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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #29: Adam's Rib, 1949

Amanda Bonner: "After you shot your husband... how did you feel?
Doris Attinger: "Hungry!”

Adam's Rib, 1949

Director: George Cukor
Writers: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Cinematographer: George J. Folsey
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten for MGM
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, David Wayne

Why I chose it
My local classic movie discussion group had a Judy Holliday event this summer, and we focused on two of her best-known films: Born Yesterday and It Should Happen To You. In researching her career for the event, I learned that her breakout film was Adam's Rib...and I had made a note that I needed to see it for Holliday's performance. It also seemed like the perfect opportunity to fill the gap in my viewing of Hepburn/Tracy films; sadly, to date the only other one I've seen is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

High-powered attorney couple Adam and Amanda Bonner
(Hepburn and Tracy) take their eyes off the road when sparring.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Adam and Amanda Bonner are attorneys who try to keep their working life out of their marriage find themselves on opposite sides of a controversial criminal court case. Adam represents the state against Doris Attinger, who shot at her husband and his lover in a fit of anger, while Amanda chooses to take up the case for the defense. Amanda is a 'modern' woman who feels she can advance the case of women's rights through getting Mrs. Attinger acquitted, an outcome she feels that society would easily condone if it were man who shot at his philandering wife. As the trial heats up, the dueling attorneys increasingly dig their heels in, and find that the cracks in their marriage are widening over their differences in attitudes toward gender roles.

Production Background
The husband and wife writing team of Gordon and Kanin were inspired by the real-life story of married lawyers Dorothy and William Whitney, who broke up after being on opposing sides of a divorce suit and ended up marrying their clients, one of whom was actor Raymond Massey. Gordon & Kanin, seeing the comic potential of a somewhat altered storyline, planned to cast successful middle-aged screen (and off-screen) couple Tracy and Hepburn in the roles of the opposing attorneys. 

Judy Holliday had been starring on Broadway in Born Yesterday, which was also written by Garson Kanin. When Columbia began developing the movie version, they ran into push-back from studio head Harry Cohn who wasn't fond of the idea of casting Judy, whom he supposedly called "a fat Jewish broad". Kanin, by then working with Hepburn & Tracy for Adam's Rib, was encouraged by Hepburn to consider Holliday for the role of Doris Attinger, the 'housewife' who attempts to punish her husband and his lover with a gun. Once she was cast, the filming commenced on location in NYC, which accommodated Holliday's ongoing stage commitment.

Utlimately Holliday's success in this smaller role, and no doubt her Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, convinced Columbia to hire her for Born Yesterday

Some other notable film-related events in 1949 (from

  • The UK's anti-authoritarian Ealing Studios, a British film and production company (and claimed to be the oldest continuously working film studio in the world), released Passport to Pimlico (1949), starring Margaret Rutherford. It was the first of a series of acclaimed post-war classic "Ealing comedies" - the studio's hallmark - celebrated, intelligent comedies (many of which starred Alec Guinness).
  • The film career of the Marx Brothers extended from 1929 to 1949. Marx Brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo made their final film appearance as a team in Love Happy (1949), with a young 23 year-old Marilyn Monroe (in a walk-on bit role).
  • The first musical feature film to be shot (partially) on location (in New York City, including exterior sites such as Coney Island, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Plaza, and Central Park), was MGM's On the Town, although most of the film was shot in the studio.
  • UPA's Mr. Magoo cartoon character (aka Quincy Magoo) made his debut appearance in the theatrical short Ragtime Bear (1949). The popular character (voiced by Jim Backus) was crochety, eccentric, bumbling, semi-senile, short-sighted, resembling W.C. Fields, and forever finding himself in trouble due to his eyesight problems (and denial that there was any problem). It was the studio's first popular success.

My Random Observations

  • Clearly this was a top flight MGM production, with George Cukor's direction, the location filming, brilliant script, and of course, that cast. On top of that, a Cole Porter song was adapted and became somewhat of a running gag through the picture as sung by David Wayne's character Kip: "Goodbye, Amanda." There was a great scene that featured home movies of Hepburn and Tracy as Mr. and Mrs. Bonner having fun. Despite its quality, I struggled to connect with the film and I'm not sure why. It may be that I need to see it on a large movie theater screen to appreciate the nuances. I had been similarly unmoved by a Cukor film from 1940 with Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story, until I saw it at my local cinema.
Annoying neighbor Kip Lurie needles Adam
by singing "Goodbye, Amanda."
  • Each actor makes a unique impression and their parts could not be handled better by anyone else. That is perhaps most true of Judy Holliday, who plays a variation of her lovable, bubble-headed blonde who is hiding a keen intelligence. Holliday was reportedly very nervous when beginning filming, but she seems completely at ease with these veteran movie stars. I am sad that her career and life were cut short by her death from cancer in 1965 at age 43.
Doris Attinger is shocked, shocked! that she actually shot her 
  • Perhaps what bothers me most about the film is the choice of an attempted murder trial as the catalyst for Amanda Bonner's crusade for equal rights for women. I realize the film is somewhat of a farce, but the argument that a man would get significantly more sympathy for shooting at his wife and her lover vs. a woman doing the same thing seems a stretch to make the point of a double standard, gender-wise. Furthermore, Amanda endures constant sexist badgering and condescending remarks from her husband ("you're cute when you're mad") and largely takes it. I suppose that's the point, and part of the comedy, but considering how strongly she feels about the issue, perhaps she should have married someone a bit more progressive? Despite that, and with credit to Hepburn and Tracy, I keenly felt the pain each felt when their marriage began to break down under the weight of the trial.
Over breakfast, Amanda Bonner is pleased to read that a woman
shot at her unfaithful husband, while discussing the day's plan with Adam.
  • I'll still take a film that tackles the issue of women's rights head on. And Adam gets a comeuppance of sorts when he's lifted high off the ground in court by a female circus perfomer. 
It's all women in this law office, even on the wall.
Mr. Attinger (Ewell), recovering from being shot, confesses his 
distaste for his wife to Adam, left, while his lover Beryl (Hagen)
provides moral support.

  • Amanda prepares to share a surreptitious word with her 
    husband under the table during the Attinger trial.

Where to Watch
Adam's Rib can be rented for streaming from a variety of platforms ... for specifics, go here.

Further Reading
Fellow CMBA blogger 'Movie David' extols the script of this film by Gordon and Kanin, and provides much production backstory here.

TCM desribes why this movie should be considered 'essential' here.

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