Adam’s Rib (1949): Questioning the Gender Status Quo

Katherine Hepburn is one of those women I have always admired while being very unfamiliar with her work. I know more of her legend than of her portfolio, and her legend is one of a strong, brilliant woman who refused to let her gender be an impediment to her success. In watching Adam’s Rib (1949), a charming courtroom comedy, I began to understand that perhaps her legend was simply a reflection of her work on-screen.

Synopsis: When a young woman is accused of trying to kill her husband, the sexes head off as two married lawyers take up the case; the husband to prosecute the young woman, and the wife to defend her.

OK, I want you to close your eyes… and imagine a feminist. How hairy are her legs? How scowly her face? How man-hating-y her attitude? The backlash against feminism has been very successful by painting feminism as unattractive (and how telling that it worked). Would that Hollywood felt comfortable portraying women who support feminism as charming, breezy, and fun. But perhaps we need strong feminist leaders like Hepburn to demonstrate the contrast between the myth and the reality. Because let’s face it, Adam’s Rib was filmed in 1949, and her role is more overtly in favour of women’s rights than I’ve seen in any recent film.

Amanda (Hepburn) is a forward thinking woman. She recognizes the differences between the sexes lie not only in how they act, but how they are treated when they act the same way. She asks her assistant why women who cheat are seen as “terrible” whereas male cheaters are simply “not nice.” But she’s also fun; she laughs often and loudly, easily charms all those around her, and somehow still manages to wear lipstick without having to turn in her feminist card. I imagine that audiences would not have been as sympathetic to her progressive views were she not such a delightful character, but perhaps I am selling the people of the time short in order to justify the current dearth of fun woman portrayed as supportive of female rights.

As the movie unfolds, Amanda learns of a woman who shot her husband upon finding him in a compromising situation with another woman. When she hears the description of the crime and the woman’s abusive living situation, it strikes her that such charges would not have been brought against a man, had he acted similarly.

(sidebar: while no doubt true at the time, isn’t it interesting to see how things have reversed, and how much more difficult it is now to prosecute a woman for the same crime when compared to a man? OK, game on.)

So Amanda decides to use her charm and overflowing intellect to defend this woman, and at least point out to the court system the biases inherent. Her husband Adam pats her head condescendingly, arrogantly confident in his superior argument and certain of his victory.

The story progresses from there, and it is a solid story. But the real strength in the film lies in Hepburn’s strong performance and the humour between she and Tracy. After observing one minute of banter between Hepburn and Tracy, it is instantaneously obvious why they were such a successful duo in film. Their chemistry, their delivery, their sheer talent… they truly were a power couple.

I had two quibbles with the film; one minor, and one that ultimately interfered with my enjoyment of the movie. The first problem was to do with the defense of the court case. While I certainly sympathize with the defendant, the truth is that I cannot remove myself from my place in history – that is, I cannot pretend that I know what it was like to be a woman in 1949. While things are far from perfect (which I annoyingly remind people when they ask why I’m a feminist), we have come a very long way from then and so I cannot understand the desperation a woman of the time would have felt at being left to care for three children with no income or way of making an income. Because of that, no matter how sympathetic I was to her situation, the little voice in the back of my head kept shouting, “SHE SHOT HIM!!” Whatever else happened, she isn’t innocent of all crimes, which is the stance the movie takes. It is the same problem I had with A Time To Kill (1996); while I felt ill for Carl Lee Hailey, I don’t think he did the “right” thing and could not bring myself to cheer his acquittal at the end. Carl and the young defendant in Adam’s Rib are portrayed positively strictly because their respective films argue that each character took the only option for justice available to them; the official law at the time would not have protected them, and so they protected themselves. And tellingly, A Time to Kill steals Amanda’s closing argument, almost to the point of copyright infringement, indicating that even the writer’s knew they were towing that fine line.

But ultimately, that was just one of many little voices in my head, and easy enough to punt aside. My second complaint had to do with Adam, and is also likely a reflection of the zeitgeist of the time and so beyond my comprehension. But Adam absolutely maddened me; his patronizing “support” before he realized that Amanda may actually win, his cruelty to her following this new awareness, his general pouty demeanor. It was readily apparent to me that Adam’s support for women’s rights went as far as his own ego – once he saw that he might lose the case, and some face with it, he abruptly switched to a loser’s limp and tore into Amanda for making a mockery of the judicial system. When he asserted that if there was a problem with the law, she should change the law, not bring the problem out into the light, I yelled at the TV, “the only way to change the law is to bring these problems into the light!” I wanted to slap Amanda for apologizing to him for being better than he was. It wasn’t just his behaviour, but the attitude of the film that supported the behaviour I found to be problematic. Again, I am trying to relate to audiences of the time, and perhaps the only way they could accept Amanda’s POV is if Adam’s POV was also provided to represent the other side. But with his ridiculous stunt at the end (which as far as I’m concerned, was so far removed from the original incident that the comparisons are laughable), his snit fits, his turning on tears to emotionally manipulate (after claiming it to be a technique of weak women) – by the end, I could scarcely imagine why Amanda would have even been with this idiot.

Putting aside these complaints (which really don’t seem fair, as how could the filmmakers predict how times would a-change?), Adam’s Rib is a delightful, funny tale with a significant point to make. Please know that despite my ubiquitous use of the work “feminism” in various incarnations, you do not have to consider yourself such to enjoy the movie. Hepburn and Tracy make it all worthwhile, throwing themselves into each scene, and appearing to have a blast while they do so.

Favourite Scene: Has to be the day in court, during which Amanda marches through her parade of competent women

Key Quote: “Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called in-breeding; from this comes idiot children… and other lawyers.”

Fun Fact: Inspired by the real-life story of husband-and-wife lawyers William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney, who represented Raymond Massey and his ex-wife Adrienne Allen in their divorce. After the Massey divorce was over, the Whitneys divorced each other and married the respective Masseys.

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~ by K. Harker on September 14, 2011.

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