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.
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