Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#52: Adam's Rib|
(USA, 1949; dir. George Cukor; cin. George J. Folsey; with Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell,
David Wayne, Jean Hagen, Hope Emerson, Clarence Kolb)
As I have previously indicated, I was not just a fan or a student, I was a citizen of Katharine Hepburn
during my high school years, as is partly indicated by the fact that, in this 2008 version of the Favorites Countdown, she is tied with two other actresses
for the most entries on the list (four apiece, as have Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman). I can't decide whether my ardor for Hepburnwhich has mostly
endured even as her self-marketed persona has lap-dissolved into a fuller, more adult vantage on her virtues and flawsmakes it more or less surprising
that in all these years I haven't corrected a major aporia in my viewing completism. Which is to say, I have only seen three of her nine nationally consecrated
screen-partnerships with Spencer Tracy. No Hepburn fan would permit the same lapse in relation to her Cary Grant collabos: buoyant, thoughtful, full-bodied,
and frequently odd affairs as distinctive now as they were then. I am sure the Hepburn-Tracy vehicles have their charms, but even Woman of the Year,
the lightning rod that inaugurated their partnership at all levels, falls short of the primo experience of, say, top-flight Astaire & Rogers, and I suspect
a similar differential between medium-grade Astaire & Rogers like Follow the Fleet and medium-grade Hepburn & Tracy like, from what I gather, Desk
Set or State of the Union. By all means, tell me if I'm wrong. But there's a two-way hurdle here. 1) It's hard, at least for me, to see in Tracy
what Hepburn saw in Tracy; the films and the actress often get soft on the barest modicum of verve or vulnerability, and he's grumpy and high-horsed an awful
lot of the time. And 2) it's hard to see in Hepburn, when she's with Tracy, what I most love about Hepburn when she's not with Tracy; around
"Spence," she's always apologizing, kneeling on the floor, lamenting even her victories. This is probably closer to real Hepburn, at least in some ways,
or at least by middle age, or at least in relation to Tracy, than are Susan Vance or Tracy Lord or Alice Adams, but I'm not
sure she's yare.
So thank God for Adam's Rib, because even if it doesn't quite match the high screwball watermarks of It Happened One Night or The Lady Eve
as I once thought it did, it's a generous and delicious slice of old-Hollywood cake. More than that, it poses the perfect rejoinder to my Hepburn-Tracy
hangups, proving how devilishly entertaining their partnership could be, how Tracy had it in him to be just as game and surprising and interesting as his
lady love, and how the off-putting psychodynamics of his fogeyish disapproval and her ill-fitted submissiveness can be fascinating and revelatory in the
right, scrumptiously enveloping context. The film starts on neither of the leads but on Judy Holliday's Doris Attinger, burlesquing the opening of The
Letter by pathetically trailing her husband Warren to an afternoon assignation. Between bites of her high-carb nut bars, meant to feed and to steel her
stomach, Doris fires pistol shots wildly around the love nest. It's a well-known story that Hepburn, Tracy, director-friend George Cukor, and screenwriters
and best pals Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wanted to get Holliday the job of reprising on-screen her triumphant lead performance in Kanin's stage hit Born
Yesterday (as she did one year later, to Oscar-winning effect). As PR prep, then, fair-sized chunks of Adam's Rib have been written, acted, and filmed
to show Holliday off, as in the long take where Hepburn, as Doris' riled defense attorney Amanda Bonner, interviews her client: "And after you shot him, how
did you feel then?" Holliday dwells on the question in her tearful and spacey way, and then answers: "Hungry." I like Holliday's performance even better
when it's quiet; she just loves it, from the background, when a star witness played by Hope Emerson (another soon-to-be Oscar nominee) lifts the prosecuting
attorney played by Tracy seven feet in the air, in order to prove some ineffable, absurd principle of women's strength being equal to men's. Singin'
in the Rain's Jean Hagen is also a reliable, nicely muffled treat as the husband's vapid girl on the side, Beryl Caighn. If David Wayne is a bit too
relentless as Kip, the swishy womanizer next door, who homes in even harder on Hepburn's Amanda when her courtroom battle with her hubby-opponent gets too hot,
he at least scores the film's most savory line: "Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called inbreeding, from which comes idiot children, and more lawyers."
Due credit, then, to all the accentuating pleasures of supporting players and verbal wit and George Cukor's typically light, pastryish direction, which can
still turn nimbly around to confront some real ugliness. And Hepburn and Tracy are constantly making him do that. Yes, they're both aces with the comedy stuff, and
they flirt with each other shamelessly, whether in stock footage at their bungalow, or in the sweetly
sexy scenes where they keep dropping pencils in court so they can goo-goo at each other under the table, and she can show off the loopy hemline of her slip.
But Tracy's Adam is hugely disappointed in Amanda's Barnum-style approach to the case. And she's steamed that he doesn't get why Doris' hazy, gun-blasting assault on her
husband demands a carnivalesque social referendum on men, women, and how they view each other. So, yes, Amanda is making the Matthew McConaughey Time to Kill
argument"She's innocent, because the culture is so awful!"and on these grounds, you can forgive more of Tracy's admonishing outbursts than you otherwise
might, just as you accept more of the dizzy distractions that Amanda, Hepburn, Cukor, and the script keep throwing at us. They're all frosting, very nicely,
a pretty inane premise. Charm, aplomb, and conviction go a long, long way. He says, "You just sound so cute when you're cause-y" as though it's a real,
besotted compliment, and she wings about in her two-tone chicly asymmetrical single-lapel lawyering suit like she's ready to teach all of us a thing or two about
gender and lawyering and looking freaking fantastic without seeming to call any attention to it. Makes me hate that by the time she's giving
her closing statement, she looks a lot more like the star of Saint Joan. That's another grim undercurrent, but there are many more, and worse: Tracy's Adam
slapping Hepburn's Amanda, hard, leading to a close-up of Amanda in thoughtful, curtain-dropping horror that's one of the most interesting close-ups in Hepburn's
whole career. Hepburn debating the archaisms and impossibilities of marriage, all but facing the audience, while cast alongside the married man that everyone
knew she was living with. Spencer, I mean Adam, making fun of Amanda's "Bryn Mawr" accent. Spencer, I mean Adam, demanding his rightful dominion over Hepburn,
I mean Amanda, as against the insinuating lavender claims of Cukor, I mean Kip. Amanda exploding in terrible, breathless, rageful tears and begging Adam to at least
try to understand her, to try to adjust himself to her, for a goddamned change.
It all cuts rather close to the bone, as voyeuristic in its way as anything in Kanin's "intimate memoir" Tracy and Hepburn, two decades later.
But the intimacy of all involved also works delightfully in the lighter scenes: Cukor can squat the static camera right in the
couple's empty bedroom and get a whole, lovely scene of conjugal characterization as they flit in and out, getting dressed and going to the loo, and
calling out to each other from offscreen closets and vanity counters. There are dozens of flavorful takeaways: the way Tracy erupts, twice, on the word "competitor";
the underplayed absurdity of Jean Hagen's answers from the witness box ("What kind of a noise?" / "Like a sound, like a loud sound going off!"); the licorice
gag; the proscenium intertitles in birthday-party font; the scene of Tracy demonstrating how to cry on cue ("Us boys can do it, too, we just never think to").
"Your Honor, I object to this farce," Adam bays out during the trial. I am positive there's more going on in Adam's Rib than just the farce, but your
Honor, I don't object to any of it.