Monday, July 6, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Adam's Rib"

"Adam's Rib" is billed as one of the great Golden Age comedies, but it's actually a fairly thought-provoking artifact on the war between the sexes, circa 1949. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in one of their nine cinematic pairings, play Amanda and Adam Bonner, a wife-and-husband pair of lawyers. They're financially comfortable, in early middle age, apparently childless, and seem made for each other. He's a New York assistant district attorney, and she's a prestigious defense lawyer. They get caught up in a sensational case of a woman who tried to murder her husband, with him prosecuting and her defending.

From a legal standpoint, the case is open-and-shut. The wife (played by Judy Holliday, in one of her first major roles) stalks the husband (played by Tom Ewell, best remembered as the man tempted by Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch") all day to his rendezvous with his mistress (Jean Hagen). In one hilarious bit, she even consults the manual that came with the pistol she just bought to learn how to shoot. Anyway, she confronts him and shoots him, though not fatally.

Amanda's defense is a contrived one: That society places a double standard on how philandering men and women are treated. That may be true, but to argue that anyone has a right to gun down their spouse for cheating on them is absurd. Amanda tries to obscure this fact with a barrage of courtroom antics, like calling a circus strongwoman as a witness. What this has to do with the case at hand is unclear. In the course of her questioning, Amanda has the burly gal lift Adam over her head, humiliating him.

The film is intercut between the court scenes and the Bonners' life at home, which as you might guess grows more and more stressed. At one point they are exchanging massages and she gives him a playful swat on the behind. When he reciprocates a few minutes later, Amanda accuses him of intentionally abusing her.

David Wayne has an interesting role as their next-door neighbor, Kip Lurie. Kip is a Broadway showtune composer, and clearly intended to be homosexual -- or at least a 1940s caricature of a gay man. He has all the cliched mannerisms you would expect, even sporting an ultra-short haircut that's similar to the styles favored by lots of gay men today. At one point, Adam quips that it wouldn't be hard to turn Kip into a woman, because he's already halfway there. And yet, Kip pursues Amanda with a joking yet serious determination. As the court case is making front-page news on a daily basis, Kip writes a song, "Farewell, Amanda," that quickly becomes a hit. In actuality, it was written by Cole Porter.

"Adam's Rib" is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, although as seen today it's less knee-slapping funny than wry and clever. Hepburn's legal strategy may be bunk, but her insistence on the equal treatment of women is never scoffed at or made light of. Perhaps this is due to the presence of George Cukor, who specialized in films with strong female protagonists -- including "Born Yesterday," starring Judy Holliday, made the following year.

The film was also co-written by a woman, Ruth Gordon, known mostly for her feisty old-lady roles as an actress, most notably in "Harold and Maude." She was a successful television writer before parlaying her sassy attitude in to big-screen success. Now that's progress.

3.5 stars

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