She (Amanda Bonner, Katherine Hepburn) drives him (Adam Bonner, Spencer Tracy) to work (Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor, scripted Ruth Gordon
Dear friends and readers,
This time I am half-a-century belated (Adam’s Rib was in moviehouses in 1949); or, if you date the time to have watched when an acknowledged understanding that there was something feminist about it to Jeanine Basinger’s A woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 (published 1995), which on Women Writers through the Ages we read together (in 2008), I am a mere 10 or 5 years. It’s a flawed significant movie today because domestic violence, specially men beating women, is a prevailing problem in marriages. When a woman accuses a man of rape, she’s sullied, disbelieved, the man often being let off with impunity What’s more when a woman fights back, she is punished. We know today a woman in Florida is threatened with 60 years in prison for shooting at a wall to frighten a violently abusive man. She is black and the DA is getting back at her for refusing to plea bargain (go to jail for a mere 10 years): he is warning other people caught up in our increasingly utterly unjust criminal justice system: plea bargain or you’ll regret it.
If you read about it, you’ll read about the central or top couple, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who are lawyers who make a great deal of money, Amanda and Adam Bonner. They are privileged upper class people in supposed conflict, and Jeanine Basinger dismisses the movie as after all just about a “feisty” upper class woman. The conflicts are transient and part of the couple’s subtext: they last as long as the case the two take on lasts: he takes the side of a husband and she a wife. So (child-like this) he is on the side of “men” and she of “women.” For a time what occurs in court and their on-screen always good-natured quarrels outside as a result in separation and divorce proceedings, but these are halted as they are really too much in love, too alike, to much in harmony, to part. They do talk and listen to one another.
She wins the case and we are never told why; he is given a judgeship and again we are never told why. He closes the curtain stating he knows men and women are not the same (the supposed argument of the movie is whether men and women are the same, are “equal”): we can see they are about to have sex and the feel is on his terms whatever these are – though clearly loving and fully allowed.
We have an upper class couple whose relationship affirms the goodness of the institution of marriage which holds the two together by joint ownership, habits, apartments and memories, continually greased by money and upper class manners and wit. The value is a nuanced presentation rich with innuendo which could be watched numerous times without quite plumbing all that’s there.
What has been forgotten, what is equally, probably more important, is the lower-class couple, the “downstairs” pair who do not live downstairs, are not servants; rather the husband has a hard 9-to-5 job and she 3 children she is struggling to bring up). It’s the back- or sub-story (ignored in much of the writing about it) that is not trivial.
When the movie opens, we do not begin with the Bonners but with Doris Attinger (July Holliday) nervously, anxiously, and oddly unaggressively, stalking her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell); she is clearly in distress, and follows him to and then breaks into an apartment where he is with an overdressed (absurdly glamorized) “mistress,” Jean Hagan as Beryl Caign (Beryl was a name given mistresses). Judy has a gun and tries to kill Tom (this is a movie where we never forget the actors inside the respected presences) and then Beryl. As the story unfolds we learn this couple has 3 children, the man was physically abusive and continually sexually unfaithful, often allowing the wife no money to live on, continually insulting and jeering at her. She (fool) it seems meant to kill the mistress (she says) so she could have this lout back. Admittedly Holliday is dressed in the usual doll outfit I’ve seen her wear before (Born Yesterday) and her high voice used to make her absurd.
Doris has no job, no income, no resource beyond her dense lout of an unfeeling husband. The point is — to put it in the terms it would have been understood then, these are the real Ralph Kramdens (remember Jackie Gleason and Alice Meadows a few years later on TV). I do not mention the Kramdens coincidentally. Cukor and Gordon have quietly put before us a case of marital abuse but they have also caricatured them. Warren really is an egregious lout, shamelessly making fun of Doris as fat, useless, lazy, stupid; and she cries and weeps, seems not to understand simple statements, is more than slightly ridiculous if pathetic. He calls her fat, stupid, and silly — she is seen to be silly and stupid. She wants him back and we can’t understand why. She does get him back: when last seen they are being photographed as a lovey-dovey couple for the newspapers.
This matching or parallel — better contrasting couple’s relationship is meant to show that marriage as presently experienced by ordinary (not upper class people) often does not work because the norms offered the man and woman make for misery.
There are more flaws than those I’ve pointed to. The argument that is said to describe what the case is about generalizes its content out of reach and erases the abuse. Ruth Gordon’s script makes the case into one where Hepburn seeks to win by proving women are equal to men. Hepburn takes the situation to show that the wife counts, and literally to argue that Doris has as much right to have an affair as Warren, and partly because she didn’t, the right to get back when he hurts her — even shoot to kill. Adam is quite right when he says this is an argument that won’t do.
Hepburn’s “case” depends on her bringing into court three career women who are presented as successful but sexless and desperate: the third does somersaults in a circus and performs them in court. How this relates to a husband’s violence to his wife, her need to defend herself, her home, her income and retaliate is unclear. Nowhere in the case, in the courtroom, in the Bonners’ discussions about the case is the abuse highlighted. To say this case is about the principle of equality and how men and women are the same (1) is to avoid the particulars of the case and what it’s about.
Then there’s considerable slapstick. At one point Amanda seems to have taken as her lover a man who is a singer, performer and their best friend; Adam chases her with a gun, but when it comes to shooting her, it turns out to be licorice and he eats it as candy. It’s a parody of the central Attinger gunning scene: what he was gunning Amanda down for was a suspected affair. This is still not allowed today – women in movies today do not have affairs with other men than their husband and remain admired heroines.
They also massage one another. These scenes were used for promotional shots and the trailer:
She slaps him and he her. Now that I’ve had a massage (once, in a Korean spa) I realize it’s a sybarite process of luxury, and it made me very uncomfortable on behalf of the woman paid to come so close to my body and “work it over.” Probably the movie-makers wanted me to envy them. While watching I did not notice the Tracy and Hepburn calling one another these “coy” names of Pinky and Pinkie. Good thing: it would have grated on me as upper class “fey” relaxation.
A friend suggested to me the movie is ultimately about how far a woman can go to challenge her husband, only so far. I know that’s what Basinger says most of the movies where Hollywood spoke to women end up doing or being about. I admit I don’t see that in this one. Mainly because Hepburn didn’t. The couple’s temporary estrangement is engendered by the two of them. She didn’t have an affair. She did not defy any rules — she worked within the system, took the silly idea of men and women being the same as the principle she’d argue for and remained in an adoring respectful posture to Tracy throughout — that’s why the word “feisty:” a feisty woman is one who merely makes a lot of noise but does not mean any serious rebellion.
On-line there are also absurd statements about the film being about civil rights (?). No it’s about class. What the movie is is a telling muddle. The Attingers are miserable as much and more from their daily lives as from gender provocation and sexual exploitation. We are deflected from seeing this by fantasy elaboration of the results in candylike wrapping. The licorice gun is apt.
The movie makes the lower class man despicable, a clown and also at moments the wife. It shows but does not bring out into the discussably open that the upper classness of the privileged couple makes them happy: her high education, womanly (yet not oversexed) clothes, wit, job flatters his self-respect and his equal education, intelligence, manly bearing (and job) flatters her sense of her place in the world as his wife. Its best moments are fleeting glimpses of film noir (through Holliday’s presence).
By contrast Hepburn is just so wholesome. The movie could be worth re-watching for the intriguing vignettes, moments between Hepburn and Tracy.
They did make a number of movies together and it might be rewarding to watch these in a row (see comments). Ruth Gordon is someone whose name recurs as a script writer in the 1940s and it could be interesting to see some of her other scripts — her co-writer in this one was her husband, Garson Kanin. George Cukor is known for trying to bring women as interesting characters before the public in movies, for his originality — and nowadays gayness and it could be interesting to compare this one to his other movies.