Criterion Prediction #133: Adam’s Rib, by Alexander Miller
Title: Adam’s Rib
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Jean Hagen, Tom Ewell, David Wayne
Synopsis: Adam (Tracy) and Amanda (Hepburn) are two successful lawyers who live together as husband and wife. Their idyllic marriage, however, comes to a head when a high profile case comes their way; a woman is on trial for the attempted murder of her cheating husband, Adam is the prosecuting attorney, and Amanda is acting as the defense in what becomes a battle of the sexes.
Critique: If someone tells you that there’s a movie from 1949 all about gender roles in what becomes an actual battle of the sexes, you might feel a shudder and wonder what kind of dated, cringe-worthy material there might be in a movie that’s seventy years old and takes on a subject such as this. But the sigh of relief that followed watching Adam’s Rib for the first time was massive. Does the movie perfectly align with our modern, woke sensibilities? Not entirely, but it’s proof that as far back as 1949 major studios, premier directors and movie stars weren’t afraid to explore gender equality and manage to make it funny without cheapening the message.
George Cukor is one of those directors that we don’t see a lot of anymore. A masterful hand at creating unsophisticated compositions, he seemed to operate with an intuitive notion that works in rhythm with the bevy of star power that was consistent in his filmography. With Adam’s Rib we have the pleasure of seeing cinema’s most endeared duo with Tracy and Hepburn, and like the rest of the cast including Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, David Wayne, and Jean Hagen everybody is having a ball in front of the camera, and at specific points it feels like they’re trying to lure us into the fun with slyly pointed glances and comments that don’t break the wall but apply a little pressure.
The social politics of Adam’s Rib works so well because its message, though for its time bold and daring, is a case for equal rights for women and men. The blunt treatment of literally taking the proverbial “battle of the sexes” to court enables the film to juxtapose with a breezy and fun narrative. Adam and Amanda have a little ritual of exchanging gestures to each other underneath the courtroom tables. Adam is hoisted up by a witness who is a circus performer. Their neighbor, Wayne, is a routinely silly piano player. And in a diversionary but charming sequence, we are presented with home movies starring Hepburn and Tracy, and the experience is informally adorable.
Adam’s Rib is a singular film from a specific time and place. WWII was in our rearview and ideas and perceptions were changing. Adam’s Rib is still a product of mainstream Hollywood but it indicates that the stage is now a shared one, undercutting the boys’ club perception of the business. Tracy and Hepburn were the high profile couple in front of the screen but the script by Ruth Gordon and her husband Garson Kanin was nominated for an Academy Award, making Gordon the first woman to receive a nomination in that category.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Criterion recently released Cukor’s arguably most celebrated title The Philadelphia Story and for a good reason; it’s an all-time classic. And with one of the directors best-known movies in the fold, it’s time for a follow-up, a fitting follows up would be Adam’s Rib. Now, what makes this prediction less wishful thinking is that Adam’s Rib was a part of Criterion Laserdisc days and there’s yet to be an official Blu-Ray release. Furthermore, Cukor’s 1949 classic is available on FilmStruck. Not to mention, we’re one year away from an anniversary.