Director: George Cukor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 101 minutes. Released 1949. Filmed at MGM studios.
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten; screenplay: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; photography: George J. Folsey; editor: George Boemler; art directors: Cedric Gibbons and William Ferrari; music: Miklos Rozsa.
Spencer Tracy (
); Katharine Hepburn (
); Judy Holliday (
); Tom Ewell (
); David Wayne (
); Jean Hagen (
); Hope Emerson (
Olympia La Pere
); Eve March (
); Clarence Kolb (
); Emerson Treacy (
); Polly Moran (
); Will Wright (
); Elizabeth Flournoy (
Dr. Margaret Brodeigh
Gordon, Ruth, and Garson Kanin, Adam's Rib , New York, 1971.
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* * *
Adam's Rib represents a climax in the evolution of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy. In the 1930s, screwball comedies united antagonistic couples whose clashes revolved around egos, class conflicts, and attitudes about money and values. In the 1940s, screwball comedies replaced these conflicts with ones that revolved around egos and career-marriage decisions. In such films as His Girl Friday, Woman of the Year, Take a Letter, Darling , and They All Kissed the Bride , the comic crises hinged on the heroines' decisions regarding their professional careers and domestic roles. In 1949, George Cukor's Adam's Rib took the familiar marriage-career crisis formula of the screwball comedy to its logical conclusion—a comic study of sex role stereotyping and the invalidity of narrowly defined sex roles.
The film reunited Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who had previously teamed on Woman of the Year, Keeper of the Flame, Without Love , and State of the Union , and whose successful on-screen romances seemed to radiate some of the genuine love and affection of their off-screen relationship. The film also features a brilliant screenplay by the husband-wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. All the principals—director, stars, and writers—had proven track records, and in a financially bad year for Hollywood, their combined box-office appeal led to the three-way teaming on a film project that otherwise might not have been possible.
The movie is about Adam and Amanda Bonner, husband and wife lawyers who find themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom case. The legal case in question concerns a woman (Judy Holliday) who has shot her adulterous husband (Tom Ewell). Defense attorney Amanda Bonner views her case as a woman's rights issue, and she bases her defense on the premise that the husband would have been exempt from prosecution if the roles were reversed. In front of her district attorney husband, she turns the courtroom and the trial into a hilarious forum for a public debate on the "double standard" and the narrowness of sexual stereotypes. In the meantime, the courtroom competition begins to threaten the Bonner's marriage.
Much of the film's humor arises from the many sex-role reversals. Through such reversals, the movie simultaneously comments on how traditional social roles are defined by stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. The film literally takes this notion to its extreme when it depicts what the unwitting husband, wife, and lover (Jean Hagen), who are the subjects of the trial, would be like if their sexes were reversed. Meanwhile, the Bonner's crumbling marriage, one based on mutual respect and liberation from sexual stereotypes, requires a series of further role reversals to be put back together again. Adam wins his wife's sympathies by crying; Amanda apologizes by sending her husband a new hat.
Amanda ultimately wins her case and husband without giving up her principles. Adam learns about humility without losing his masculinity. But when the reconciled Bonners finally fall into bed together behind a curtain, the on-screen veil and their final unresolved argument about sex roles, competition, and sex differences cinematically deny their absolute integration as a unified couple. Like many screwball comedies that preceded it, Adam's Rib ends with a marital reconciliation that establishes the couple's unity without resolving the individuals' ongoing differences.
The writing, acting, and directing team that made Adam's Rib a success reunited in 1952 for a screwball comedy about a manager and his professional female athlete in Pat and Mike. The successful story formula from Adam's Rib further inspired a 1973 television series with the same name.