Tomorrow, as part of their annual "Summer Under the Stars" month, TCM is showing a whole day's worth of Spencer Tracy movies (following today's tribute to Katharine Hepburn). Among them is the classic Tracy-Hepburn vehicle Adam's Rib.
Adam's Rib has the perfect Tracy-Hepburn set-up: they’re married lawyers on opposing sides of a case involving a woman who confronted her husband and his mistress, shooting him in the process. Adam’s Rib is generally considered the best of the Tracy-Hepburn comedy teamings, yet somehow I prefer the funnier films of the ‘50s— Pat and Mike (1952) and Desk Set (1957).
The structure of the screenplay (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) is at once clever and overly repetitive. We see the fireworks in the courtroom and “later that night” we follow Tracy’s "Adam" and Hepburn’s “Amanda” attempting to be civil to each other at home as if nothing had transpired during the day. In an oft-clipped scene, the two give each other a back rub both times leading to a “playful” slap on the backside— only Adam’s slap to Amanda is quite a wallop. The battle-of-the-sexes aspect is inevitably dated, but at least nothing truly offensive remains.
The whole of Adam and Amanda’s lifestyle is the epitome of sophistication, particularly in comparison to the lives of the accused wife (played by Judy Holliday) and the two-timing husband (played by Tom Ewell). David Wayne, playing a rival for Amanda’s affections, spoils the home scenes— he comes off downright annoying. Although that’s the point of his character, you wonder why Amanda puts up with him and why we— the audience— must endure him as well. One delightful home sequence (despite David Wayne’s interruptions) involves a “home movie” of Amanda and Adam as they celebrate the ownership of their country house.
The courtroom scenes are the highlight of the film (enough to recommended the entire movie) and supporting players Holliday and Ewell are a significant contribution to their coming off so well. One of the funniest bits, a running joke that’s carried into the courtroom, involves a hat that Adam has bought for Amanda as a peace offering.
Adam’s Rib (1949): Perfect Tracy-Hepburn premise has spark and sophistication, but also a repetitive structure and an intrusive performance by supporting player David Wayne.