When a woman attempts to kill her uncaring husband, prosecutor Adam Bonner gets the case. Unfortunately for him his wife Amanda (who happens to be a lawyer too) decides to defend the woman in court. Amanda uses everything she can to win the case and Adam gets mad about it. As a result, their perfect marriage is disturbed by everyday quarrels...
Spencer Tracy ... Adam Bonner
Katharine Hepburn ... Amanda Bonner
Judy Holliday ... Doris Attinger
Tom Ewell ... Warren Attinger
David Wayne ... Kip Lurie
Jean Hagen ... Beryl Caighn
Hope Emerson ... Olympia La Pere
Eve March ... Grace - Amanda's Secretary
Clarence Kolb ... Judge Reiser
Emerson Treacy ... Jules Frikke - Accountant
Polly Moran ... Mrs. McGrath
Will Wright ... Judge Marcasson
Elizabeth Flournoy ... Dr. Margaret Brodeigh
Seven years into their screen partnership, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made what is arguably their best effort together, the sixth of nine movies they made together. The zingy repartee and old-shoe comfort in their relationship are in full bloom in this 1949 comedy classic directed by George Cukor. Written by the legendary husband and wife writing team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the plot focuses on a headline-grabbing court case involving Doris Attinger, a dim-witted wife who shoots her philandering husband Warren just as he is caught with his blowsy mistress Beryl Caighn. Representing the wounded husband is Assistant DA Adam Bonner who is looking for a quick conviction of the wife. However, his proto-feminist attorney wife Amanda sees the alleged crime as an act of justifiable defiance and decides to defend the wife.
This potentially tense set-up leads to a trial where Amanda sets out to prove that a double standard exists for women and that Doris was merely defending her family and home. Adam, however, believes that the law is the law no matter the gender of those involved and that a murder was indeed attempted. Consequently, the story is not so much about Adam's inherent sexism as it is about Amanda's single-minded determination to prove her point even as the case degrades into a media sideshow. Over half a century later, Amanda's arguments sound rather dated, one-note and frankly ill-conceived with many of her lines simply polemics. At the same time, Hepburn plays such a convincing litigator that her case actually sounds persuasive at times. Tracy is also in top form as he brings his unique combination of sympathy and combustible bluster to a man who respects his wife deeply but becomes increasingly disillusioned with her unlawful stance.
Together, they banter terrifically throughout, but it's in the domestic scenes, for instance, the home movie of their Connecticut farm and the late night meal preparation, where you feel their natural chemistry the most. As Doris, Judy Holliday delivers in her first significant screen role, bringing a deeper pathos to the scorned wife than you would expect. Several years away from "The Seven Year Itch", Tom Ewell plays Warren for the smarmy, sexist cheater that he is, while Jean Hagen expertly plays Beryl as a media-hungry floozy. As the Bonners' next door neighbor Kip, David Wayne acts rather fey for someone who supposedly wants to run away with Amanda, but I suppose the approach was intentional to ensure nothing would really threaten the Bonner marriage except the case. However dated some of the sexual politics feel, the film is still one of the most smartly played of romantic comedies.
Of the nine films which paired Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Adam's Rib is often considered the best. Writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin were friends of the famous couple and wrote the film specifically for them. Kate insisted the film be directed by her favorite screen director, George Cukor, who services the brilliant writing and on-screen chemistry with his trademark elegant staging and unobtrusive style. The result is a comedy that remains the best "battle of the sexes" films ever made.
When Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) discovers her husband in the arms of another woman, she opens fire and is charged with attempted murder. Enter Adam and Amanda Bonner (Tracy and Hepburn), married lawyers whose lives are turned upside down when Adam is assigned to the prosecution. An ardent proponent of women's rights, Amanda decides to represent Doris, claiming that if the sex of the parties on trial were switched, the jury would feel differently. This conflict of interests creates friction in the courtroom as well as the Bonners' home.
Spencer Tracy, with his confident and relaxed screen presence, paints Adam as a man quite comfortable with his wife's force and ambition. But Adam grows upset with Amanda as the media spotlight finds the case and magnifies it into a cause for women's rights. He accuses Amanda with disregard for the law, reminding her that no one, man or woman, has the right to take the law into their own hands, and that Amanda is using the case for her own selfish purposes. The script is careful not to polarize Adam's interests. He reveres the law and has no special affection for Doris' husband. In opposing him, Katherine Hepburn manages to retain her signature strength while also portraying Amanda as a loving wife who fears the damage her marriage may sustain because of the case and its publicity. Amanda alleges that Doris is doomed to an unfair trial because the general public irrationally feels male infidelity is much more permissible than female infidelity.
The courtroom becomes a spectacle when Amanda puts a circus strong-woman on the stand and asks her to lift Adam. Tracy rises to the occasion, with an angry outburst that is empowered by his otherwise calm and restrained performance. Despite their marital bliss before the case, Adam admits that he likes "two sexes" and doesn't care for having a wife who is a "new woman" and a "competitor". This rare outpouring causes Amanda to realize just how personally Adam is taking the trial, and that it could result in their divorce.
Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin deserve special recognition for creating a balanced on-screen battle in what has always been a controversial debate - gender equality. Amanda's plight is shaded by her experiences as a woman, and Adam is presented as a man who admits to always trying to hear her side of the story. That their marriage was a happy one before the trial is an indication of the equality they had achieved together. Amanda is, in fact, equal to Adam in both the career and financial worlds. To create a sparring partner for Amanda, Gordon and Kanin could easily have presented a misogynist, or even a lovable but cantankerous traditionalist. They were wiser to portray Adam as a man who simply refused to see the case as one for gender equality, but for vigilantism.
As directed by George Cukor, Adam's Rib features a great many long takes that play uninterrupted. Even during moments of action, like the scene in which both Bonners are getting dressed for dinner, Cukor utilizes minimal staging and camera movement. The camera points directly across the Bonners' bedroom, with her dressing room off frame left and his off frame right. They shout at each other, poking their heads into the frame, occasionally walking through the frame and back again. And later, when Adam discovers Kip and Amanda together, the ensuing fight is framed similarly, with the camera looking down the apartment hallway, characters popping into frame from the left or right and back again. This isn't to say Cukor doesn't move his camera much. There are several decisive camera movements, but Cukor's sparing use of them, and his tendency to rely more on well-composed master angles gives the film an elegant, traditional Hollywood style. The film also benefits from a lively score by Mikos Rozsa and a catchy Cole Porter tune, "Farewell Amanda". Jean Hagen, unforgettable for her comic turn in Singin' in the Rain, again demonstrates her talent for comedy as the "other woman".
Cukor must have realized that with Tracy and Hepburn on screen, all the camera really had to do was follow them, frame them, and let the sparks fly.
The screenplay and the actors' off-screen romance are gifts to the film. We feel for both of them, and believe in what both are trying to achieve. It is rare that a film about difference and equality plays so fairly to all parties involved, and also rare that such a sensitive subject can retain its comic appeal. But for all the film says about equality, Adam's Rib ultimately serves to remind us that when it comes to Hepburn and Tracy, there is no equal.
'Adam's Rib' is arguably the greatest Tracy-Hepburn film, and is certainly the most popular of their teamings. Brightly written (by the husband and wife team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), it takes the premise of a wife (the sparkling Judy Holliday, in her film debut) on trial for shooting her unfaithful husband (Tom Ewell, establishing himself in the kind of role he'd reprise in The Seven-Year Itch), and turns it into a forum of the sexual values and standards of the 1940s, and a showcase for the fabulous Tracy and Hepburn, who were were never better than as the battling D.A. and defense attorney. In the courtroom and out, the love they share, and tweaking of each other's egos is a sheer joy to watch. That the story is also a knowing commentary about women's inequality under the law makes the film even more topical today, and doesn't reduce the film's enjoyment value at all. It is a VERY funny film, and can be enjoyed at MANY levels!
In addition to Holliday and Ewell, the supporting cast includes the terrific David Wayne as a smarmy songwriter-neighbor who covets Hepburn, and 'writes' the ditty 'Goodbye, Amanda' for her (actually composed by Cole Porter, Hepburn's character's name in the film was changed to Amanda, to fit the song!)
Among the many wonderful scenes of the film are the 'home movie', which accurately reflected much of Tracy and Hepburn's own relationship; the infamous massage scene ("I know a slap...!"); the circus 'Strong Woman', demonstrating that women can be as physically powerful as men by lifting the panicking Tracy over her head easily (in the middle of the courtroom!); the infamous licorice-gun confrontation as Tracy confronts Hepburn with Wayne; and Tracy's crying-on-demand revelation.
'Adam's Rib' is a film which never seems to age, but just gets better and better!
* In her early monologue scene with Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday can be seen trembling. This was not acting, but nervousness. The inexperienced Judy Holliday was terrified of performing with Katharine Hepburn.
* Katharine Hepburn reportedly urged director George Cukor to focus the camera on Judy Holliday during a number of their shared scenes, not only because she was a fan of the new-to-movies Judy Holliday but because it was hoped the studios would see how terrific Judy Holliday was and cast her as the lead in Born Yesterday (1950), the role she'd created on Broadway. (It worked.)
* The movie's line "Licorice, mmmm. If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's licorice." was voted as the #60 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
* In the scene in which Amanda is driving Adam to work, he tells her: "Oh, you're giving me the Bryn Mawr accent". Bryn Mawr College was Katharine Hepburn's alma mater where she claimed to have gained her distinctive voice.
* Madge Blake's first film.
* In the memorable Tracy-Hepburn massage scene, a radio plays Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter's "Farewell, Amanda," a gift to Amanda Bonner (played by Katharine Hepburn) from her songwriter-neighbor, Kip Lurie (portrayed by David Wayne) who, earlier in the picture, had crooned the ditty, accompanying himself on the Bonners' piano. While Adam Bonner (played by Spencer Tracy) is massaging his wife, he abruptly shuts off the radio. Mr. Sinatra's prerecording of "Farewell, Amanda" is lost. All that remains of his rendition is the partial audio heard behind the Tracy-Hepburn dialogue.