The best of all the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn comedies, Adam’s Rib is as fresh and topical today as it was in 1949 when it was first released. Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor, this satirical farce about a pair of married lawyers who find themselves on opposite sides in a court case is tailor-made to the talents of its stars. Like all great vehicles, it is so good in and of itself, that it could work just as well without them. But to lovers of this great screen team, the thought of anyone else playing these parts is just about unimaginable. In fact, none of the eight other films the two made together contrasts and complements their playing styles as brilliantly as this one.
Is Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) justified in taking a pot-shot at her rotten husband (Tom Ewell) when she finds him in the arms of a cheap tootsie (Jean Hagen), or is she just another unsettled citizen taking the law into her own hands? That is the question that finds Adam (Tracy) and his wife Amanda (Hepburn) at loggerheads. To him it is an open-and-shut assault case. To her it is a lot more—a test case for feminism. Were the sexes reversed, she claims, the defendant would be let off scot-free, but because Doris Attinger is a woman, she is going to have to go to trial.
Adam and Amanda begin their legal battle royale in a goodhumored spirit at first. But while he tries to cut the case down to as small a size as possible, she uses every opportunity to blow it up and make it a larger feminist issue. Frayed nerves and short tempers soon make for seriously wounded feelings, as the lawyers find themselves to be nearly as estranged from one another as their clients. Being a comedy, all's well with the couple by fadeout time, but not before each is allowed to make a telling point or two in support of the sex they represent.
While working feminist politics into a satirical comedy would not raise eyebrows today, in 1949 it was a rather daring thing for a mainstream Hollywood film to do. With World War II over, women, who had held down all sorts of jobs during its course, were being encouraged to leave the workplace and return to the homefront. Katharine Hepburn's fiercely independent screen image was, of course, never tied to anything of that sort. If anyone embodied the notion that a woman could do anything she wanted if she put her mind to it, it was Hepburn. Spencer Tracy fit beautifully into this design as her male counterpart—tough, unflappable, but with a warm and loving heart. Under George Cukor’s brilliant direction, this perfect pairing of parts and personas moves with such wit and skill that it stands as a master class in the art of high comedy performing.
Great as they are, Tracy and Hepburn are not the whole show in Adam’s Rib. For in many ways the third star was the film's director, George Cukor. Beginning his career in the theater, Cukor came to Hollywood in 1929, just as sound filmmaking was beginning to demand directors who knew how to make actors talk as well as move. Quickly carving out a distinguished career for himself as an adaptor of both successful stage plays (Dinner at Eight, Camille) and classic novels (David Copperfield, Little Women), Cukor was one of the most highly regarded and sought after directors in Hollywood history. Besides Tracy and Hepburn, with whom he made several films, stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Garland, and Rex Harrison gave their very finest performances under his direction. Never fearful of a film appearing too theatrical or “stagy,” Cukor, with great subtlety and taste, altered forever Hollywood's conceptions of how a film ought to look.
One example of this in Adam's Rib is the scene in which Adam and Amanda get dressed for dinner (Chapter 2). Keeping the camera stationary and concentrating our attention on the dialogue and the natural movements of the players, Cukor creates one of the most purely cinematic scenes in film history out of a sequence of events that largely keeps the principal players off screen. Because of the energy they bring to their every entrance and exit, the scene becomes a virtual ballet.
More impressive still is the justly celebrated jailhouse scene (Chapter 4) in which the brilliant Judy Holliday is given full rein in creating the character of the hapless Doris Attinger. Again the camera does not move. As Cukor described it to writer Gavin Lambert: “There was no reason to move it, of course—and we couldn't move it anyway, it all took place in the cell. It was Judy Holliday's first big scene in the picture, and in those days there was a lot of chatter about ’scene stealing,’ but I never knew what the hell that meant. You can't steal a movie because it's all controlled by the camera and the editing. The most you can do is use some little tricks and maybe distort it. They used to say ’Judy Holliday steals scenes,’ but this was basically her scene. It was shot full on her, with a three-quarter view of Kate's back. Kate wasn't being generous or anything, and Judy wasn't stealing anything—it was how the text indicated the scene should be played. (And an audience knows Kate, knows her voice. You don't have to keep cutting to her.) Not only did Kate play back to camera, but she indicated, as a good actress can do, ’that's the way it's supposed to be.’ She and Spence always played together that way too. It's an important element of real collaboration.”
This same spirit of collaboration is apparent in every aspect of Adam’s Rib. Tom Ewell and Jean Hagen are hilarious as the straying spouse and his paramour. David Wayne is excellent as the songwriter friend of the lawyer, whose attention towards Amanda drives Adam up the wall (the song he composes was written especially for the film by Cole Porter). And such veteran performers as Hope Emerson, Polly Moran, and Clarence Kolb contribute fine supporting turns.
Viewers are likely to be as divided as the characters as to what the Attinger case represents in the “Battle of the Sexes.” But whether you take Adam’s side or Amanda’s, you are not likely to be deadlocked in finding Adam’s Rib “guilty” of being one of the finest comedies to ever come out of Hollywood.