Eve’s Rib-Katharine Hepburn And Spencer Tracy’s “Adams Rib” (1949)-A Film Review
By Sam Lowell
Adam’s Rib, starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Judy Holliday, directed by George Cukor, written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin 1949
Now that we are deep into the “third wave” of women’s liberation (except mostly noticeably these days that glass ceiling still hovering over the White House) it is a nice touch to see that even if in a comic way the question of woman’s equality before the law, before society norms was being addressed after the “first wave” early in the century (women getting the vote and other legal rights like owning property in their own name). Although we today might cringe a little at some of the dialogue and some of the social expectations no matter how high-minded this film, Adam’s Rib, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy two unmarried off-screen lovers in an age when that status was frowned upon, is a rather nice for the time look at the double standard between men and women (of which there is still plenty of residue.)
Here’s the premise being worked out. Then if a guy cheated on his wife with some floozy that was “not nice” but if a wife decided to do something about the matter-say, as here, take a rooty-toot-toot gun and blast the creep (and take shots at his floozy as well) that was terrible. Hang her, hang her high. That double standard implied that the guy could get away with anything while the poor wife has to suffer and grin and bear it. Of course in Adam’s Rib where the two main characters, Adam, played by Spencer Tracy, and Amanda, played by Katharine Hepburn are both married and lawyers (by the way then woman lawyers were unlike today sparse, very sparse on the ground) you know from minute one that they will be locking horns with each other over their respective views of what was right in the case. So married to each other writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin have set the stage for a battle royal between the two views on display- Adam’s stern if blind-eyed justice demanding a conviction against Amanda’s fight against the double standard and an acquittal.
As the gloves come off-you know of course that Adam, a crack prosecutor, and Amanda who has wangled her way into defending the scorned woman, Doris, played by Judy Holliday are going to go for broke to win the case. The law, the stern law would seem to be on Adam’s side since Doris freely confessed that she plotted to pop her man for his infidelities. But Amanda throws plenty of monkey wrenches into the mix, including ticking Adam off when she brings in a female weight-lifter who lifts him over her head to prove the general point that a woman can do what a man can do. Needless to say Amanda wins the day.
But that is not the whole story-not a 1940s whole story which is moreover billed as a romantic comedy even if it is now a proto-feminist classic. The wrangling between Adam and Amanda in the court case had frayed their own marriage and Adam decided he had had it and flew the coop-was looking for the divorce court. Maybe by his lights he was right to blow town once Amanda bested him but when the deal went down he and Amanda loved each other and so that was that. After all this was Hollywood-first wave or not. The film’s plot-line would make little sense today but as a snapshot about the battle between the sexes and the social mores of the time before the “second wave” of the 1970s changed many things it is worth a view. And to see Hepburn and Tracy go through their paces too.