Adam’s Rib – Review

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and David Wayne
Released: Nov 18, 1949

Click Here for Adam’s Rib trailer

The concept and tone of a romantic comedy, since the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally, has more or less been cemented. They are often whimsical, melodramatic, and with a lot more focus on the comedy than the romance. This last point is becoming more and more emphasized with each passing year, with many modern onscreen couples showing little or no chemistry. Yet, because they have a knack for screwball humor, they seem to be able to sidestep this obstruction. As such, it took me some time to figure out what genre Adam’s Rib fell under. It is a romantic comedy, but not the kind modern audiences would probably be used to.

The Plot:
After the attempted murder of her adulterous husband Warren (Ewell), Doris Attinger (Holliday) is brought to court to stand trial. The case comes to the attention of married lawyers, Adam Bonner (Tracy) and his wife Amanda (Hepburn), who is a strong believer in Woman’s Rights. Hearing that her husband has been assigned to serve as the prosecution on the case, Amanda seeks out Doris to become her defense lawyer, much to Adam’s dismay.

Inspired by true events, Adam’s Rib isn’t as uproariously funny as it may have been in the late 40s. It isn’t a RIB-tickler, so to speak 😀 . However, it is a well acted, light-hearted and endearing film, that makes some clever commentary on the status of women during that era. While it was well received at the box office, presumably due to the charisma of it’s two leads, what most modern audiences will take away from this domestic/courtroom comedy is how the battle of the sexes was just getting into the swing of things around the time of its release.

Tackling the subject of inequality head-on, the male actors (with the exception of Tracy) are a fairly despicable bunch. Lecherous and condescending for the most part, subtlety is thrown out the window as they embody a clearly misogynistic society that makes no plans to change its views. The best example of this comes in the form of Adam questioning Warren Attinger at the witness stand:
“Have you ever thrown down your wife?”
“Ever scolded her?”
“Stayed out all night?”
“Would you call yourself a good husband?”

Less obvious, but more thought-provoking, is the treatment of women in Adam’s Rib. Doris Attinger, despite having taken matters into her own hands, retains the persona of the eager-to-please housewife. When confronted by Amanda in order to build their defense, she is almost embarrassingly hysterical and apologetic, yearning for her old life as a neglected housewife. It isn’t the way that the men treat women that is so disgraceful here, but the way women feel they should behave that is so atrocious.

The two sexes are essentially clay in the hands of Adam and Amanda. Both lawyers end up dealing with caricature upon caricature during the case, but they must manipulate them both in such a way that they can get their points across. Amanda’s point is obvious, the need for equal treatment amongst men and women. However, while her point is certainly valid, and backed up stupendously by the performances of just about everyone in the courtroom, it is Adam’s point that ultimately sticks: that yes, women deserve equality to men. However:

A) that does not justify her farcical  treatment of the courtroom (at one point, she brings in a circus strong woman to lift Adam off the floor, which is met with laughter among the jury) and
B) it does not justify her bending the law to further her feminist cause. (The strong woman act is effective for Amanda’s cause, but bears no relevance to the case whatsoever).

The outcome of the case, in summation, reveals a society that only reluctantly admits that there is a need for change. How quickly people revert to their old stereotypes, coupled with the light-hearted tone of the film, is an indicator of how flippantly this issue is dealt with.

To do the director credit however, he does some interesting work with Tracy and Hepburn. In a novel (and amusing) move, he takes stereotypical gender roles, lifted directly from Hollywood cinema, and switches them around at different intervals. Adam does most of the cooking in the film, he is the more submissive of the two and, in a terrific scene, he packs his bags and storms out of the apartment while Amanda yells at him, pushes him and then begs him to stay. Amanda also drives them both to work, and spends far more time reading newspapers than Adam.

Both actors hand in terrific performances, Hepburn is at once electrifying and charismatic. She fills the screen with her presence, delivering spectacle upon spectacle. She truly shines with her performance, overshadowing Tracy who delivers in a more reserved manner. Her polar opposite, it is only when you consider how strongly he conveys emotion with so little effort that you realize how powerful an actor he is here. The other major standout is Judy Holliday who conveys emotions (i.e. anxiety) with simply stupendous accuracy. She also provides a good bit of humor in the film, one of the few areas that the feature is lacking.

The comedy may have become quite dated, but this examination of early 20th century attitudes towards Women’s Rights makes the issue appear less black and white than you’d originally believe. Energetic performances by Tracy and Hepburn also make it very easy to watch, charming and incessantly colorful.

Rating: 7/10

No matter what you think you think, you think the same as I think” – Adam Bonner

Shamelessly Awful Stuff:

  • The whole time I was watching Spencer Tracy in this film, I was waiting for him to turn into Mr. Hyde, like he did in the 1941 movie. Woman’s Rights would have become very popular in the face of his treatment of women…
  • Inspired by the real-life story of husband-and-wife lawyers William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney, who represented Raymond Massey and his ex-wife Adrienne Allen in their divorce. After the Massey divorce was over, the Whitneys divorced each other and married the respective Masseys.
  • For those who don’t know (and I’d be very surprised if you didn’t), the title of the film, Adam’s Rib, refers to the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, how Adam gave a rib to create Eve. It immediately sets the tone for the film, placing it in a male dominated world.

This film is kind of like:

  • Gender studies for Dummies


  • Philadelphia without any gay, AIDS or death references

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