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#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)
IMDb

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 Hepburn—which has mostly endured even as her self-marketed persona has lap-dissolved into a fuller, more adult vantage on her virtues and flaws—makes 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.

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