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  • Post last modified:April 5, 2021

Adam’s Rib: Battle of the Sexes


adamsribIn the late 1940s, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had made five films together and were also a couple offscreen, even though he still had a wife. Two of the couple’s best friends, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (who were married) had written a script inspired by a real-life case where two lawyers who were husband and wife divorced and married their respective clients in a case. Gordon and Kanin saw the potential in presenting a couple onscreen who would be pushed into fighting each other in a courtroom. Who better to portray those people than the darling couple that everybody adored as long as they didn’t talk about the marital vows they were breaking?

Exposing infidelity
On a fine day in New York City, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) follows her husband Warren (Tom Ewell) to a place where she knows that he’s having an affair with another woman (Jean Hagen). She surprises the couple, produces a gun, closes her eyes and starts firing; Warren is hit by a bullet in the shoulder. The following morning, Adam and Amanda Bonner (Tracy, Hepburn), attorneys married to each other, read the morning papers and are intrigued by the case. Adam is an assistant D.A. and is assigned the case. Amanda, who’s annoyed at the fact that men always seem to get away with infidelity while women are judged much harsher by society, decides to represent Doris.

To Adam’s astonishment, his wife takes the opportunity to push for equal rights, knowing full well that the papers are going to love this showdown between two counsels who not only share a case but also a domestic life.

Often ingenious script
This story has been oft-repeated as a thankful device for two charismatic stars. This is perhaps Tracy and Hepburn’s finest effort together, really showing off the lessons of having played against each other (and spending a lot of time together in private as well, obviously), bouncing the dialogue back and forth. It’s fast, funny and even furious as the stakes are raised higher when the case threatens to end their marriage, especially when Adam’s pride suffers.

It probably also helped that director George Cukor had made a movie together with the couple before this one, Keeper of the Flame (1943); he also had a close collaboration with the screenwriters. An argument could be made that Gordon and Kanin deserve just as much kudos as Tracy and Hepburn. Their script is often ingenious. The criminal case serves as a simple (and not altogether believable) backdrop to the real drama ā€“ the struggle between the married lawyers. That becomes a starting point for a debate that seemed modern and relevant to 1940s audiences; a lot has changed since, but some of the arguments and thoughts are still valid, especially the portrayal of a marriage that is tested in ways that may seem unfortunate on the surface but actually serve to strengthen it. Simply put, this is a wickedly witty and entertaining discharge to behold.

The supporting cast certainly has its highlights, including David Wayne as a quipping neighbor who is smitten by Amanda, and Judy Holliday in an eyebrow-raising performance heavily supported by Hepburn who wanted to see her in a screen adaptation of the Broadway play “Born Yesterday”; this movie served as a vehicle on that path.

Lastly, the movie takes unusually good advantage of a Cole Porter song freshly written for it. “Farewell, Amanda” becomes a fully integrated part of the story rather than something simplyĀ  accompanying the closing credits. Watch and learn, modern filmmakers.

Adam’s Rib 1949-U.S. 100 min. B/W. Produced byĀ Lawrence Weingarten. Directed byĀ George Cukor. Screenplay: Garson Kanin, Ruth Gordon. Song: “Farewell, Amanda” (Cole Porter). Cast: Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell, David Wayne, Jean Hagen.

Trivia: Remade in Bulgaria in 1956, and followed by a TV series, Adam’s Rib (1973).

Quote: “Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called in-breeding; from this comes idiot children… and other lawyers.” (Wayne)

Last word: “When [Ruth Gordon and I] wrote together, I would say a line and laugh hysterically, and she would look at me stonily and say, ‘What’s funny about that?’ Sometimes we’d compromise, which never satisfied either of us. Sometimes, because I was much more experienced than Ruth in directing, she would defer to me. But I wasn’t always right, you see. Or I’d hold back my opinion because she’s very sensitive. She could always tell anyway. So we stopped collaborating.” (Kanin, People Magazine)



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