This post is my contribution to The Great Katharine Hepburn blogathon, hosted by Margaret Perry, the fountain of all KH knowledge. Be sure to check out all the other posts as there are so many great Hepburn movies included.
By the time Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy starred in Adam’s Rib in 1949, their sixth film together, they had developed an easy and familiar on-screen rapport. This is perhaps their best pairing, with each role allowing the actor to revel in but extend their character clichés. Playing two attorneys (Adam and Amanda Bonner) on opposite sides of a controversial attempted-murder trial, Adam’s Rib foreshadows numerous feminist issues. In fact, critic and historian Robert Wood called it ‘perhaps the most explicitly feminist of all Hepburn movies.’
Taking inspiration from a real-life court case, the film explores gender roles at home and in the workplace, domestic disputes, sexual double standards and females who will be heard. It was released in the same year as Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book The Second Sex, and the part-screwball comedy, part marriage movie, allowed feminist ideals to be brought to moviegoers in an entertaining format. The movie’s writers, married couple Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, based Adam’s Rib on the story of Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen’s divorce. They hired married lawyers to represent their case; the lawyers did their jobs so well that, when the case was closed, they divorced each other and married their clients! The story (most notably the ending) was adapted to be less scandalous, although supporting actor David Wayne’s role as the sexually ambiguous Kip must have tested the censors. Kip, said to be modelled on Cole Porter, lives across the hall from Adam and Amanda and is particularly camp – although that doesn’t stop him from making a pass at Amanda.
In retrospect, director George Cukor was the best man for the task. He rescued Hepburn from her ‘box-office poison’ tag in The Philadelphia Story (1940), and by the end of the 1940s, the Hepburn and Tracy pairing was less a box-office draw. Less documented, but no less relevant, is Cukor’s preference for films that explored issues that were ‘ahead of their time’. With the help of Hepburn, he had an uncanny ability to elevate everyday dramas or so-called ‘women’s pictures’ into something special. Sylvia Scarlett (released in 1935) and Born Yesterday (1950) share many similarities with Adam’s Rib; in these films Cukor effectively explored philosophy through comedy, engaging in gender or political discourses that much of Hollywood actively avoided. Central to Adam’s Rib are the questions of just how different men and women really are; a definitive answer is avoided in favour of a happy ending which is disappointing, but Adam’s Rib is certainly a thoughtful rom-com.
Hepburn liked to have a say in all aspects of her character – from the script to the costume. She had previously worked with costume designer Walter during Little Women and Mary of Scotland; he joined the latter after she claimed she would work with no one else. Although Plunkett was synonymous was period costume (apparently he preferred to design for by-gone eras as the director was less likely to oppose the costume designer’s work) and was responsible for the iconic Gone With The Wind wardrobe, he had an easy rapport with Hepburn because both aimed for veracity in costume and era. Hepburn often rehearsed in Plunkett’s costumes to ‘get to know them’ and allow them to become a true part of the character.
Whilst Plunkett’s designs for Adam’s Rib strike a balance between working wardrobe and fashionability. Hepburn was known for her distinctive sartorial flair both on and off screen, and audiences would have had had certain expectations. Plunkett enlivens practical skirt suits with small details that draw attention to Hepburn’s small waist and long neck – a sailor-style collar that falls to a point to reverse, an interlocking button detail or contrast cuffs and trim.
One key accessory plays an important role throughout the film: a small hat with a floral trim. Adam buys the hat for Amanda, and she lends it to Doris Attinger to wear in court. The move is an attempt to make her client look more innocent and appealing, but Adam is outraged. In his opinion, Amanda is playing the jury for the sympathy vote; his support of women’s rights begins to diminish at this point, as he realises there’s really a chance he might not win the case; his support is directly in related to his own ego.
Interestingly, considering they are a Hepburn style signature, trousers don’t feature in Amanda Bonner’s wardrobe. She almost exclusively wears full-length skirts, with one midi-length thrown in for interest. These, combined with the fitted jackets worn over funnel neck tops or (in one instance) a printed pussy-bow blouse, create an impression of buttoned-up primness. In fact, the costumes bring to mind Victorian sensibilities, and there are echoes of the suffragettes in a jacket with a crossover panel that looks like a sash, and the ribbon pin, worn at the throat.
The ‘glamour’ is introduced through a black satin cocktail dress although, true to form, Hepburn doesn’t wear it for the sex appeal – in fact, all notions of mystique are destroyed as she’s still getting dressed when her dinner guests arrive. The off-the-shoulder number has a fitted bodice, a draped layer over the hips and is finished with a small train. During the dinner party the guests are invited to watch one of the Bonner’s home videos; the juxtaposition between the videoed Bonner, clad in loose fitting tennis trousers and a short-sleeved sweater, and the ‘real-life’ cocktail dress clad character seek only to reinforce that which feels more natural. In an era of screen goddesses, Amanda Bonner doesn’t do glamour – and we admire her all the more for it.
It’s only in the final scenes, after she’s won the court case, that Bonner is willing to embrace her femininity. Perhaps, having proved her point on equality, she’s happy to play it up in a polka dot dress complete with a rosette-detail neckline and worn with white gloves and a pillbox hat with a dainty veil. It’s during these closing scenes that Adam shows Amanda that men can ‘turn on the tears’ to manipulate emotions, a trick usually associated with women. She uses this to advance the point she has driven throughout the rest of the movie: that men and women are the same, and so should be treated this way. But Adam, placing her hat on his head to prove appearances can be equal, won’t be beaten, and forces her to admit that there are “little differences” between the sexes; with the implication that, this little difference is what sets men apart.
It’s a shame that the happy ending makes Adam’s Rib feel like more of a cliché than it is, but filmmakers were creating for a different audience, and taking on the gender question was a win in itself. But look beyond the surface, and there’s a lot to takeaway. Adam and Amanda’s qualities are not interchangeable, and it’s the subsequent individuality that makes their marriage strong. Can Amanda show deference to Adam without loosing her identity? Maybe she can, but one suspects that it wouldn’t have been something that came naturally to Hepburn.