The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed

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!

15 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    The obviously gay David Wayne character (Kip) who is the rival for Hepburn seems to be part of the questioning of gender norms that goes nowhere in the film. Holliday’s character has already accused Hepburn of not being feminine because she smokes. Wayne has mocked Tracy for wearing an apron while making dinner. Yet, the film never seems committed to examining masculinity vs femininity in anything other than a scattergun approach. It is though Wayne is offered as a more suitable match because Hepburn is so “mannish.”

    Perhaps the audience of the 50s would have been more scandalized by Tracy’s comfortable domesticity, but I doubt it. Also, the age of the characters seems to rule out any chance of procreation (and there certainly is nothing indicating the desire for a baby) which again makes the whole “sexual politics” theme a bit lame. The only thing that would have made it lamer would be Hepburn announcing she is “expecting” at the end (an all-too-common 50s trope).

    Even the whole criminal case as a chance to put gender biases on trial is nothing but missed opportunities. No arguments are ever presented. No coherent case is shown. Tracy is just made to look a stuttering incompetent, which I assume is why he loses the case. Certainly, how being lifted up by the head guard from “Caged” proves anything for the defense, I’m at a loss to explain.

    I just watched this film a couple of days again for the first time in twenty or thirty years, and really was left wondering what the point of it was. Amusing? Yes. Tracy excellent? Of course. Was disappointed with Hepburn’s performance though in what certainly was in her wheelhouse. That crying scene when Tracy slaps/slugs her was very forced and phony (unless that’s what is supposed to be the case, but nothing indicates the character is other than truly upset).

  2. I don’t fault her performance: it may be simply that there’s a struggle to find amusing business for her when she’s so obviously right about nearly everything (Tracy even proves she’s right about the slap by showing the moment of calculation in his face beforehand, which makes his hurt innocence afterwards quite dissingenuous).

    I think the scattershot quality may be deliberate, to allow a kind of “both-sides” argument as self-protection. You can question gender norms in 1949 but you don’t want to get CAUGHT AT IT.

    So a lot of the interesting and true moments have to emerge at the sides: Holliday’s remark about smoking, for instance, is part of the yawning distance between the housewife and the career woman, on the same side but with nothing whatever in common except a randomly assigned chromosomal identity.

  3. Daniel Reifferscheid Says:

    I recenty rewatched Hitchcock’s “Mr & Mrs Smith”, and it too features a love rival who is coded as gay. It’s almost like these movies want to erase homosexuality – no one is REALLY gay, that’s just silly, but men who act effeminate are still worthy of derision. And the fact that in both films the red blooded heterosexual wins out – might that be playing on men’s fears that their wives or girlfriends actually have a better time hanging out with a gay friend?

    I realise these are all very unsophisticated thoughts to attribute to men like Cukor or Hitchcock, but I dunno – maybe sometimes even an auteur gives up and just films the script?

  4. Well, the censor clearly stated that it was OK to have jokes about unmasculine men, but you may not imply that homosexuality actually exists. So filmmakers had to be careful, and I think some of them felt it was better to have visibility of whatever compromised form was better than complete erasure.

  5. “it was OK to have jokes about unmasculine men, but you may not imply that homosexuality actually exists,” nails it. The production code era was truly weird. For a wildly sophisticated gay man like Cukor it was a particular challenge, that he met with considerable success here. Yes t’s all far too coy and Way Dated now but back then it was pushing the envelope. Note the woman that Wayne brings with him to the dinner party. Cukor cunningly sets her up as a “beard.” She clearly has no real relationship with Wayne’s “Kip.” As for “Kip” ( isn’t the name perfect?) his pursuit of Hepburn is that of a “Will” longing for a “Grace.” Other gay aspects include Hope Emerson (unforgettable as the evil women’s prison guard in “Caged”) as a vaudeville performer who does “Flip-Flops” at the trial and holds Tracy aloft with one arm. John LaTouche wrote songs for her nightclub act like “Nail in the Horseshoe” *a very funny Opera satire) The song “Farewell Amanda” is Cole Porter’s adaptation of his own party piece “So Long Samoa.” The still of Judy Holliday envisioned as a man was treasured by Patricia Highsmith — who went to High School with her. Last but not least are Tracy and Hepburn themselves who might well be called “Will and Grace on Mars” Read Scottie Bowers and see Matt Tannauer’s film about him. No he was not making it up.

  6. Yes! To all of that.

    The Tracy/Hepburn relationship is one the great strange things, and it’s fascinating to see absolutely none of their films even hint at any of it. The only thing real is their talent and obvious mutual affection.

  7. More “co-dependency” than “mutual affection.” He was a depressed alcoholic closet case. She was a deeply closeted lesbian. She didn’t go into overdrive about “Spensah!” being the ‘great love of her life” until just after his death in an interview conducted by Lee Israel for “Esquire” magazine in 1967. Israel is the subject of one of this year’s best movies “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” — opening shortly. She’s played by Melissa McCarthy in a truly gobsmacking performance.

  8. All true. I just assume there WAS affection (and that’s all we’re allowed to see of the relationship onscreen) because otherwise I can’t see what was in it for her in particular. But I don’t pretend to understand.

  9. Well what was in it for her was Myth-O-Mania. A central tenet of Hollywood was that the stars up on the screen were in one way or another “just like that in real life.” Hepburn in real life was a lesbian. She married once (briefly) for show but maintained an image of fierce “independence” ( e. a soi distant ‘femme” ) on screen best seen in “Little Women,” “Stage Door” and of course “The Philadelphia Story”) The last mentioned was engineered quite skillfully by her to counter her reputation as “box office poison.” The Great Moviegoing Public didn’t cotton to Kate — even in one of her very best vehicles, “Holiday.” “Sylvia Scarlett” was of course a Giant Hairpin for all concerned (the casting of Natasha Paley alone signalled what a Totally Gay project this was) Today it’s beloved. Back then it was “Too Hip For The House” and inspired Cukor to pull in his sails more than a tad. “Adam’s Rib” is fun but nest to “Sylvia Scarlett” it’s juvenilia. Her last years were devoted to stoking the romantic fantasy she’d constructed for a credulous press and public of her and “Spensah!”

    That and annoying Sondheim. He lived next door to her and she was constantly complaining about is playing the piano. Yikes!

    Maybe he should have invited Frank over. I doubt she’d stop him from singing, but as Fats Waller says “One Never Knows — Do One?”

  10. I can see what use the story of Spence was to her latterly, but since he was married she couldn’t really use it at the time, so I still wonder, why? Nursing him must have given some satisfaction. And his talent must have made it feel worthwhile. But it’s weird, and it doesn’t seem to have been aimed at curing him, just maintaining him…

  11. Precisely. She liked to have control over people. Her professional and personal relationship with Cukor was a real tug of war. He made her a star and in “A Bill of Divorcement” discovered the importance of the medium shot in dramatic action. They worked together amiably most of the time but nearly parted ways over “Travels with My Aunt” (I’m sure I’ve posted about that debacle before) though they reconciled at the end. “I don’t have any friends,” she once complained to him. “That’s because you’re such a bitch,” he replied. “Will” would never say that to “Grace” But then Kate was no “Grace”

  12. Grant Skene Says:

    I’m so confused. I read the Scotty Bowers book “Full Service” and found it apalling. Full of empty clichés when he describes any celebrity or home, and devoid of any sense of actual knowledge of his clients that couldn’t be found on Wikipedia.

    He clearly appears to be a sociopath (outwardly charming, but with no feeling or empathy). His portrait of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is so different from anyone else that I had trouble believing it. Why would they pretend to have a long affair when that would have been just as scandalous to the tabloids? Lauren Bacall seems to have been completely fooled since she says they came to visit Bogie every evening during his last year. Taking a fake friendship (and actual loathing according to Bowers) a bit far.

    Do I think Bowers is truthful in the events he describes? Generally, yes. But were they interesting or insightful? Rarely, if at all. To paraphrase Captain Renault, “I’m shocked. Shocked to discover there are gay people in Hollywood.”

  13. “His portrait of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is so different from anyone else that I had trouble believing it.” Why do you believe what “anyone else” had to say?

    “Why would they pretend to have a long affair when that would have been just as scandalous to the tabloids?” Because it wasn’t “scandalous” when she stared selling it. The first person she sold it to was Lee Israel for “Esquire” magazine. Israel is the subject of the excellent new film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” which I review

  14. Grant Skene Says:

    Point taken. But, why would Bacall back up the lie? Surely, it made no difference to her. And, I don’t mean about their sexual preferences. That was their business and I certainly accept that Bogie and Bacall didn’t care, and did not consider it their place to reveal. But, Bacall certainly portrays them as friends who visited Bogie every day in his final year. Why would she make that up? Bowers says they hated each other. Bowers also says Howard Hughes would never have slept with Kate because she was too ugly and not his type. Yet, he gives her $100,000 to buy the rights to The Philadelphia Story (according to some accounts). Seems like something a pretty close friend would do, if not a former lover. Before I take Bowers’s account as gospel, I want some independent evidence.

  15. I think Bowers may be credible on what he says he saw and maybe not on what he thinks it meant. So maybe he saw Tracy and Hepburn squabble or something, I don’t know. His opinion about who HH would or wouldn’t have slept with isn’t neccessarily worth more than anyone else’s.

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