Adam’s Got Issues

I recently rented the 1949 movie Adam’s Rib, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. I expected a classic romantic comedy, from a time when they knew how to make ’em. Instead, it was, well, truly bizarre.

adamsribThe basic plot: Tracy and Hepburn are a married couple, and both are lawyers. They end up on opposite sides of a murder trial, with Hepburn defending a wife who shot her cheating husband to death, and Tracy trying to prosecute. Sounds like a recipe for a great movie, right?

Not right. First, the Tracy-Hepburn duo had no chemistry—in fact, their complete lack of chemistry almost seemed intentional, that’s how bad it was. I think the idea was that because they’re both tough, fast-talking lawyers, they show their affection toward each other by acting rude and talking really fast. Mixed in with the charmless hostility were also a lot of massages and crying jags, which just served to make everything more awkward.

Then there was the annoying neighbor. An obviously gay man to anyone alive today, the viewer in 1949 was supposed to believe that he is madly and completely openly in love with Hepburn’s character. He repeatedly professes his love for her in front of her husband, and at one point, even (very gayly) performs a love song that he wrote for her in their living room. I could sort of buy that he’s supposed to be a comical character, until he tries to rape Hepburn at the end of the movie.

The trial at the center of the plot was, of course, riveting in its utter lack of sense from either the prosecution or defense side. At one point, Hepburn calls a female weightlifting champion as a witness, and proceeds to instruct the woman to lift Tracy up in the air, in an attempt to prove that women can be just as strong as men. Which is to say, her client should get a fair trial.

As I hinted at above, things take a turn for the even weirder at the end of the movie. I won’t say anything more about it, except that it involves an edible gun.

Netflix asked me to rate this movie after I returned it, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. Its strangeness is near cult movie levels, so I encourage you to rent it if you’re into that kind of thing.

7 thoughts on “Adam’s Got Issues

  1. I remember seeing Adam’s Rib when I was surprisingly young (mum watches a lot of old movies, so I’ve been well educated, which is great!). It is strange. What’s interesting about the dynamic between Hepburn and Stacey is watching with the knowledge that they truly were madly in love with one another. Stacey’s monologue at the end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Hepburn’s obvious heartbreak at watching her beloved slowly die is a beautiful scene, and one of the most tear-jerking I’ve ever endured. So I’ve wondered if their chemistry – or lack thereof – in Adam’s Rib is in any way indicative of their off-screen relationship.

  2. The thing about Adam’s Rib was that it was primarily a commentary on the women’s movement – or what was left of it – from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. When viewed in that context, it really is a fabulous social commentary – but if you are looking for a classic romantic comedy, it isn’t one.

    If you want a decent Hepburn / Tracy movie, you can try Desk Set. (Of course, librarians tend to like this movie because Hepburn plays a librarian.)



  3. Lack of chemistry…hmm, I’ll have to think about that. Chemistry is one of the things I always liked about this movie, albeit it’s chemistry of two long-married people who are each focusing on the work they are doing rather than each other. They’re way past the courtship phase. But the thing is, and what always charmed me and made me wish for such a relationship myself, is that they are doing it together. They have the same nickname for each other, they do the same thing all day, and sometimes they oppose each other in court but kind of like those cartoons with the sheepdog and the coyote, the opposition ends when the day is over and they go back to being a happily-married couple. The problem here is that this time the issue didn’t end in the courtroom and they brought it home.

    I thought the creepy neighbor guy was indeed the perfect creepy neighbor guy, the one who knows full well the only reason he gets invited to parties is because he can play the piano. I’ve known people like that. The thing at the end with Amanda is weird but given the dynamics of the time period, I could see it happening. It’s harder for me to imagine that she’d go to his apartment in the first place, since he’s obnoxious and disliked.

    I dunno…your mileage has varied. :)

  4. Very interesting to hear the other perspectives on this. I wasn’t sure how many people would have seen this film. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m with Anna, but all the commenters make good points.

    The movie’s social commentary re: women is pretty hard to miss — it’s not exactly subtle. In fact, it struck me as very clumsy. I concede that it would have been received as more daring at the time, but this film has not aged well.

    A more important context in terms of the film’s mechanics might be Tracy and Hepburn’s stardom. The nonsensical plot is pretty much a contrivance for Tracy and Hepburn to act out various stunts and set pieces in the interest of exploring the debate on women’s equality. I imagine this worked better at the height of Tracy and Hepburn’s careers, when their on- and off-screen chemistry was such a powerful known factor. Working off that baseline, the film didn’t need to do much work to establish chemistry — it was assumed to exist. I bet this is why it’s remembered fondly by many. With the distance of a few decades, it seems to me that the actors are going through the motions in order to get to the courtroom hijinks, and their ample talents are wasted.

    If I were still in college film-studies classes and I had to write a paper about this movie, I would write about the incredibly obnoxious neighbor character, Kip, played by the venerable charactor actor David Wayne. Kip is fascinating. As Anna said, here is an actor playing to a very flamboyant type — Kip even utters at one point “I almost want to BECOME a woman!” in response to Hepburn’s courtroom glory — and yet he is a womanizer, to the point of aggression. This guy has issues. Whatever strides Hepburn made for the woman’s movement early in the movie were party undone by the sequence in which she struggles to fend off Kip’s increasingly physical and unwanted advances, but then decides to stick around to sing a few showtunes with the guy. What’s a little attempted rape between friends? From my point of view, Kip’s scenes provided a more interesting and subtle commentary on gender relations of the era than any of the turgid, overwrought courtroom scenes.

  5. “Adam’s Rib” is definitely my least favorite Hepburn/Tracy film, but I’ve always tried to look at it as something that can’t be separated from its era. It bounces back and forth between “modern” sensibilities and “traditional” ones to our eye, but I believe that was a product of the tension between trying to make a film that made a statement and one that was commercially acceptable.

    Hepburn herself, though a feminist icon in many ways, had some notions about male/female relationships that I personally find downright archaic. The movie was written by good friends of Hepburn and Tracy, the husband and wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (Gordon was also an actress – played Maude in “Harold and Maude”). I’m pretty sure some of the confusion we see on screen was due to Hepburn’s input or the knowledge of her attitudes, since they knew her so well.

    Also, minor point: the husband wasn’t killed – he was injured (he’s there in all the courtroom scenes – remember at the end where she asks the jury to imagine he’s a cheating woman and the wife’s a husband defending the home? There’s that surreal bit where he visually transforms into a female… the transformation of the wife and the mistress into men was bit more believable in my book), so it wasn’t a murder trial, but an attempted murder trial.

    The movies of that era had some strange notions about violence and culpability, at least to my eye. See also “His Girl Friday,” which had some superb byplay between Rosalind Russell and Carey Grant, but was a bit odd on the subject of gun violence.

  6. Thank you, Jill, for pointing out my mistake! I had actually completely forgotten about the scene in which the woman on trial and her husband switch genders. The way they made that point so literally onscreen got a bewildered laugh from me and my husband— it seems like just another example of how this movie hasn’t aged well.

    I was actually intrigued by the movie in the first place because I saw that it was co-written by Ruth Gordon, who I was so charmed by in Harold & Maude. So I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t like it in the end. But I was rallying for this movie as far as I could (about halfway through), until I just had to throw up my hands and laugh at it.

    I would be really interested to learn what people thought of it at the time. Maybe many women were even profoundly inspired by it.

  7. If you haven’t seen “Pat and Mike,” it might fit what you were looking for a bit more. It was also written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, it also has Hepburn playing a strong woman (female athlete) and it’s more of a traditional romantic comedy (IIRC – it’s been years since I’ve seen it).

    And whatever you do – unless you want to see something insanely soppy – don’t bother with “Without Love.” Ack.

    I still think my favorite Hepburn movies are the ones she did with Carey Grant, not Spencer Tracy – “Bringing up Baby,” “Holiday,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

    (Just friended you in Ravelry, btw – finished my first Woodin this morning. I think I’ll name it “Gordon!”)

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