I am a fan of Katherine Hepburn. I did not know it until a few years ago simply because she belonged to that murky pre-70 period in movies that I knew practically nothing about. At this point however I can honestly say that few actresses make me as happy and impressed as Katharine Hepburn does. She is funny when it is required, intelligent when that is needed, but most of all she is the master of chaos. She can run circles around any of her male counterparts and sometimes even around herself and it does not look forced. For comedy in general this is gold but for the screwball comedy this is a key skill.
It is not easy to play together with or against Katharine Hepburn, she has a tendency to steal the picture, but apparently Spencer Tracy made a solid partner and the two of them made a number of films together. I like Spencer Tracy, he had some really good roles back in the thirties, but I am wondering if he can really stand his ground against whirlwind Hepburn. I got myself a box-set with four of their movies of which “Adam’s Rib” is the first that I see, so I guess I will find out.
Let me say right away that Adam’s Rib is hilariously funny. It is not everything that makes sense here, but that is almost beside the point. Katharine Hepburn could make utter nonsense funny, which she incidentally did in “Bringing up Baby”. 90% of the movie is a Hepburn and Tracy running circles on each other and the rest is just a vehicle.
Amanda and Adam Bonner (Hepburn and Tracy) are happily married. They genuinely care for each other and seem able to keep personal and professional life apart. That is also necessary because they represent each end of the spectrum in an almost cartoonish manner. Adam represent conservative republican ideas while Amanda represents progressive democratic ideas, most specifically women’s rights. Oh, and they are both lawyers, Adam representing prosecution and Amanda defense.
The story is of course that they fight it out in the courtroom, flying their flags and principles, while at home they can enjoy each other as man and wife. Apparently they usually manage to not clashing too much but then comes this case that pit one against the other.
An empty-headed wife and mother, Doris (Judy Holliday) shoots and wounds her cheating husband (Tom Ewell) when she catches him red-handed together with his mistress (a hilariously funny scene in itself, Doris trying to read the manual to the gun while firing). Adam gets the case to get Doris convicted of attempted murder, while Amanda jumps at the case as a vehicle for her women’s rights cause as she sees Doris as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
I dislike courtroom dramas, but this is like none I ever saw. It is a circus, literally. Doris has no clue at all. Her husband is an asshole, Amanda is a madwoman in court and Adam is fighting all the way. It is a madhouse, no less. To us as viewers and apparently to the audience in the courtroom it is a lot of fun to watch the Bonner’s fight it out, but the unavoidable happen and the professional life spills over into their personal life. Adam particularly is taking it bad. He is not enjoying having his case being the vehicle of his wife’s crusade.
The issue is that while Adam feels that he is upholding the law, he sees his wife manipulating the court to the advance of her case, that women suffer inequality before the court. Essentially she has hijacked the case for her crusade and it bothers him no end. She wins the case (no surprise there, she is a steamroller in court), but may be losing her marriage.
To add to the mess Amanda is being courted by their neighbor Kip, an effeminate composer or showman, who does all he can to impress her including writing her a (Cole Porter) song. He manages to truly annoy Adam, but Amanda does not catch the hints at all and so it takes on almost absurd proportions. Just imagine Katharine Hepburn looking absolutely perplexed when she finally, finally realizes what Kip is up to. It is uniquely Hepburn and priceless at that.
Whether this movie is about men version women or law versus sophism or even love and marriage is ultimately of less importance. The resolution is a bit off and confusing, but that does not ruin a thing. It is one of those films we know where ends 10 minutes into the movie and it is all about how it gets there. And that journey is master class! I lack words to describe Katherine Hepburn, instead let me just say that I cannot wait to see the other three movies in the box set.