Adam’s Rib (1949)

Directed: George Cukor

Written: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

With: Spencer Tracy

Katharine Hepburn

Judy Holliday

Tom Ewell

Jean Hagen

David Wayne

The battle of the sexes: the concept is valid only if the partners of the parties involved are equal in wit and intelligence—and not necessarily in physical prowess. Then their give and take has some meaning: there is no handicap, as in golf or other sports—where a weaker rival is given an advantage. The babble of the sexes can be accomplished, as a staged endeavor (that is not in real life) only between a man and a woman, not between two men, or two women, or a group or two groups consisting of mixed genders. A group may be present, as a witness to this battle, as in Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, during which the two main characters, Benedict and Beatrice, battle it out, trying to outfox and outwit each other, while a group of bystanders watch.

One gains new appreciation for comedy of manners in film, especially when a film like Adam’s Rib directed by George Cukor and the two stars are Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn at their peak; for those two, lovers and co-stars in nine movies, defined the idea/theme of the battle of the sexes in film as well as any other pair in film history.

Of course, the battle of the sexes in movies does not begin, nor end, with Spencer and Hepburn, or with Adam’s Rib. To be sure, this is a topic that goes back centuries, even millennia, in narrative genres, whether in stage plays, poems, or novels. It actually begins with Adam (the well placed name of the male protagonist here) and Eve, in the story of Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, for those two started antagonizing each other as soon as the serpent made its appearance. Eve, power hungry, disrespectful to her Creator, and easily duped by sleek phrases of the snake and the shine of an apple, turned to sin and dragged mankind down with her; and Adam, when asked by the Creator why he too ate the apple, he replied, “She gave it to me.” Mutual accusations between the sexes began flying right then and there, and we have seen them since in history, literature, and real life (and in the movies, inevitably) since then. Remember, Jason in Euripides’s Medea (and Euripides knew how to stick it to both sexes as well as anybody) accuses Medea of ingratitude, for she had failed to acknowledge that he, a Greek, had brought her, a “barbarian,” to a civilized country. And she gives it back to him by stating that she had helped him in his mission to steal a Golden Fleece from her own country, helped him to escape, and even killed her own brother in the process. Who owes what to whom?

But the battle of the sexes narrative theme does much better with comedy than with tragedy, and again we may remember the females and their embargo on sex with men, when the latter prefer to make war than love, in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; Shakespeare had Benedict and Beatrice go at each other, for verbal superiority if nothing else, in Much Ado About Nothing,[1] Jane Austen created her momentous clash between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice[2] defining male arrogance and female payback; and film has given us (among others) such male-female antagonists as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; and in later years Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor revived the theme, making it not a “battle’ but a collision in both comedy and tragedy, in The Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. And still later, in The War of the Roses (1989), Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner gave us a bitter taste of what it means to see the battle deteriorate from comedy to vicious and self-destructive brawling.

Adam’s Rib, still very modern, treads delicately between the lines of the serious and the comedic, offering us the laughs galore, and a few tears, in a literal sense when Tracy sheds them, for they are coming from the male, who can also fake them when need presses him. The action of the movie, confined to the duration of a trial, rests on two premises: one is the equality (or inequality) of the sexes; and the other is that the battle between the sexes, after nearly ruining a marriage, turns out in the end to be a draw. Adam Banner (Tracy) is a public prosecutor, about to take on a case of attempted homicide, while his wife, Amanda (Hepburn), a famous female New York lawyer, undertakes to defend a woman (Holliday in a delightfully farcical performance) who shot and wounded her husband (Ewell) when she caught him in a compromising position with another female (Hagen). Amanda has an agenda, and takes the case as much to confront her sexist husband on ideological premises as to do a defense attorney’s job. She wants to demonstrate in public that a man, when caught cheating, gets away with minimal reprimand; while a woman, doing exactly the same thing, is subject to both severe punishment and public scorn. Amanda thinks all this is totally unfair to females, and undertakes a spirited defense of Mrs. Attinger (Holliday), turning the trial into a duel of principles between herself and her husband and easily outmatching him. One of her witnesses is a brainy woman with several Ph.Ds. from European universities; another is a mountain woman who can lift ten men on her shoulders in a circus (and lifts Tracy, ridiculing him in the court). Gradually, as the scenes alternate between court sessions and evenings at home, the marriage of the Bonners becomes a shambles, and, when she wins the case, Adam, shocked and furious, leaves their home. But when things calm down and he is able to soothe his ego (the tears help), he comes back and turns this around by pretending to attempt to shoot Amanda, when she catches her in their apartment with their crooning neighbor,[3] Kip (Wayne), and what they think he thinks is a compromising situation. The gun, however, turns out to be made of chocolate, and he has the last laugh while eating it. His aim was to show that it isn’t just women who get mad and discombobulated when their husbands cheat; men, too, have their fits of jealousy and can shoot (though his threat is a pretense), when their wives play around—or even when appearances deceive—which can happen. She reluctantly admits that, though she proved to him women’s equality, or superiority, she too, or other women, can suffer from fright, or be outwitted by a man. As they say in poetry, “Adam had’em.”

In the end, they admit that there is no difference between the sexes (both can be smart or stupid), except some little, biological thing. Let us celebrate glorious pacification between the man and woman, for, as the French say, “Vive la difference!”





[1] And reference is made to the delightful film by the same title with Kenneth Branagh (directed by him) and Emma Thompson in 1995.

[2] Also often filmed.

[3] He sings “Amanda” (the loved one), by Cole Porter, the tuneful, and ironic, backdrop of the movie.