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 Divorcement, Christopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday,The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame, Stage Door Canteen,Dragon Seed, Without Love, Undercurrent, The Sea Of Grass, Song 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.)