31 Days of Oscar: “Adam’s Rib”

Courtroom battles in film are nothing new. However, most seem to play out in some heavy and dramatic way, which leaves very little room for even the slightest bit of a chuckle. Not so here with this classic comedy film. There’s drama to be sure, but it’s not too dramatic and doesn’t come close to overshadowing all the other aspects that make this film a delightful treat, even with almost 70 years having come and gone.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “Adam’s Rib” is but the first film in this month long celebration known as “31 Days of Oscar”, and it’s a pretty good way to start! I’d expected something good, because of leads Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but I don’t think I was fully expecting what I got. The fact that what they brought to the screen, along with the other actors and writers, can still work today, says a lot about these creatives on an individual level and the film as a whole. It’s definitely a new favorite of mine!

Humor And The Fortune Of Others

It’s funny! I wasn’t aware this film was a comedy, of any sort. It apparently is, and a good one at that. Who would think that jokes and bits written over 60 years ago, could still be effective? I didn’t, and I’ve seen the funny and amazing film called “It Happened One Night”, which is even older. The jokes and bits just work, and I’m surprisingly able to view Hepburn and Tracy in a new light. I’ve pretty much only ever known them for their serious roles, particularly the work on display in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. I’ve heard so many people refer to them or their work, whether together or separately, as some of the best, but now I can kind of see why. If they can do comedy as well as drama, they can do anything. That’s pretty tough to achieve even in with today’s actors.

Normally I’d be able to say that all of this comedy helps balance out the drama and seriousness, but that’s not really the case. It is a tiny bit, as there are, of course, dramatic moments, but the purpose of the comedy was to be just that, comedy. To elicit laughs and bring smiles to the faces of those who watch. It works well and never seems to run into any problems. It’s a natural fit all around. I guess in some ways, that’s where the slight balance comes into play. The constant transition from the few dramatic moments and back to comedic ones, is flawless. I was never thrown or thought that somehow it was off or awkward. The difference here, which is why I won’t even try and explain some of the comedic moments, is that it’s not your standard stuff. If anything, the comedy on display in this film, is more of a precursor to what we’ve got today, the good and the bad. These are not your typical jokes or slapstick bits or anything else like that. It’s all because of the characters. It’s because of who they are and their levels of intelligence, which drives much of the humor. If there are any inorganic moments, I never noticed.

Chemistry Test

The surprisingly effective comedy, which is even more welcome when you think about how rare it is to find today, wouldn’t be possible without this little thing called chemistry. Certain jokes or situations could’ve only been pulled off with the right chemistry, or just look foolish and fall flat. Hepburn’s and Tracy’s performances also rely heavily on it. The other actors who pop in and out of this film do too, but first and foremost, it’s all about Hepburn and Tracy. They’re the main characters. They’re the one’s this story centers on. If they don’t look believable and more or less likable, then there’s no reason to care or even watch.

The chemistry on display between Hepburn and Tracy is the only reason you get a great look at who they are. Together and separately. They’re pretty well defined characters who show, that even when they disagree on something, they can find their way back. They never lose sight. I must say I bought into every moment of their relationship, actually their marriage, and could easily like both characters, even after the trial begins.

That’s the other area in which chemistry dictates what happens. The trial. It takes up, what could amount to half the film, and if not, it’s always there. They are lawyers after all and this was in the local papers. The courtroom isn’t just a place to throw out legal jargon and try and win for your client. In this film, it’s about putting on something that amounts to a circus and brings out its own share of laughs. Throwing out legal jargon and trying to win for your client is also had, but it still takes something of a backseat. The constant back and forth between Hepburn and Tracy, plus anyone else, wouldn’t have been fun, funny or effective if not for this chemistry. Of course, some of this too, I discovered, is because of the writing done by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. I’ve only known of Gordon because of “Rosemary’s Baby”, so I’m pleasantly surprised by what was achieved here.

Trial And Error

All jokes aside, there’s a trial that must be seen to. And, like with most fictional trials or fictional portrayals, it’s quite fascinating. This too is something I wasn’t aware about. I pretty much went in only looking forward to seeing Hepburn and Tracy, so this was even more of a surprise than the comedy. I love a good trial. So, not only is this film a comedy and a bit of a drama, it’s also a legal film. Some of the best films I’ve seen have been legal films. Two definitely come to mind. “Runaway Jury” and “Judgement at Nuremberg” are excellent films, that showcase two vastly different sides of law. If you ever wanted to start watching and possibly loving films revolving around law, these two are good places to start, or if you want to go further back, this one.

But it’s not simply that this film is about a court case, even if it’s a fascinating one. It’s about seeing the legal system of the time being portrayed. A perk of this film being so old. I’ve consumed a lot of TV, film and books dealing with law, but what I got here, was almost foreign. It was still fun and easy to follow, but I had to remind myself this was another time. I also had to squash my surprise when a particular issue, which was partly Hepburn’s character’s strategy during the trial, arose early in the film. This was 1949, and not only was the thinking largely very different, among other things, the code with which films was made was nothing like we see today, but possibly more consistent. Early in the film, Hepburn questions the double standard that exists around the idea of men and women and promiscuity, to name one thing. Then, during the trial, when Hepburn takes this bit a and makes it a focus, it took on the added question of how to view a woman being charged with attempted murder. The primary example was how the client had been treated in general, which goes back to the double standard between men and women. I just couldn’t believe it. I know I should kick myself for not thinking this wouldn’t have been an issue, among so many others during this time, but I don’t think I’ve seen many films use it as a major plot point or theme. This alone could just show how few classic films I’ve seen or just show how stagnant the thinking was at the time and for many decades after. Regardless, there’s so much to get and think about, that it takes this film from just being an entertaining classic film, to a film that can still (possibly sadly) be relevant.

Originally Released: Nov. 18, 1949

Director: George Cukor

Writers: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, David Wayne, Jean Hagen and Hope Emerson


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