“You great big he men make me sick.”
Sex Wars mid-century style. Adam’s Rib can’t help but look a bit dated, but it sure is a perfect encapsulation of a certain type of couple at a certain time. My grandparents were sort of like this. Spencer Tracy is the loving conservative Prosecutor husband Adam. Katherine Hepburn, the lovely and wildly liberal defense attorney wife Amanda. I imagine Kate makes tons of money because I don’t think Prosecutors make much dough and these two are loaded. I always wanted a marriage like this, lots of money, a bright cheery willful wife with strong ideals, and not an irritating child to be found. They have servants who bring them breakfast in bed. They read the newspaper together every morning, have a bit of back and forth, go to work, buy each other hats, and have lavish black tie dinner parties. Wow, where did those days go?
I think it was considered fun in those days for the wife to be a woman of wildly progressive causes, while the stick in the mud husband who hated contempt for the law stood by exasperated at his wife’s cute sense of drive. After all this came out only a few years after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had given up the reins of the country. Kate even has a Gay friend who plays the piano, who you just know Spencer can’t stand, but puts up with because he loves his wife and they’re like sisters. OK, no one ever says David Wayne is Gay in this movie. For that matter he seems to have a girlfriend and we’re meant to think that he is wildly in love with Katherine Hepburn, but this is one of those performances where if you walk out of the theater without acknowledging that the guy is a queen, people will make fun of you, which is never an ideal viewing experience. Check out this exchange.
Kip: You’ve got me so convinced I may even go out and become a woman. Goodnight all.
Adam: And he wouldn’t have far to go either!
On the other side of the tracks we have Tom Ewell and his ditsy wife Judy Holliday. Tom’s an ass. He beats Judy and cheats on her and their three kids. Doesn’t it drive you crazy how the rich educated Spencer and Kate have no kids, while the wife beater and the moron have three? That’s where Jerry Springer contestants come from. Bill Clinton sort of came from there too.
One day Judy gets sick of Tom’s philandering, buys a gun, buys a gun instruction manual(!), catches Tom cheating at a hotel and with her eyes closed tight empties her six shooter at him. Lucky for Tom she only wings him and he will someday get to make movies with both Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield. Guess what cute couple gets to litigate this mess.
Back in the ‘50s, it was apparently understood that men were not meant to be monogamous like women. So while all the Joe Kennedys went around philandering their stay at home women were lucky to have a Gay friend or two.
In Adam’s Rib, Kate is all upset at the prevailing double standard of the day. While men were pretty much allowed to cat around, women who cheated were largely looked upon as whores and sluts. Kate felt that if Tom had shot Judy cheating that he would have been seen as protecting his home and family. I don’t think things are like that anymore. Fatal Attraction sort of killed the fun myth of the errant playboy. Now movies obsess about every little affair like it’s an earth shaking and shattering development. In the ‘50s a guy’s affair didn’t even merit mention. Now though it’s all Bill Clinton, Paula Jones, and an overweight intern in the back hallway.
You have to remember that Spencer Tracy secretly lived with Katherine Hepburn for years and nobody made mention of it. Spencer went on pretending he was married to someone else until the day he died because of religious reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by their relationship because Katherine Hepburn was to me the most untamable bucking Bronco of all time, and yet there was something about Spencer Tracy that instantly melted her independence away like butter on a hot skillet. I bet you I could have cleaned up as a gossip columnist in those days. I could have had a yearly report dedicated to the Kennedy family alone.
Essentially Kate’s strong influence and the rising tide of equality for women make this movie an anachronism. Kate’s side won although not really by defending Judy Holliday, but by turning up the heat on Tom Ewell. Kate’s pluck is almost perfectly summed up in this early exchange.
Secretary: I didn’t make the rules.
Amanda: Sure you do. We all do.
Kate pretty much just assumed that women were equal and by so doing in many cases made it so. It’s a wonder that Hollywood was never able to tear her down like it did to fellow free thinker Frances Farmer.
Adam’s Rib is still funny and entertaining though and you can’t really fault it just for being on the right side of history. Besides, it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable to sit through as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is these days. Spencer Tracy does a great flabbergasted double take and it’s on display all through this movie written by Husband-Wife team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. He walks out on Kate after she gets a female weight lifter to lift her over his head in court, and who can really blame him. Essentially this is the very first episode of Ally McBeal, but that’s still no reason to make me see Tom Ewell in drag.
Of course, if this movie were made today, Kate would be prosecuting O.J. Simpson and the Juice would have wound up with the chair. Cue Katherine Hepburn giving one of her “Now you look here son!” speeches to Kato Kaelin as O.J. slouches down into his seat.
If I read the movie right, Hepburn’s night of drunken fun with Jimmy humanizes her and makes her ready to finally enjoy herself with Cary Grant. Jimmy, humanized a bit himself, and nice enough to be the best man, gives his seal of approval to the coupling and order is restored to the Universe. Today I don’t think anyone really cares about the fact that this was intended to be a cunning class satire with a capital C, but it’s got big stars, they say cool things, they look good, it’s funny, and the right guy gets the right girl in amusing fashion. In the end, that’s still enough, but I sure would have liked to have seen Jimmy Stewart put up a bigger fight. The film seems to consign him Ruth Hussey merely because he has no money, no stature, and isn’t Cary Grant. Then again in real life he wouldn’t have even gotten as far as he did.