Adam’s Rib

Year: 1949
Studio: MGM
Director: George Cukor
Writer: Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Judy Holliday, David Wayne

You wouldn't normally credit the late 1940s as being a period of feminist enlightenment, and I'd like to have been there to see what kind of cultural sentiment a movie like this was in response to or generated.

But even without the gender political dimension it's a very effective set-up for a classic Golden Era screwball comedy when married lawyers find themselves opponents in the same case.

The film opens on a nervous woman, Doris (Judy Holliday), carrying a concealed gun and following a man – perhaps unwittingly galvanising an opinion later credited to Jean-Luc Godard ('all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun', which Godard actually claimed came from DW Griffith).

Doris follows the man to an apartment where she bursts in on he and his lover, shooting at them both with her eyes closed in her terror and doing minimal damage except hitting the man, who turns out to be her husband, in the shoulder.

The next morning, happily married couple and high powered lawyers Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) Bonner discuss the case as they read about it the paper. Adam believes the woman should be prosecuted and that the rule of law is fixed, but Amanda says there's a double standard in society when it comes to adultery, and that Doris was driven to her act of violence by her husband's continued mistreatment.

As the local DA, Adam is given the case to prosecute, and as a private defence lawyer Amanda is so incensed she seeks Doris out and offers to defend her. It starts a precipitous decline of harmony in Adam and Amanda's happy home, the glitzy parties and lively discussions about their respective work starting to sour because of their professional opposition.

Owing to the era it's all very stagey, legendary director George Cukor merely arranging his set dressings and actors on various sound stages and tightly controlled exteriors and pointing a camera at it all.

But while there's nothing visually groundbreaking about it (it might be a spurious thing to say but remember, cinematic innovation had happened nearly a decade before with Citizen Kane), it's all about the characters and their conflict, even more so than the story per se.

And watching Hepburn and Tracy at their finest is like watching Astaire and Rogers, Martin and Lewis, Lennon and McCartney, French and Saunders or any number of other great entertainment duos who work best opposite each other. Hepburn sparkles with so much wit and poise you can see what made her such a star back in the day, and with real-life partner Tracy to bounce off as the loving but grouchy Adam, it's like a brilliantly choreographed boxing match.

One of the most interesting things about it however is that you can't hide the era it's from when it deals with the Bonners' good friend Kip (David Wayne) from across the hall. A signer/songwriter, showman, actor and the king of the snarky remark in Adam and Amanda's world, he's one of the gayest characters you've ever seen in a golden age movie, and concession is only given to avoiding what would probably have been an unforgivable scandal back then by having him profess to be in love with Amanda.

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