Filmsite Movie Review
Adam's Rib (1949)
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Adam's Rib (1949) is director George Cukor's most famous film of the battle of the sexes - between two married lawyers. The Oscar-nominated screenplay (originally titled Man and Wife) for the sparkling, MGM classic (screwball) comedy of the post-war years was way ahead of its time. It was written by the husband-wife team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (the recipients of the film's sole Academy Award nomination). The story was inspired by the real-world legal case of a husband-lawyer team (William and Dorothy Whitney), who after the divorce proceedings for actors Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen, divorced - and married their respective clients.

One of the film's posters declared: "It's the hilarious answer to who wears the pants." Another showed the legal couple smiling, although their backs were toward each other and their arms were crossed. The simple plot-line about a happily-married, middle-aged husband and wife, whose marriage was strained while serving as trial attorneys on opposite sides of the same headline-making, attempted murder, marital case (he as the prosecutor, she as the defender), served as the backdrop for the daring exposition of feminist principles, a display of archetypal male vs. female issues and a battle of the sexes, and an examination of sex-role stereotyping. [It was surely a case with conflict of interest and would have been entirely inappropriate in the real-world. It would be very improbable for a married couple to represent opposite sides of a criminal case.]

The film's title was a clear reference to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve (the male film lead was named Adam). In Genesis 2:7,21-22: "Then the Lord God formed a man [Adam in Hebrew] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being...So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man."

In the film, the case centered around the accused - a dumb blonde (Holliday), who shot (but didn't fatally wound) her adulterous husband (Ewell) caught with a mistress. The lawyers argued about the double-standard that disallowed a woman from seeking revenge with a pistol - like a man.

Many film historians consider this sixth film the best pairing of the nine films made by the popular team of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy between 1942 and 1967. Their films included:

  • Woman of the Year (1942), d. George Stevens; tied as the pair's best film
  • Keeper of the Flame (1942), d. George Cukor
  • Without Love (1945), d. Harold S. Bucquet
  • The Sea of Grass (1947), d. Elia Kazan's second film; the least typical of all Tracy/Hepburn films
  • State of the Union (1948), d. Frank Capra
  • Adam's Rib (1949), d. George Cukor
  • Pat and Mike (1952), d. George Cukor
  • Desk Set (1957), d. Walter Lang
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), d. Stanley Kramer

Cukor had previously directed Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) (in her screen debut), and in her comeback film The Philadelphia Story (1940). He had also directed the Kanin's first screenplay two years earlier for A Double Life (1947) starring Ronald Colman.

This sometimes stagy film - with long, uninterrupted scenes, an immobile camera, and absurd and improbable situations, also featured witty dialogue exchanges and skillful acting. With her scene-stealing performance as a bimbo, the film boosted Judy Holliday, who was playing the lead role in Garson Kanin's Broadway hit play Born Yesterday, to repeat her stage role in the 1950 film of the same title. (For Holliday, it was a star-making and Best Actress Oscar winning role.) Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, and David Wayne, other character stars, launched their careers with this film. The same writing, acting and directing team for Adam's Rib went on to make another screwball comedy - Pat and Mike (1952).

Plot Synopsis

The film's credits are presented on top of a cartoonish proscenium. Throughout the film, inter-title placards are brought down over the proscenium to announce continuity breaks, such as "That Evening."

The film opens with a sequence of the commitment of the crime that serves as the centerpiece of the plot: a woman follows her philandering, wayward husband to the home of his mistress. After an overhead shot of a downtown New York street scene at 5 pm, the camera dollies down to the street level of the busy office/business district at the close of work. From a low-angled shot, the camera spies an apprehensive, sweet-faced woman with a wide-brimmed, tinsel-decorated hat (later identified as Doris Attinger - Judy Holliday in her star-making film debut after only bit parts), pacing back and forth in a small park chewing on a chocolate nut candy bar and nervously looking at her watch. She pauses in front of an office building where Warren Attinger (Tom Ewell) emerges in the midst of rushing office-workers leaving for home. He stops on the steps of the building and straightens his tie. She masks herself and ducks behind a news-stand as he stops to buy a paper. She follows him - they both proceed down subway station steps, along with jam-packed throngs of other pedestrians. At the turnstiles, Warren whistles at a pretty woman passing by. The anxious woman trails behind and when brushed by another man, she accidentally drops her purse - in close-up, the partially-opened purse contains a pistol. Looking harried, she quickly picks it up from the floor before anyone notices, is swept along toward the subway cars and squeezed into one of the departing trains. The door shuts and she presses her face against the door's window.

The camera tracks Warren as he exits the subway station at street level (West 72nd Street) - Doris reappears as she emerges from an entry-way where he has passed by. Non-chalantly, he whistles as he crosses a street - she hides behind a parked car and hustles behind him as he enters a residential apartment building. He is buzzed in after ringing the doorbell - she catches the door before it locks. In the dark, interior corridor outside an apartment where sleazy, honky-tonk music is heard playing, she fumbles within her purse and takes out her deadly pistol. Bewildered, she also removes an instruction manual for the gun and discovers how to release the safety catch. Then, she points the pistol in her right hand toward the lock on the apartment door and fires once. She kicks open the shattered door and finds Warren sitting on a couch embracing negligee-clad mistress Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen) nestled on his lap. They jump up in terror when confronted by the gun-wielding woman. She points the gun at Warren, confronting him with her eyes closed: "Shut up, you, Shut up! My dear husband." As she fires aimlessly, her husband withdraws into a corner of the room: "D-D-Doris, please-please-oh, don't, don't Doris, don't." Hiding behind a drape, he cringes, grabs his winged shoulder when hit by a stray bullet, and falls against the couch. By the mantle, Beryl screams as he crumbles to the floor behind the couch: "Help! Help! Help! Help! Murder! Help!" As Beryl runs for help, Doris becomes hysterical by the reality of her actions against her wayward husband and sobs uncontrollably. Distraught, she falls to her knees next to her wounded, but conscious husband and protectively hugs him.

The next day's newspaper, the New York Chronicle, captures a picture of her on the floor next to her two-timing husband, with the sensational headlines:

Philandering Told in Story to Police

The maid for an expensive apartment picks up the two newspapers lying outside the door and puts them on a breakfast-for-two tray delivered to the Bonners' private bedroom door. It's "seven-thirty" in the dark room as Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) sets the tray on the corner of the bed where her husband Adam (Spencer Tracy) is still sleeping. She opens the drapes and then leaves to enter the bathroom. Adam stirs, shakes off sleep, and after a few moments, they ritualistically have coffee together (he at the left of the frame, she at the right with the tray in-between). The cute couple greet each other by the same affectionate name:

Amanda: Hello Pinky.
Adam: Hello, Pinkie.

Amanda excitedly scans the paper's story about a woman shooting her philandering husband, and they immediately take different stands on the issue: "He was playing her fast and loose so she caught him out and popped him a few thirty-two calibers...Serves him right, the little two-timer." Strictly a law-and-order believer, Adam disparages her encouraging attitude about such assaults: "I don't approve of people rushing around carrying loaded revolvers...Is that what they taught you at Yale Law School? (She laughs.) It's not funny. Contempt for the law, you know, is the first thing..." A knock at the door reminds them that they must hurry to leave for work. Even the maid glances at the photo and headline and approvingly mutters: "Atta girl!"

Both the Bonners are New York lawyers who share the commute in their top-down convertible drive through heavy traffic to work, with Amanda steering - another driver honks his horn at her:

Amanda: Well, get by - big pig!
Adam: Why don't you let him go by? He's simply -
Amanda: He hogs the whole road.

She heatedly continues to discuss the Attinger case - with an exposition on unequal justice and a double standard of conduct that favors men over women:

Amanda: Look! All I'm trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society's eyes, it's all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing - the same, mind you, and she's an outcast.
Adam: Finished?
Amanda: No. Now I'm not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.
Adam: Well, that's awfully large of you.
Amanda: No, no, it's not your fault. All I'm saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal?
Adam: Mostly, I think, females get advantages!
Amanda: We don't want advantages! And we don't want prejudices!
Adam: Oh, don't get excited, honey, and don't -
Amanda: I'm not excited -
Adam: Oh, you're giving me the Bryn Mawr right too.
Amanda: Well what did she try to do? She tried to keep her home intact.
Adam: Yeah, by knocking off her husband.
Amanda: She didn't knock him off. He's alive. She didn't kill him.
Adam: She tried. She missed.
Amanda: Well, all right. Now supposing -
Adam: What do you want to do? Give her another shot at him?
Amanda: No, I don't...[after an arbitrary cut in their conversation] the kind of thing burns my goat!
Adam: Your what?
Amanda: My goat! My goat!
Adam: A crime should be punished, not condoned.
Amanda: If a woman commits it.
Adam: Anybody.

She swings over and stops the car abruptly, angering a cab driver: "Oh you lady drivers, you'll put me away yet!"

The next four short sequences set up the development of the plot, with tough New York lawyer Adam and independent-minded lawyer/wife Amanda taking on opposite sides of the prosecution case (for the man) and defense case (for the woman). Adam's office door printing reads:


At his desk, Adam is chagrined and mumbles that he has been assigned to prosecute Doris Attinger for the attempted murder of her husband Warren: "The one case I don't want is the case I get." One of his assistants, Roy (David Clarke) assures him of an easy victory in an open-and-shut case: "It's a cinch. They already got you a full confession. That's the kind of case you take your knitting. A cinch."

The sign in the office corridor outside Amanda's private practice reads:


Her door sign is lettered: "AMANDA BONNER ATTORNEY AT LAW." Amanda asks her dictation secretary Grace (Eve March) about the double standard:

Amanda: What do you think of a man who is unfaithful to his wife?
Grace: Not nice, but...
Amanda: All right, now what about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband?
Grace: Something terrible.
Amanda: Aha!
Grace: Aha what?
Amanda: Why the difference? Why the difference? Why 'not nice' if he does it and 'something terrible' if she does it?
Grace: I don't make the rules.
Amanda: Sure you do. We all do....A boy sows a wild oat or two, the whole world winks. A girl does the same - scandal.

Adam phones, telling Amanda that he has been "elected" by his chief to prosecute "the woman who shot her husband yesterday" - and "the boss wants a quick conviction, and I'm just the little guy that can get it for him, so he says." However, Amanda is outraged: "You great big he-men make me sick...An outrage, that's what I think." She hangs up when Adam infuriates her even further by laughing and remarking: "You just sound cute when you get cause-y." Because she feels that was "the straw that broke the camel's back...the last straw on a female camel," Amanda decides to take on Doris' defense - she rushes to volunteer her services with a request to call Legal Aid to take the case.

In Warren's hospital room, Adam has a preliminary interview with his client - who is accompanied at bedside by his selfish, coarse mistress Beryl. Warren's ear is bandaged and his arm is extended, as he makes charges against his "crazy" wife: "I been complainin' ever since the day I got married to her so go ahead and file it. She's nuts, that's my complaint. I like to see her put away somewheres, that's all. Out of my hair." In a comically, whining tone, Beryl also complains:

Beryl: Murderers running around. What kind of a town is this?
Adam: We don't have so many murderers running around, Miss, uh, but we have a lot of other things just as bad.
Beryl: You mean like me, huh? Listen, bub, I connect with ya - ya ain't over my head.

Adam promises Warren to "get a conviction on an attempted murder, or first-degree assault..."

In one of the film's most famous and economical sequences, an almost five minute shot without a single camera movement or cut, Amanda (at the left) interviews deceived, dumb blonde Doris (at center right) in the women's prison's detention area, while a white-uniformed correction officer sits in the mid-background looking through an open door. With a heavy Brooklyn accent, Doris (a "housewife" and "mother") describes in detail her nine year, four month ("and twelve days") marriage to Warren which produced three children: Warren, Jr. ("he's eight"), Allan ("he's seven"), and Trudy ("she's six"). Their relationship was characterized by abuse ("he started battin' me around...eleven months ago"). Amanda is aghast that Doris would willingly plead guilty:

Doris: No accident. I wanted to shoot him.
Amanda: Suppose we decide later just what you wanted to do.
Doris: Silly.
Amanda: The difference between ten years in prison and freedom is not silly, Mrs. Attinger.

Her husband would often not come home, so she bought a gun at a hock shop, but without any pre-meditated thoughts: "I didn't decide nothin'. I was doing everything like in a dream. Like I was watchin' myself, but I couldn't help it - like a dream." She punctuates her entire rendition of the events of the day of the shooting with eating episodes (two rare hamburgers and lemon meringue pie, for instance), capped by her final line:

Doris: ...I went outside of his office and I waited the whole afternoon and I kept eatin' the candy bars and waitin' until he come out. And then I followed him, and then I shot him.
Amanda: And after you shot him, how did you feel then?
Doris: Hungry.

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