Archive for October 14, 2018

The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by dcairns

The first kind of intertitle in this film is odd, since this was never a play. But LIFE is a play, if you’re George Cukor, so that’s okay.

The second kind comes in the home movie sequence, one of the more convincing examples of its kind. Hand-held shots and hand-drawn cards.

Picked up ADAM’S RIB for cheap in a charity shop, just when this urgent Cukor job landed on me, so it seemed like a valuable bit of research. The Kanin-Gordon script is, I think, about one-third successful beyond all measure, one-third adequate/shaky, and one-third just weird, which is a pretty good set of proportions — things are never going to be dull with that kind of unevenness.

Examples: well, the brilliance is impossible to miss, with Cukor’s genius for casting evidenced not so much by the pairing of Tracy & Hepburn, in roles ideally suited to exploit their talent and their real-life relationship, which was likely the starting point, present in everyone’s mind as soon as the married lawyers idea emerged, but by Judy Holliday in an early role, Tom Ewell as a repellant slug, and Jean Hagen (how to explain Ewell’s success with the ladies?). And Marvin “Choo-Choo” Kaplan. Etc.

Things that are less successful? Well, I think there’s a slight sense in the Kanin-Gordon-Cukor films that when they take on the subject of women’s rights, gender roles etc, the late-forties/early-fifties version of normal is so extreme that arguing against it can seem redundant to a modern sensibility — Aldo Ray’s insistence that his wife not work in THE MARRYING KIND, for instance, is just obviously wrong, selfish and neurotic. Which doesn’t mean the filmmakers were wrong to tackle it — it clearly NEEDED tackling — it’s just that the argument can seem a little, well, obvious. And ADAM’S RIB is all about the double standard in crime passionel cases — on the case itself, the film is mercilessly funny and clever, but the development of the argument leads to some more standard stuff: the underlying issue of a thing is never as exciting as a good specific example.

Then there’s what seems to me a structural mistake, with the movie continuing a good twenty minutes after the conclusion of the trial. Developing the marital crisis in concert with the criminal case has been so successful, this seems like madness, but the writers and director, with all their experience, have decided that the verdict is merely the second-act climax, precipitating the crisis in the marriage, which will now take centre stage, with all those entertaining supporting characters shunted aside. Very well, but I think you’re making a mistake, guys.

Glenn & Claire Kenny have been doing excellent work on the Tracy-Hepburn films and unpick some of the pleasures and peculiarities of this one here. A lot of the weirdness centres on David Wayne, positioned simultaneously as gay best friend for Hepburn and love rival for Tracy. Which arguably makes us much sense as anything else about that mysterious pairing. But means that Tracy has to be at once/alternately jealous of Wayne’s attentions to his wife, and homophobic about him. The cognitive dissonance alone would kill a lesser actor. I have to think that Tracy’s Catholicism would come in handy, allowing him to compartmentalize all the contradictory elements. There are no connecting doors in the conservative mind.

Lacking those abilities, I’m forced to try to achieve some kind of wretched synthesis. Let’s dismiss any suspicion that Cukor simply didn’t notice how gay Wayne was coming across. It does sometimes look like that, but that would be (a) out of character for everyone and (b) flatly contradicted by all the clearly conscious gay coding that didn’t just happen, you know. That Buddha didn’t just walk into Wayne’s apartment and set itself down. Why having a colossal stone Buddha makes you gay I can’t answer, it just does, OK? In 1949. You don’t get to have actual sex, this is the nearest allowable equivalent, seemingly. Decor = sexuality.

So maybe having Wayne actually proposing to Hepburn is just plausible deniability for the censor. With no credible in-the-film motive. Or maybe he’s shopping for a beard — he mentions half-heartedly proposing to some other woman when we first meet him. Could the film be making the case that there are men who seem gay, but aren’t? Or is Tracy meant to be too masculine to notice that the man hanging around his wife is not a serious sexual competitor? Or has he seen through the fey act and spotted the seducer within? (Ambiguity is usually supposed to be either-this-or-that, not this-or-that-or-that-or-that-or-what?)

It’s odd to me that the role, which has to serve as a complicating factor in the marital comedy, developed this way. “Let’s make the love rival gay!” just doesn’t seem like an obvious way to up the stakes. And since it’s the comic trope that dare not speak its name, it has to go sort of unresolved.

But it is part of the film’s strategy of questioning gender norms. Seems brave of Cukor to have taken on this subject in this way —

   

Transgender phantasms of the supporting cast — Holliday and Hagen seem curiously alluring, then everyone shrinks back in horror from a dragged-up Ewell.

Thank God there was no formal HUAC for homosexuality! If you started looking in Hollywood films for a secret queer conspiracy to normalize the reversal of societal norms, you’d find it (almost) everywhere.

At the end, the movie teases us with a sequel where the heroes compete for a judgeship, he as a Republican and she as a Dem. My God, they should have made that!

Advertisements