Adam’s Rib (1949)
Adam’s Rib was Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn‘s sixth of nine films together, coming after Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), and State of the Union (1948). After Adam’s Rib they made Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
Adam’s Rib is considered to be one of their best movies together, a classic “battle of the sexes” story fought beautifully by two incredible actors with remarkable onscreen chemistry.
The movie is about two brilliant lawyers who also happen to be married to each other. They’re very happy until their relationship is tested by a contentious court case.
Adam’s Rib was written by husband-and-wife screenwriters Garson Kanin (The More the Merrier) and Ruth Gordon. The inspiration for the story came from the 1939 divorce of actors Raymond Massey (famous for his portrayals of Abraham Lincoln) and Adrianne Allen. Dorothy Whitney represented Massey, and Whitney’s husband William represented Allen.
Well, after the case wrapped up, the Whitneys got their own divorce and each married their client! Fun fact: Both of those marriages lasted until Dorothy and William passed away decades later.
Kanin and Gordon began discussing the unusual Massey divorce case during a drive to their country home. The idea of married lawyers battling it out intrigued them, and eventually they sold the script to MGM. The original title was “Man and Wife,” but the studio changed it to Adam’s Rib.
Fun fact: although the script wasn’t officially written for Katharine Hepburn (Holiday) and Spencer Tracy, Kanin and Gordon said that even early on they called the married lawyers Kate and Spence. Kanin and Gordon would go on to pen Pat and Mike a few years later, which they did write specifically for Hepburn and Tracy.
Another fun fact: Tracy’s name appears first, as it usually did in his films with Hepburn, because Tracy always wanted top billing. According to Anne Edwards’ biography of Hepburn (A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn), Garson Kanin asked Tracy about the billing and suggested that he give Hepburn the top spot: “She’s the lady. You’re the man. Ladies first?” Tracy responded, “This is a movie, Chowderhead, not a lifeboat.”
George Cukor was assigned to direct this film, which is fortunate because he was a brilliant director who worked splendidly with Hepburn. He directed her first movie, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and they would go on to make seven more movies together, including Little Women (1933), Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Pat and Mike (1952).
Cukor also worked well, and often, with Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. He directed the duo’s first screenplay, A Double Life (1947), and would direct all four of their joint screenplays, as well as other films which they wrote singly.
To the movie! Most of the exterior scenes were shot on location in New York City, including the opening scenes of Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) following her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell, whom you might know from The Seven Year Itch (1955).
Doris paces anxiously, gnawing on a candy bar, as she waits for Warren to exit his office building.
And then the chase is on. There is no dialogue, just a score by Miklos Rosza, as Doris stalks her husband to the apartment of his lover, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen in her first film role. She would go on to play Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain in 1952).
Doris stops outside the apartment to consult her handy gun guide before bursting in on her faithless husband. This scene manages to be funny and intense at the same time, thanks in large part to Holliday, who is terrific as a desperate, distraught woman pushed to her limit. She is murderous and adorable as she consults her instruction manual for her just-purchased gun.
Fun fact: Holliday very nearly didn’t get this role or the one that would make her famous in Born Yesterday (1950). She had recently garnered critical and popular acclaim on Broadway where she was starring in Garson Kanin’s play, “Born Yesterday.” Columbia bought the film rights, and despite Kanin’s wish that Holliday reprise her role on screen, studio chief Harry Cohn dismissed the idea. He didn’t think that Holliday was pretty enough to be a movie actress.
Hepburn heard about this during pre-production on Adam’s Rib, and she suggested that Holliday play Doris in the film. It could serve as a long screen test, and prove to Cohn that Holliday was perfect for Born Yesterday. Kanin and Gordon beefed up the role, and Hepburn convinced Holliday to take the part. During filming, veteran film actor Hepburn was extremely encouraging to newbie Holliday, and helped her deliver a great performance. And it worked! Not only is Holliday great in this movie, but Cohn changed his mind and cast Holliday in Born Yesterday, a role for which she won the Best Actress Oscar!
Back to the film! Once inside the room, Doris loses her fragile grasp on self-control, shuts her eyes, and starts firing in the direction of her husband.
She hits him in the shoulder, but she becomes hysterical when she realizes he is hurt. A tinny tune pours from the radio as Doris sobs, clutching her bleeding, cheating husband on the floor. Typical comedy scene. You can watch it here.
Cut to the following morning. We find ourselves in a sophisticated, beautifully-appointed apartment. A sophisticated, beautifully appointed woman unlocks the bedroom door and takes a massive breakfast tray from the maid.
She wafts coffee at her sleepy husband and perches on his bed. Yes, even this movie about two mature adults who have been married for years abides by the Production Code’s rule that no couple can be seen sharing a bed. Their lovely bedroom therefore has two beds.
This is Adam and Amanda Bonner, who are played to perfection by one of the greatest screen couples ever, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. One of the reasons that I love this movie is that Tracy and Hepburn play a married couple with all the quirks, habits, and silly nicknames (Pinky and Pinkie) of long-time loves. They are completely comfortable with each other, but their chemistry still crackles. It’s quotidian, but never dull. You can watch their morning here. I think my favorite part is when Amanda imitates the funny noises that Adam made in his sleep.
Adam and Amanda remind me of Nick and Nora of The Thin Man, but a little less wacky and more modern, since this time the wife isn’t an heiress whom the husband is constantly managing to outsmart to keep her out of danger. In Adam’s Rib, both husband and wife are successful professionals. Plus, they aren’t constantly downing cocktails. They have work in the morning!
There is a reason that Tracy and Hepburn crackle on screen and make such a convincing long-term couple. By the time they made this movie, Hepburn and Tracy had been secretly together for about eight years, ever since working together on Woman of the Year (1942). It was a secret because Tracy was married, though he and his wife Louise hadn’t lived together since the 1930s. Although it was kept quiet from the public, Tracy and Hepburn’s twenty-six year relationship was an open secret in Hollywood. They lived together for the last several years of Tracy’s life until he died in 1967. Hepburn didn’t speak openly about the relationship until after Louise passed away.
Back to the film. Amanda and Adam are enjoying breakfast when she sees an interesting headline:
It’s just the sort of case to inspire Amanda. She’s a staunch feminist and immediately sides with the wife. Good for her, she thinks! But Adam thinks it is a shame that anyone would break the law.
They argue about the Attinger case all the way to work. (Note that Amanda is driving! She’s a horrible driver, though, so that’s one wink at a stereotype.)
Amanda is pessimistic about the equality of the Criminal Justice System. She’s afraid that the wife won’t get a fair trial, nor receive the same punishment that a man charged with the same crime would. She becomes rather lofty when she speaks of her firmly held feminism, and Adam mocks her.
Fun fact: Katharine Hepburn did actually attend Bryn Mawr College. And she was progressive and outspoken, and probably would have been an excellent attorney had acting not been her chosen profession.
Amanda drops off her husband and continues to her own office. We learn that Adam is an assistant district attorney, and Amanda is a lawyer, too.
Adam sits at his desk and peruses his new assignments. He is upset to find the Attinger case among them, as he knows that his prosecution of Doris Attinger will cause trouble at home…
Meanwhile, Amanda is dictating a letter to her secretary, but her mind keeps straying to the Attinger case. She and her secretary discuss how a husband having an affair seems somehow acceptable, if “not nice,” but a wife who does the same thing is “something terrible.”
Fun fact: The secretary was played by Hepburn’s friend and stand-in Eve March. March would also play Hepburn’s secretary in the Broadway musical “Coco” in which Hepburn played Coco Chanel, in 1969.
Just as Amanda is expounding on gender inequality and double standards, her husband calls to tell her that he has been assigned to prosecute Doris Attinger.
She is flabbergasted and protests. He laughs at her impassioned reaction and tells her “You just sound cute when you get caus-y.” Now she isn’t just surprised, she’s mad. She decides that she is going to defend Doris Attinger.
As Adam talks with the very classy pair of Warren and his mistress…
…Amanda heads to jail to speak with her new client, Doris. This scene is absolutely marvelous. It’s filmed in long takes with that spectacular framing of the three women in the foreground and the prison warden in the deep background.
Amanda is the very picture of calm, capable intelligence. She handles fragile Doris just perfectly, speaking in a low, serene voice and listening to everything Doris has to say. Amanda is also the very picture of beautiful elegance in her trim suit, understated jewelry, and those cheekbones! Cinematographer George J. Folsey lights it all to perfection, especially Hepburn’s patrician features.
The scene also presents a wonderful contrast between sophisticated, brilliant Amanda and desperate, somewhat blowsy Doris. On one side of the table is a highly educated attorney in chic clothes with a “Bryn Mawr” accent, and on the other side is a maltreated wife with ill-fitting, common clothes and a slang-y New Yawk accent. (Doris’ low cut, ruffled cabbage rose blouse is just about the scientific opposite of Amanda’s crisp jacket.) It’s not a cruel or comic contrast, just a gentle look at the differences between these two women.
Amanda asks Doris to tell her what happened, and you get the feeling that no one has ever paid Doris so much kind attention. She responds to Amanda’s gentle questions and spares no detail, enjoying the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Doris tells Amanda that she has three children and she really wants to go home. She explains that her husband hits her and rarely even sleeps at home anymore. She finally reached her breaking point, bought a gun and followed him to his lover.
Adding some comic levity to this intense scene is Doris’ constant refrain of how hungry she was and how much she ate as she waited to shoot her husband. When Amanda asks Doris “And after you shot him; how did you feel then?” Doris pauses, thinks, and says simply, “Hungry.”
The scene is essentially Holliday delivering a long monologue broken up occasionally by Amanda or the secretary.
You can watch it here. Notice how the camera remains still, and it’s all one-take with no cuts or reaction shots. Also, notice how Hepburn is filmed in profile, while Holliday is in three-quarter or full face, and she’s more brightly lit.
None of this is an accident. The scene could have been filmed with lots of different angles, close-ups of Hepburn and Holliday, and reaction shots showing what Hepburn is thinking as she listens to Holliday.
But remember how Hepburn wanted Holliday to shine in this role so that she could be cast in Born Yesterday? Apparently, Hepburn asked Cukor to shoot this interview scene in one medium shot long take because that would leave the focus on Holliday as she delivered her monologue.
Hepburn also refused to shoot reaction shots, so Cukor had no choice but to keep the scene intact with that framing. It was a powerful “screen test” that convinced Harry Cohn that Holliday was great on camera and perfect for Born Yesterday. It also made for a powerful, funny scene.
Why did Hepburn go out of her way to showcase Holliday? She must have thought Holliday was talented, but she later told Garson Kanin that “It was the kind of thing you do because people have done it for you.”
Adam doesn’t know that Amanda is defending Doris Attinger. He arrives home just a few minutes before guests arrive for a dinner party. Amanda is rushing about getting ready, but she pauses to open up the gift Adam has brought her, a fancy hat. He says, modestly, that it is “Just the best hat in the world. For the best head.” How adorable is that?
One of my favorite little couple-moments comes as they are leaving their bedroom to greet their guests. Amanda tells Adam, “Oh, boy, you look handsome!” When he thanks her but doesn’t respond in kind, she says, playfully, “This is a dress I have on.” He catches on and compliments her immediately!
One of the guests is their across-the-hall-neighbor Kip (David Wayne), a songwriter. Amanda is his lawyer, and he flirts outrageously with her. Adam is not amused, but Amanda doesn’t mind.
Fun fact: Kip’s character was modeled on Cole Porter.
I think Hepburn is at her most stunningly beautiful in this film. And this dress is a knockout. Hepburn’s costumes were designed by Walter Plunkett and he did a tremendous job.
All those folds and draping get lost a little in the black and white film, but fortunately the dress still exists and can be admired in perfect lighting.
Anyway, the party is going great until Amanda tells a friend that she is defending Doris Attinger. Needless to say, Adam fumbles his tray of drinks when he hears that news.
Things are tense between our married lawyers all evening, even during the home movie viewing. They show their guests footage of them at their farm, which they just paid off. That explains the tree-kissing, for now they own the place free and clear.
Kip’s annoying commentary on their home videos doesn’t help. Amanda tries to smooth things over, but Adam is very upset.
Once all the guests have gone home, the Bonners argue about the case. But they don’t go to bed angry.
Cut to a few weeks later. The Bonners are ready for the Attinger trial. Amanda’s defense will rest on gender (in)equality, while Adam has the simpler task of proving that Doris is guilty of assault. Even jury selection is contentious, especially after Amanda plays a nasty trick on Adam by loaning her new hat to Doris.
Adam is not pleased. But they are still on good terms and engage in some fun beneath the table. You can watch the first day of the trial here.
Fun fact: before filming began, Cukor and Hepburn went to courtrooms in Los Angeles doing research for this movie. They wanted to present a realistic courtroom, and although there is some inauthentic movie drama, for the most part the trial seems realistic.
The Attinger case is a sensation, and the married lawyer angle just makes it more interesting. Adam sets out to prove that Warren Attinger wasn’t having an affair and that Doris is an unstable lunatic guilty of assault.
Amanda sets out to prove that Warren was unfaithful, and that Doris was justified in her attack because she was trying to keep her home together. She claims that if a man did the same thing, he would be applauded, but because Doris is a woman, she is being judged differently.
And so they battle it out. Amanda and Adam are both excellent lawyers, plus there are lots of frenzied objections and more passionate outbursts than any real judge would tolerate. But it makes for interesting viewing!
You can watch them cross-examine Warren here. Fun fact: Warren calls Doris fat quite often, which originally was very upsetting to Judy Holliday. She was sensitive about her weight and at first asked that the “fat” lines be changed to some other insult. But Holliday eventually realized that the dialogue was perfect and so Tom Ewell let ‘er rip.
Somewhat amazingly, Adam and Amanda can yell at each other in court but still enjoy a harmonious personal life. They wisely put down the newspaper to cuddle and drink cocktails and fix dinner together.
In a nice touch, they both seem at home in the kitchen!
I’m reminded of Woman of the Year (1942), another Hepburn/Tracy “battle of the sexes” film when Hepburn’s character is hopeless and humiliated in the kitchen. She may be an internationally powerful woman, but isn’t it funny that she can’t cook! Haha, indeed.
At least in this movie she and Adam are great lawyers and good cooks!
Everything is hunky-dory until Kip drops by with that evening’s paper. It’s designed to irritate Adam, and it works.
Then Kip tells Amanda that he’s written a song for her, and proceeds to sit down at the piano and play it while Amanda and Adam eat at the kitchen table. Adam gets madder and madder with each chorus of “Farewell, Amanda.”
Fun fact: Garson Kanin wrote a song for this moment in the script, but nobody liked it. So he dared Hepburn to come up with something better. One shouldn’t dare Hepburn to do anything! She called Cole Porter and asked him to write a song. At the time, Hepburn’s character was named Madeleine, and Porter said it was impossible to write a song with that name. He said that “Amanda” might work, though, and a few days later brought Hepburn and Kanin the song “Farewell, Amanda.”
How amazing is Amanda’s magnified houndstooth robe?
But back to the song. “Farewell, Amanda” wasn’t an entirely new composition; it was a re-imagining of Porter’s 1940 song “So Long, Samoa.”
That song had never been used, so Porter played around with it and came up with the song that Kip sings in this movie.
He didn’t charge MGM for the use of the tune, but instead asked that they make a sizable donation to the Red Cross.
Then it’s back to the courtroom for Doris’ testimony. It’s a very tense day with Amanda gently cross-examining Doris and Adam attacking her until she breaks down in the witness box.
That evening starts cordially enough with massages and complimentary conversation.
But Adam seems to get agitated as they discuss the case. When he gives his wife’s bottom a slap, Amanda immediately gets upset. She says that she knows his touch, and that slap was definitely not a love pat. Adam claims it was his normal slap, but Amanda is already up off the table, backing away from the “typical instinctive masculine brutality” that he has unleashed.
They’re both on edge. The newspaper the following morning gets it right:
The next day in court, Amanda has filled the rows with “expert witnesses” to testify on the basic equality of the genders. She’s got female scientists, foremen, and even a weight lifting circus performer, as well as many other women who are at the top of their chosen fields. She wants to prove that women are the equal of men. Adam understandably objects on the grounds that none of this is relevant to the case. (And he’s right.)
The judge allows Amanda to bring only three of her witnesses to the stand. When the Bonners repeat their under-the-table game from before, Amanda gloats over her victory.
She is clearly still smarting from the previous evening’s argument, so she asks her female weight lifter to lift Mr. Bonner as part of her expert testimony. She obliges.
It’s all very funny. But not to Adam. When Amanda returns home that evening, she tries to apologize, but Adam is much too angry. She follows him around the apartment until he snaps.
He tells her that she humiliated him today, but worse than that, she showed utter contempt for the law. She turned the courtroom into a circus and paraded her irrelevant witnesses in an attempt to circumvent the basic question in the case–did Doris Attinger attempt to kill her husband, or not?
Adam doesn’t like Warren, and he certainly doesn’t think Warren was blameless, but none of that matters, because he believes that no one has the right to break the law. Plus, he wants a “wife, not a competitor.” He walks out of the apartment and slams the door.
It’s a great movie argument, and it’s fun to watch because we get to wander around the Bonners’ lovely apartment and see Amanda’s fun black and white blouse.
Soon it’s closing argument time. Amanda makes her case to the jury that Doris was justified because she was trying to save her family. She says the question is not about what Doris’ actions were, “but to what extent they were justified.”
Then she asks the jury to join her in a little experiment. She asks them to picture Doris and Beryl as men, and Warren as a cheating wife, and see if that changes their feelings on the case. In a bit of movie magic, all three characters morph into the other gender. Creepy, right?
Fun fact: most of the interior scenes were filmed back at MGM, and Holliday liked to explore the backlot when she had free time. She went on a stroll in her “man” costume and makeup, and ran into Greer Garson, who screamed at the sight of her.
Then it’s Adam’s turn. He tells the jury that he thinks the defense’s summation was “sound. Mere sound,” as it had nothing to do with the essential facts of the case. The jury must decide whether or not Doris is guilty, not whether it is okay to break the law whenever someone wants to.
His summation loses some of its dignity when he slips up and calls Amanda “Pinkie,” and then has to answer the court reporter’s questions about what he said, who “Pinkie” is, and how it is spelled. Amanda doesn’t miss a beat, explaining that the name ends in “‘ie’ for me and ‘y’ for him.”
Then it’s up to the jury. They reach a decision, and we wait with breath that is bated. Turn away now if you don’t want to know, though hopefully you’ve realized by this point that I always spill the beans, spoiler-wise.
Fun fact: one of the trials visited by Cukor and Hepburn was the murder trial of Betty Ferreri in Los Angeles. Ferreri was an abused wife who killed her husband. Cukor was interested in how Ferreri’s appearance changed during the trial; early on she wore a lot of make-up and looked “hard” and overdone. But she gradually softened her look and appeared more natural, possibly due to advice from her lawyer. Cukor wanted Doris to undergo a similar transformation, so notice how she looks much softer and more sympathetic at the end of the trial than at the beginning.
Doris is acquitted, and the courtroom collapses into chaos. Reporters and photographers swarm, asking for pictures of Doris, Warren, and Beryl shaking hands (gross). The three Attinger children rush in and Warren gloms on for a family picture, and they’re soon joined, weirdly, by Beryl.
Amanda is happy to have won, but very sad because it may have come at the cost of her marriage.
She and Adam stiffly make plans to meet at their accountant’s office the following day to go over their quarterly tax returns, and then part ways.
This is the last courtroom scene, so let’s take a moment to appreciate some of Walter Plunkett’s impeccably designed lawyer suits, worn so elegantly by Miss Hepburn:
Amanda heads home, where Kip asks her to look over some contracts. But the evening devolves into flirting as Kip attempts to comfort the very tipsy and very sad Amanda with these wise words:
Then Kip’s flirting goes from harmless to real, and Amanda gets mad.
Unbeknowst to both of them, Adam is watching their silhouettes move through the apartment from the street below. He enters the building. Dum dum duuummmm.
Meanwhile, somehow Amanda has gone from discouraging Kip to practicing onstage kissing techniques. That’s when Adam bursts in. With a gun.
Amanda begs Adam not to be foolish. She bursts out with the magic words, “You’ve no right! No one has the right to…!” which is just what Adam was waiting for. Exactly, he says. No one has the right to break the law. Then he brings the gun to his mouth…
…and bites off a large chunk. “Licorice,” he says. “If there is anything I’m a sucker for, it’s licorice.”
Naturally, Amanda is absolutely furious at this trick. A fight ensues and spills out into the hallway. It seems that divorce may not be far off.
Our pair of dueling lawyers meet at their accountant’s office the next day. It’s painful, but things get really sad when they start talking about receipts and payments on the farm. Adam starts to cry, and Amanda is overwhelmed by his tears.
She takes him in her arms and leads him out of the office, promising him that they will go to the farm right now. And everything will be okay.
All is forgiven by the time they get to their beloved farmhouse, and Adam has some exciting news. He’s been chosen to run for the county court judgeship on the Republican ticket, and it should be a guaranteed victory. While Adam gets ready for bed, Amanda ties on the hat he’d given her (and that she’d loaned to Doris). She calls out, sweetly, “Have they picked the Democratic candidate yet?” And Adam is back with a stern look.
He tells her that she won’t run because if she does, he’ll cry. And then she’ll have to concede, because she can’t stand to make him cry. Nonsense, she says! So he sits down and causes fake tears to run down his face. Earlier in the film, he’d mentioned that women can manipulate men with their tears. Now, he’s proven that it works the other way, too. He admits that his crying fit in the accountant’s office was fake and designed to get Amanda back. It worked perfectly.
Which just proves her point, Amanda says. Men and women are the same! Adam questions her until she qualifies her statement: “Well, maybe there is a difference, but it’s a little difference.”
Indeed, says Adam. And:
He pulls the bed curtains shut as Amanda grins.
It’s a fantastic, funny ending to a great movie that is also one of the more explicitly feminist of Hepburn’s films. Adam’s Rib was years ahead of its time; after all, 1949 also marks the first appointment of a woman to a federal district court judgeship, and we’re still debating the sexual double standard, 65 years later!
This film did well critically, and the script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to Sunset Boulevard.
Adam’s Rib also enjoyed a healthy box office, ranking 15th out of 1950’s releases. (Adam’s Rib has a 1949 release date since it premiered in New York in November of that year, but it played most cities in 1950, which is why it was counted among 1950’s films for box office figures and awards. Unlike today’s wide releases when a movie opens everywhere simultaneously, movies used to open in the biggest cities at around the same time before appearing in staggered engagements in other cities. It could take years for a movie to reach every town.)
Fun fact: there was a television series inspired by this film starring Blythe Danner and Ken Howard as the married lawyers. It premiered on ABC in 1973, but only lasted eleven weeks.