May 23, 2011

10 The Films of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Part 3

Adam's Rib (1949)
Director: George Cukor

Tracy and Hepburn reached what is for me their absolute peak in their sixth movie together, in which they play a pair of married New York City lawyers, Adam and Amanda Bonner. He works for the district attorney's office; she has a private practice. When Brooklyn housewife Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shoots her two-timing husband (Tom Ewell) in the apartment of his girl friend (Jean Hagen) and is charged with attempted murder, the Bonners find themselves on opposite sides of the case, he as prosecutor and she as attorney for the defense. Amanda sees the case as a question of the social double standard for men and women. She wants to make this the issue and defend her client by painting the shooting as a gender-reversal crime of passion. "Why 'not nice' if he does it," Amanda asks, "and 'something terrible' if she does it?" Adam, on the other hand, sees the case in strictly legal terms and views Amanda's attempt to put society on trial as an underhanded diversion that threatens to subvert the legal system.

The Bonners begin as friendly adversaries. But as the stubborn Amanda tries harder and harder to use the case to score points for feminism, resorting to courtroom showboating to humiliate Adam, and Adam digs in to restrict the trial to strictly legal issues, the legal dispute becomes a personal one that puts their own marriage in jeopardy. Things come to a head during the famous rubdown scene after a long day in court. Frustrated by Amanda's willingness to use any tactic to get her client acquitted, Adam slaps her behind a bit too hard during the rubdown. She retaliates with a sneaky kick to his rear end, and by the end of the evening Adam has packed his clothes and moved out. Now all is out-and-out warfare both personally and professionally. Things are further complicated when their neighbor Kip (David Wayne), an obnoxious Broadway songwriter with a crush on Amanda, takes advantage of the situation by trying to romance her. The question now is not only will Doris be convicted or acquitted, but will Adam and Amanda's marriage survive or fail.

What makes Adam's Rib such a great movie? Where to begin. There's the great screenplay by Ruth Gordon (yes, that Ruth Gordon from Rosemary's Baby and Harold and Maude) and her husband Garson Kanin, the well-known screenwriter/script doctor, playwright, and film director who specialized in romantic comedy. Adam's Rib, the second of four films they wrote for director George Cukor, may be the best "battle of the sexes" comedy ever written for the screen. The dialogue is never mechanical or perfunctory, but always tells us something about what the characters are thinking or feeling without ever seeming contrived to do so. The characters, especially Tracy and Hepburn, don't seem to be speaking lines so much as having real, although highly intelligent, conversations. And both the dialogue and the situations sparkle with wit and humor. Adam's Rib has as many belly laughs as you'll ever find in a movie, all without ever sacrificing its polished tone. This is humor entirely without vulgarity on the one hand, and artifice on the other.

The direction by George Cukor is flawless. From the opening sequence—nearly five minutes long and almost entirely without dialogue—in which Holliday ineptly stalks and finally shoots Ewell, to the mirror image sequence with Tracy, Hepburn, and Wayne at the end, Cukor's perfect coordination of tone and action never falters. His pacing of that fabulous dialogue is impeccable. The physical comedy is also brilliantly handled—always restrained, never coarse, its degree of physicality always right on the mark. The comedic high point of the film comes when Hepburn, addressing the jury in her closing speech, asks them to imagine their reactions to the crime if the gender of each of the principals were reversed. For a few seconds we see a succession of shots of Holliday, Hagen, and Ewell seated in the courtroom which dissolve briefly to shots of each of them in drag. Ewell in particular is hilarious as his female alter ego, flicking her wrist, pursing her lips, narrowing her eyes, and quickly snapping her head to one side with a defiant smirk on her face.

Above all, Adam's Rib is quite simply one of the most entertaining and realistic depictions of marriage ever to appear on the screen. Adam and Amanda Bonner are the very personification of a mid-twentieth century New York professional couple in the MGM mold—intelligent, sophisticated, rich without being ostentatious, yet all too human in their emotions. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn seem so responsive to each other's rhythms and moods that it requires no effort at all to accept them as a married couple who, despite their disagreements, have a deep psychic rapport. In this film they offer us a working definition of "screen chemistry." It is without question the pinnacle of the Tracy-Hepburn movies.

Pat and Mike (1952)
Director: George Cukor

The follow-up to Adam's Rib was again written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor and again deals with a battle of the sexes. Hepburn plays Pat Pemberton, a physical education instructor at a California college engaged to an administrator at the college, Collier Weld (William Ching). The very first sequence establishes the nature of their relationship. Pat is meeting Collier after class so they can drive to the golf course for a game with a potential donor and his wife. Collier complains about the slacks Pat is wearing, afraid such masculine attire will make a bad impression on his millionaire, and tells her to change into a skirt. And he reminds her that even though she is an expert golfer, she must lose the game. Collier is condescending and bossy towards Pat, but she is apparently so smitten with him (he does appear a few years younger and rather good-looking in a bland way) that she is willing to tolerate his attitude.

When she blows up after forcing herself to lose the match and impulsively quits her job at the college, she takes up the suggestion of a friendly bartender at the golf club and enters a national golf tournament. Here she meets Mike Conovan (Tracy), a professional sports promoter who, realizing how talented she is, offers to become her agent/trainer and represent her as a professional athlete. The only problem is Collier, who doesn't think it seemly for Pat to pursue a career, especially one in competitive sports, after their marriage. His disapproval becomes a jinx, for every time he shows up at a competition, Pat freezes up and fumbles. As she tells Mike, "I can't do anything well while he's watching me." Now she finds herself in the classic dilemma of romantic comedy. Will she stick with the obviously inappropriate romantic interest, or will she acknowledge the growing affection between her and Mike?

Like Adam's Rib, this film seems specifically tailored to the talents of Tracy and Hepburn, but in a completely different way. Hepburn's character is clearly based on her own natural athleticism. Hepburn was well known as a vigorous, active woman who regularly rode horses, golfed, played tennis, and swam. She reportedly swam daily until well into her eighties. It's obvious that for the most part Hepburn is really playing her own golf and tennis in Pat and Mike, with miminal use of a double. That first scene in the film where Pat's fiancé chides her for wearing slacks is surely an allusion to Hepburn's insistence on wearing slacks in the 1930s, at the time something unheard of for female stars in Hollywood. In fact, one anecdote about her recounts how RKO had her slacks removed from her dressing room to force her to wear a skirt. In protest, Hepburn strolled around the sound stage in her underwear until her slacks were returned.

Spencer Tracy was a gifted naturalistic actor whose typical approach to a role was to slip into it without much emphasis on external details. But his part in Pat and Mike, although the male lead, is essentially a character role. Under Cukor's direction, he appears quite comfortable as Mike, having fun with the mannerisms of the character and with the novelty of playing a colorful huckster conceived almost in the Damon Runyon vein. His Mike is certainly an eyeful in his gaudy faux-mobster attire—suits in loud checks, plaids, and chalk stripes worn over dark shirts and light-colored ties. Tracy manages to find the simple nobility in the character, though, despite his obvious lack of education, social polish, and fashion sense.

As much fun as this movie is—and make no mistake, it's a great deal of fun, the most sheerly enjoyable Tracy-Hepburn picture after Adam's Rib—it has a decidedly serious undertone. Even though Adam's Rib deals more openly with gender inequality as a concept, this issue is just as much at the heart of Pat and Mike. Mike's social and educational background may be a mismatch with Pat's, but unlike the patronizing Collier, a classic male chauvinist who tries to suffocate her personality, he actually respects her athletic accomplishments and treats her as an equal. Pat's association with Mike and her experience as an athlete holding her own in a male-dominated environment help her shed her submissive attitude and find her independence. The movie may wrap its feminist sensibility in a sugar coating of humor, but the message comes through nevertheless. The story of one woman's liberation, Pat and Mike is a worthy companion piece to Adam's Rib.



  1. R.D, I'm going to take your enthusiastic review and insight into Pat & Mike the next time I watch it, because every other time I see this film, it seems as though I see nothing but "Look at Middle-Aged Kate Being Athletic!" It's practically an on-screen snapshot of Hepburn's real-life persona, what with her playing tennis, golfing, swimming, etc. I also must pay more attention to Tracy's performance, the quality of which has eluded me all these years. Thanks for giving me the inspiration to see this one agaain.

    P.S. Is there anything I can do to allow your blog to bump up in my dashboard? It works on my bloglist at Hollywood Dreamland but not in the dashboard update.

  2. C.K., thanks for your comment. It's good to hear from you. The quality of "Adam's Rib" is pretty much universally recognized, so I wasn't taking much of a chance with my unqualified praise of it. But I knew I was going out on a limb with my praise of "Pat and Mike." I've seen it at least three times, most recently right before I wrote this post, and it always makes a better impression on me than, objectively speaking, it has a right to do. What you say about Hepburn starting to show her age (especially with this film coming right on the heels of "The African Queen") is true. And even though my least favorite performances of Tracy's are the ones where he labors to adopt a new persona (like "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Tortilla Flat" to name two), his performance here is a pleasure because it seems so relaxed. Despite its at times sitcom-like quality, I just really like this movie. The feminist theme gives it substance without becoming preachy. And Cukor's direction seems so restrained. Instead of making Tracy and his thuggish cronies menacing heavies or caricatures as other directors might, he has them underplay. His light touch with the material really helps put it over. My response to the film might not be typical, but I think people who read film blogs know that any blogger's reaction to a movie is at heart subjective. If you do watch it again, I hope you don't find I overstated its appeal.

    As for the problem with the dashboard, I can't help you as I don't use this feature. I'm lazy and just check my blogroll for updates.

  3. Interesting, the focus on Hepburn's age, but not on Tracy's. Tracy looked middle aged by the early 1940s. He was always a character actor; the few times he was fashioned as a leading man, such as his 'Jekyll' persona in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, the result is 'off' - he's far too old for Lana Turner (I find their relationship unconvincing), but his Hyde characterization, which emphasizes creepiness and not sex appeal, is superb.

    Hepburn looks great in Pat & Mike -she's trim, athletic, and looks blooming, especially after she falls in love w/Mike - as the movie's famous line sums it up, "there's not much meat on her, but what's there is cherce!" Thanks for your excellent post.

  4. GOM, thanks for leaving a comment. Hollywood has always reflected the cultural prejudice that men "mature," while women "age." Tracy did start to look old quickly, but in my experience that's all too typical of alcoholics. The booze really takes its toll on the health, and you can see it. The roles I associate Tracy with are not his character parts, in the sense of a "character" being a quirky personality defined by external characteristics and mannerisms. When I think of him, I like to think of him as "Spencer Tracy"--the core personality that doesn't vary much from movie to movie. I think my favorite performance of his was in "Father of the Bride."

    Hepburn does look very fit here and to my eye appears younger than she did in "The African Queen" the year before, where of course she was made to look plain and middle-aged because of her character. She looks younger than Tracy (she was 7 yrs. younger) but to me noticeably older than the actor who plays Collier (who was 6 yrs younger than she was). In his autobiography, Joseph L. Mankiewizc tells an interesting anecdote about working with her on "Suddenly, Last Summer." For most of the film he wanted her lit and photographed flatteringly to emphasize how unmotherly her attitude toward her son was. But in the final scene, after she has lost the battle, he wanted her to look as if she had suddenly aged overnight and without telling Hepburn told the cinematographer to photograph her in such a way as to emphasize her age. Hepburn was so knowledgeable that she immediately caught on to what was happening and was not pleased to be made to look old onscreen.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comment on my comment! Hollywood and aging actresses are always a fraught issue. Bette Davis, for one, was said to care more about the character she was playing than about her looks; this led to snide comments from critics like Bosley Crowther on how she didn't look beautiful enough for her roles (eg, her performance in Mr Skeffington). She was a gutsy enough performer to go all out on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, allowing herself to look particularly ghoulish - the result was a cycle of what's been called Grand Dame Guignol films, for herself and other older actresses, playing grotesque harridans armed with axes and the like, who seem to embody some kind of dark societal fears about older women.

    I agree w/your point on Tracy as essentially a 'core' actor, basically playing himself in his films. By character actor, I meant not quirky personality types found in Hollywood bit players (like Jack Norton, who played the same drunk in film after film), but actors like Thomas Mitchell, who could play the meaty roles that backed up the plot, but were not the stars - although Tracy clearly was in the star category (as was also Edward G. Robinson, another non-leading man star). Unlike Tracy, who moved into more paternal roles as he got older, aging Hollywood actors who were romantic leading men when young seemed rewarded with a more accommodating standard; hence Cary Grant and Clark Gable played leading parts (and with younger actresses) well into their fifties, as did Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon or James Stewart in Vertigo. (I confess, I can't bring myself to watch Cooper in the Wilder film; he looks WAY too old and wattled for Audrey Hepburn, who looks like a teenager - it smacks a bit too much of Lolita...)

  6. GOM, I use the term "character actor" in this way too. In fact, I've written several posts on such people, and they're among the most-read posts I've ever written, which indicates to me that there is perennial interest in these actors. And Thomas Mitchell was one of the people I covered in those posts. I think of "character ACTORS" the same way as you do, as supporting performers who lend colorful support to the stars of the movie, the movie equivalent of E.M. Forster's "flat" characters. But I've lately come to see that sometimes lead performances are really character roles too. They're just typically played by stars, not those people I think of as character actors. So now I use the term "character" in two different senses. When these are lead performances, there's also a certain amount of overlap with what I recently called--in the "Best (Classic) Performances by an Actor" post--the "chameleon" performances I contrasted to "essence" performances. It's not always easy for me to define these terms precisely or even, once defined, to apply them with consistency. I've found that it's comments left by thoughtful readers such as you that spur me to clarify such fine distinctions in my mind!

  7. I must agree with you about what a wonderful movie 'Adam's Rib' is, R.D. - and it's great to read your detailed appreciation of it, which now has me wanting to watch it again as soon as possible. It's always interesting to see films which show couples working in the same field, and I think the way in which Adam and Amanda's personal and working lives get increasingly mixed up together here feels convincing - also I don't feel we are being told to disapprove of either of them in this movie, as we are of Hepburn's character at times in 'Woman of the Year'. In 'Adam's Rib', both lawyers have good cases. I must just add that Judy Holliday is also excellent in this and you can definitely see why Cukor has such a fine reputation for getting actresses to give great performances. The whole movie is brilliantly humorous and yet tackles serious issues at the same time.

    One scene which did slightly diconcert me was the one where Spencer Tracy reveals how it is possible for him to cry to order - I know this is to show a man using supposedly feminine wiles in the course of the battle of the sexes, but it does seem a bit as if Tracy is showing us his inner workings as an actor for a moment. Although, even after seeing this, his crying scenes are still just as moving as ever.

    To be honest, I don't remember 'Pat and Mike' quite so well and remember feeling it was a bit more lightweight than 'Adam's Rib', but it sounds as if I should see this one again too and think more about the serious undertone which you point out in your review.

  8. Judy, after watching "Adam's Rib" again recently I recalled that it was actually the first Tracy-Hepburn movie I ever saw, on television when I was about 12 yrs. old. I had no idea who any of the principals were, but I do remember thinking what a wonderful film it was. It's a movie that still holds up for me after all these years. I agree that "Pat and Mike" is more lightweight in comparison. The whole movie is a bit like that line GOM quoted: "There's not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce"!

    I recall having the same reaction as you to that scene where Tracy reveals his ability to cry on demand. I think all actors must use this trick. I assume it has to do with thinking of some sad memory so strong that it immediately induces tears. In a biography of Ida Lupino I read not long ago, Lupino tells about how she was having difficulty with this while making "High Sierra" and Bogart advised her to think of a time she said goodbye to someone she thought she would never see again. She tried it and it worked.

    I agree that both Hepburn and Tracy have a valid point. It's refreshing to see a movie of this vintage where all the issues aren't clear cut. I do think, however, that the end of the movie comes down on Tracy's side by forcing Hepburn to see what it would be like to be in the position of Doris's husband. He doesn't think he deserved such treatment and she knows she doesn't. But she is forced to feel the terror of the situation (even though it's played for laughs) and see that sometimes the distinction between villains and victims isn't as simple as she thought, and that the rule of law is designed to protect the unworthy as well as the worthy.

  9. R.D.

    This is John. For some reason I cannot sign in under my Goggle account, anyway...

    "Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn seem so responsive to each other's rhythms and moods that it requires no effort at all to accept them as a married couple who, despite their disagreements, have a deep psychic rapport."

    Totally agree! Screen chemistry never worked so well as it does here. ADAM'S RIB is absolutely my favorite of the Tracy-Hepburn films and for just about every reason you name, smartly written, flawless direction, perfectly acted and polished never reducing itself to cheap laughs. Great review R.D.!

  10. John, "Adam's Rib" has long been my favorite too and here they are, as you say, the essence of screen chemistry. The quality of their movies is variable, but their rapport isn't. They were simply the greatest screen couple. Writing these posts has made me realize they were also the most versatile. Even their movies that seem to resemble each other have subtle variations that make them distinctive. "Adam's Rib" goes right to the heart of their tremendous appeal.