women’s rights and social justice. It’s hard to imagine this plot – and the justification for attempted murder – being effective in 1949; by modern standards, most of the legal exchanges are plainly illegitimate, nonsensical, and fit for a circus. “I wish it could have been a tie.”

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10