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A Year with Kate: Adam's Rib (1949)

Episode 26 of 52: In which Tracy and Hepburn's best comedy shows that love, life, and law are a circus.

How are we already halfway through this series? How are we already halfway through this year? 2014 is going by faster than KHep’s dialog in Morning Glory. (See what I did there?) We’ve already covered one debut, an Oscar win, a masterpiece,  a massive failure, an equally massive comeback, cinema chemistry history, racist history, communist history, and some odd miscellany, and we haven’t even gotten to the bulk of Kate’s Oscar nominations yet. Plus, in yet another moment of perfect symmetry, the 26th film is the pinnacle Tracy/Hepburn collaboration and a major milestone in Kate's career: Adam's Rib.

A woebegone wife attempts to shoot her husband when she finds him in the arms of his mistress. It’s the stuff that Law & Order episodes are made of. It’s also the prologue to this Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon courtroom comedy about two married lawyers (Spencer and Kate) arguing the opposite sides of a criminal case. He’s a law-enforcing Assistant DA, she’s a proto-feminist private attorney, but at the end of the day they’re just “Pinky” to each other. Side note: only Kate and Spencer could use such a saccharine sobriquet as “Pinky” and make it sound alternately endearing and weirdly sexy. Observe:

D'awww. My favorite moment is when they duck offscreen for some Hays Code-appropriate fooling around at the end.

Tearing ourselves away from adorable antics of Adam and Amanda, you would notice that director George Cukor assembled a stellar supporting cast. David Wayne plays the possibly-gay-possibly-predatory neighbor/songwriter, Tom Ewell plays the cheating husband, Jean Hagan plays his mistress, and Judy Holliday plays the weepy wife Doris, a scene-stealing “screen test” role that deservedly landed her the lead in Born Yesterday (and her eventual contentious Oscar win). This is a good cast. And this is a complicated movie.

Adam’s Rib is essentially two films stitched together with good dialogue; a courtroom satire butting heads with a marriage comedy. In court, it’s a battle between Amanda’s idealism about equal rights for women against Adam’s unswerving position that “the law is the law.” At home, it’s a classic breakdown of communication. (They don’t “trade witty banter” so much as “talk loudly and lovingly at each other.” Ah, the joys of married life!) Tension crackles when the public and private spheres collide. At first, it’s small annoyances, like Amanda giving Doris a hat to wear in court that Adam had bought for Amanda. Later, it’s larger humiliations. The stakes rise higher--literally--every time Amanda pulls a stunt like this:


Yet for all of the ideological heavy lifting (har har) that Kanin and Gordon’s script appears to do about issues like domestic abuse, broken marriages, gender roles, and gun control, you’ll notice that by the end of the film, none of these issues are actually resolved. Amanda Bonner could easily be read as an ur-feminist character who focuses on her career and women’s rights. She could just as easily be read as a caricature of the “New Woman” who discards causes like dresses and drives her husband mad. Evidence for both abounds, but even at the film’s conclusion--after two stunts from Adam as theatrical as anything Amanda tried--no absolute verdict is rendered. If the film has a message, it’s that anything--from lying to attempted murder to lying about attempted murder--is worth it to preserve a marriage as good as the Bonners'.

Kate ended the 1940s as she’d begun them - with a huge comedy smash. Still, repetition--even repetition of success--can be stifling. Kate summed up her feelings on her late 1940s career thusly: “Well, if you don’t improve you slip inevitably backward. Or you hammer--hammer--hammer on the same spot. And you become the same old thing doing the same old thing.” At age 42 I wouldn’t exactly call KHep “old,” but clearly she felt worn down by the MGM Star Comedienne image she’d developed for the last decade. Kate was busy studying Shakespeare while filming Adam’s Rib, and she wouldn’t return to the screen for another 2 years. But when she returned it was with a film that completely revolutionized her career again--and damn near killed her in the process.

What's your favorite film we've covered so far? What are you looking forward to in the second half? Thank you for continuing to read and participate!

Part 1: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher StrongMorning GloryLittle WomenSpitfireThe Little Minister, Break of HeartsAlice Adams, Sylvia ScarlettMary of ScotlandA Woman RebelsQuality StreetStage DoorBringing Up BabyHoliday,The Philadelphia StoryWoman of the YearKeeper Of The FlameStage Door Canteen,Dragon SeedWithout LoveUndercurrentThe Sea Of GrassSong of Love, State Of The Union 


Next Week: The African Queen (1951) - In which Kate went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Houston, and almost lost her mind. (Available on Amazon and Netflix.)

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Reader Comments (11)

I"m not as enamored of this movie as others, but I will say that I think it is the height of the Hepburn / Tracy pairing. I tend to dislike courtroom dramas, even courtroom comedies (having been a lawyer), so I don't hold it against Kate at all. Every part of Adam's Rib that takes place outside of the courtroom, like the clip above, are just lovely.

Kate made a phenomenal run of five films in her early career and these are the ones I always return to - from Stage Door to Woman of the Year with The Philadelphia Story being my very favorite and one of my favorite movies of all time.

I am very much looking forward to Kate's next movie. Her big leap into color movies. :-) And unlike some others, I rather like Kate's spinster movies in the 50s.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Last year at my old job I had to organise a mini-film festival to celebrate Women's History Month and this was one of the entries. I remember my boss worrying how people would respond to an "old-timey black and white" movie. About 40 people in a room, a third of whom had never even seen a a Katharine Hepburn film from ages 16 to 60 and there was howling, uproarious laughter in response to it. (At some parts the crowd response was so much you couldn't even hear Kate's chattering.)

I found it thrilling to see just how appreciative people were of it, and I think the fact that it DOESN'T resolve anything is what makes it work so well. It has more questions than answers but its charm is that isn't really didactic about anything in the long run. Just charming, and sincere and fun and funny. And thoroughly well acted. The chemistry is just wonderful.

(On the awardage side of things, this seems like such an obvious film to triumph at the Golden Globes, how amusing that it only got one nomination - for Judy.)

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

This is the most essentail Kate I haven't seen. I'm a bit ashamed by this fact. I am realizing how rarely this woman worked in the latter half of her career, though, with the halfway point of her career being reached twenty years before her second of four Oscars.

Also, I'm not sure if this has been addressed yet, but I think Anne Marie should publish this series when it's all done. This has been such a lovely dive into one specific actor, and a grand tribute.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I am surprised we're at the halfway point as well Anne Marie! One thing I've noticed as you've worked our way through her filmography to this point is looking back with a few exceptions, Stage Door, Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, it's easy to see why the nominations didn't come until later. Her vehicles were frequently ordinary and she was variable in them.

Like Dave in Alamitos Beach I'm not as fond of this as many people. I do enjoy it, it's funny and clever and one of the duo's better films but my preference is Desk Set as their best pairing. What this does have beside the chemistry of the main couple, the delightful cameo from Hope Emerson that you have the screen cap of and Jean Hagen's customarily stellar work as Tom Ewell floozy on the side, is two terrific supporting performances.

David Wayne by his facile wit and charm makes his character of Kip more of an amusing boor than the lech he would be in a less talented actor's hands.

But by both design, Hepburn throwing scenes to her especially the interview scene, and the force of her personality Judy Holliday almost walks off with the picture setting her off in style on a wonderful, regrettably short career. I wish someone would do a review of her slender catalogue of films, there's some real gems there besides Born Yesterday; The Solid Gold Cadillac, Belles Are Ringing, It Should Happen to You and best of all The Marrying Kind although she might be that rarest of film actresses who never appeared in a really bad movie.

Back to Adam's Rib, she was right to take a break and seek a new direction at this point since even a high quality rut is still a rut. One thing I do love about this movie and one which she rapidly abandoned is Kate's adoption of the New Look in both dress and hairstyle, a shame since it suited her. Excepting Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? where she's the chic matron with her own idiosyncratic fashion sense this is the last time in her career she was truly stylish, afterward slipping into spinsterish mode or a casual independent way of dressing.

Tough questions about what my favorite has been so far and what I'm looking forward too most! I've really enjoyed revisiting all her films as the series has progressed, even the ones I hated, Sylvia Scarlett and Spitfire, but as much as I love Stage Door my favorite of the films covered so far is Holiday without question. Such a beautiful, delicate film. My guilty pleasure would be A Woman Rebels which many don't like but I've always found highly enjoyable.

What I'm looking forward to: Desk Set, The Lion in Winter, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Suddenly, Last Summer and most of all her fantastic TV version of The Corn is Green. I'm frankly dreading The Iron Petticoat where somehow Bob Hope gives a better accounting of himself than she does!

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Dave -- I think you're going to make me eat my earlier words about disliking her spinster phase. Certainly the 1940s did not turn out how I expected. Maybe on second viewing I'll get less frustrated on her behalf. I usually spend most of Summertime yelling "OH COME ON. JUST HIT THAT ALREADY."

For my part, I'm looking forward most to Long Day's Journey Into Night, which I've never seen, and The Lion in Winter, which I've seen far too often. I've cut at least one quote from TLIW from every post so far. A few may have snuck through unintentionally.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I love that this movie stays actively apolitical-- the fact that it doesn't have a clear feminist or anti-feminist stance heightens the push-pull and the comedy in really fun ways.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I like The Lion in Winter just fine but don't think it's the greatest thing ever. I do think it's one of Kate's finest moments however. I'm most intrigued in the later years by what you think about some of the "lesser" things like The Glass Menagerie which I strangely liked.

As for Summertime, hell yes, who wouldn't hit that...in 2015? But 1955? I have very fond memories of the movie because I loved the struggle in watching Kate almost giving in, then giving in, then giving up, then, oh heck, I just remember it as being great. I may have to watch it again.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. I just want to say that while I don't love the IDEA of Kate as a spinster and what that might say about the status of women at the time, what it does is free her from Tracy and allow her to be a single woman in her "later years." Even Doris had to pretend to be 20 years younger than she was most of the time (doing the same thing).

And it was the 50s & 60s that really cemented her reputation in my mind. Her contemporaries were forced to take on gargoyle roles and lesser TV stuff while Kate managed (through sheer force of will it seems) to stay above all that. It's sort of the proto-Streep career arc.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

My favorite (coverage) so far: Holiday

Most anticipated: Long Day's Journey Into Night
Suddenly, Last Summer

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

One of very few - if not the only - courtroom films that is both cinematic and loads of fun. Cukor and Hepburn brought out the best in each other.

June 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

What about State of the Union?

June 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Hey Jen -- You can always find links to previous entries in A Year With Kate at the end of each article. Or you can just copy/paste this url:

June 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

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