Adam’s Rib (1949): Cukor, Tracy and Hepburn, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon–Unique Collaboration

In 1949, the Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon came up with a fine screen comedy for Tracy and Hepburn, under George Cukor’s direction. After the great experience with A Double Life, the new movie, Adam’s Rib, was meant to be another happy combination for all concerned.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Cukor thus began an extensive collaboration with the Kanins, one that would involve six more movies based on their scripts, all done between 1949 and 1954. Teaming with the Kanins became the most important collaboration in Cukor’s career, and one of the most productive in Hollywood’s history. Cukor gave credit to the two screenwriters, not only for their comic inventiveness, but for their contribution to some of his directorial touches. In fact, Cukor showed too much respect for the Kanins’ scripts, slavishly chained by them. In the future, he would regret it, as the witty husband and wife would fail to acknowledge his contribution.

Originally called Man and Wife, the script for Adam’s Rib was completed on February 27, l949, and Cukor began principal photography on May 31. At one level, it is a situation comedy about married lawyers, who find themselves on opposite sides of a court battle. At a deeper level, though, the film provides a serious meditation on a modern marriage. Cukor’s funny but poignant portrait of the Bonner alliance distinguishes Adam’s Rib from other sit-coms. A commercial `feminist’ film, with arguments about law and order, Adam’s Rib was ahead of its time. In l949, the film provoked more comment about its marital than legal issues.

For Cukor, great comedies were first and foremost human. “You’ve got to be funny,” he once said, “but to elevate the comedy, you’ve got to be human. That’s why anything that works as a comedy should also work as a tragedy and vice versa.” A chief source of the comedy in Adam’s Rib is the lack of rapport between Hepburn’s militant lawyer, using feminist principles, and Judy Holliday’s submissive housewife, all too willing to accept her guilt.

Even though he was making a comedy, Cukor conducted a most careful research. He would go to people’s apartments and pick up all kinds of “illogical” details that later would be used in his sets. Cukor imbued the film’s settings–the apartment, the courtroom, the tax consultant’s offices, the farm, the NY streets–with an aura of authenticity. The sets were reproductions of what he had actually seen, which is why his films with the Kanins have a semi-documentary feeling about them.

Cukor gave the script the verisimilitude of actual observation. The opening sequence–Judy Holliday tracking down her husband–was done in the cinema verite style. The sequence shows realistically the rush and crush of a New York office district at 5 p.m.

The courtroom scenes were especially authentic and fresh. Just before shooting began, there was a murder trial for Betty Ferreri, a woman who stabbed a man in L.A. Attending the Ferreri trial for a solid week, Cukor took pictures of the woman, from the very first time she was brought into the court to the very end, to show how the evolution of the trial was reflected in her looks. At first, Ferreri looked tough and was heavily made-up, but gradually she appeared more discreet and more modestly dressed. Cukor used this idea for the transformation of the Judy Holliday character.

Cukor took Hepburn with him to the courtroom to observe how judges and attorneys behaved. He noticed that they worked differently from the way they were portrayed in movies. “The judge shouldn’t have a gavel, judges pound gavels only in the movies.” Cukor didn’t like the “frozen” and “formal” ways that courtroom scenes were treated in Hollywood movies.

Cukor’s two favorite stars, Tracy and Hepburn, were given freedom to experiment with their roles, which functioned as extension to their natural offscreen interaction. Tracy played Adam, the stern prosecuting attorney, and Hepburn his wife-lawyer, who defends Holliday’s accused woman and strikes a blow for equal treatment of her gender.

There was also a “documentary” feel about the way that Tracy and Hepburn played together. Intimate in real life, their onscreen rapport had an extra dimension of authenticity. Indeed, the dialogue seemed, but was not, improvised, due to the actors’ affinity offscreen.

Cukor loathed the word improvisation–“it’s just bullshit,” he would say, “I don’t know what they’re talking about.” “When I go on the set, I have a general idea of what I’m going to do. I don’t like to say, ‘here’s a close-up,’ because it ties you in. But the discovery is how you have the inspiration of creating it.” Cukor favored “creativity, spontaneity, and freshness,” but improvisation was “the wrong word” for it.

One of the best pairings of Tracy and Hepburn, Adam’s Rib demonstrated real collaboration. “Cukor never gave Spence any suggestions,” Hepburn recalled, “but he gave them all to me.” Cukor would say, “You know, Spence, I think of a lot of things to say to you and I don’t say them. But then, I see the rushes and it’s all there, but I never see you do it.” Cukor regarded as part of a director’s job is “to know when to shut up and to know, when you see it happening, not to give a lotta of hot tips.” Tracy was so original about everything, Cukor said, “that you would only intrude yourself” to give him too much direction. Besides, Cukor knew Tracy would not listen to him anyway.

“Spencer liked to work with George very much,” Hepburn said, “George understood Spencer. Spencer was not interested in a lot of intellectualizing about why a character did this or that.” Cukor took it as a compliment when Tracy said he liked working with him. “I must have some virtue,” Cukor quipped, which he summed up in one sentence, “it’s in making a climate.” Climate was the magic word and Cukor’s greatest talent–creating the right ambience for his performers: “A director should make a climate, where people can make fools of themselves with freedom.”

Tracy knew what her camera angle should be. Scrupulous, he was always careful and economical with himself–he knew the strength of his face and personality and used both sparingly, with discretion. Neither Tracy nor Hepburn paid much attention to the camera–they trusted Cukor implicitly. Once, when Tracy and Hepburn were doing a scene together, Cukor screamed, “It’s a great scene, but I don’t see either of you.”

In Adam’s Rib, Cukor introduced four promising stage actors: Judy Holliday from Born Yesterday, Tom Ewell from John Loves Mary, Jean Hagen from The Traitors, and David Wayne from Mr. Roberts. Given their first chance, all four established themselves in the next couple of years.

Cukor cast Tom Ewell and David Wayne as two different sides of masculinity. Ewell played Doris’s creepy and loutish husband, and Wayne Amanda’s gay sidekick Kip. As a composer-neighbor, a Cole Porter type, Kip is Amanda’s ally, a character who possibly stands for Cukor himself. Kip sympathizes with Hepburn and, in marital feuds, takes her side against Tracy’s virile “straight” man. At the end, Adam resorts to he-man tactics, beating up Kip.

The latent homosexual character, one of the few in Cukor’s oeuvre, is a comic plot element that neither the Kanins nor Cukor bothered to develop. It could be that they were restricted by the Code’s demand–“There should not be even the slightest indication that Kip is a pansy.” It is also possible that Cukor’s realization, that Kip was based on himself and his friend Cole Porter, made him uncomfortable even talking about the character with the Kanins. It was the only element in the script he remained silent about.

Under Cukor’s guidance, Judy Holliday’s work turned out to be absolutely dazzling. The public was “prepared” for Holliday as during the shoot stories in the press stated she was stealing the picture from her two old pros. Curious to know who was planting the notices, Cukor found out that Hepburn had gone to MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, and suggested this strategy. It was Hepburn’s personal campaign to get Holliday the Billie Dawn role in the upcoming production of Born Yesterday.

Cukor, the Kanins, and Hepburn all “plotted” to enhance Holliday’s part so as to persuade Harry Cohn to cast her in Born Yesterday, which she had played with great success on the stage. “The woman is a frump,” Holliday told Cukor when he approached her for Adam’s Rib, “when Harry Cohn sees it, he won’t let me do Billie Dawn.” But Cukor reassured her that she would look right as the picture progresses. Cukor helped Holliday score a huge triumph in this part. When Adam’s Rib opened, and Holliday got all the press, the critics claimed she stole the film, failing to realize the maneuvered orchestrations of her “willing accomplices.”

There were more subtle ways in which Hepburn helped Holliday. The scene in which Hepburn visits her in the detention house was long, but Cukor shot it in one take. Amanda’s interview of Doris, the most famous sequence in Adam’s Rib, runs over five minutes, but Cukor presents it without any cut or camera movement. In a medium shot, the center is empty, Amanda is at the left, and Doris at the right, describing her unhappy marriage and absurd crime. This sequence works largely because of Holliday’s stunning portrait of a wacky woman who is smart enough to know she is abused. By maintaining the shot’s spatial unity, Cukor gave Holliday the opportunity to create something special–and uninterrupted; Cukor used no action-reaction shots, as most dialogues scenes were filmed in Hollywood.

Not only there was no reason to cut, they couldn’t move the camera in any case; the whole scene took place in a cell. It was Holliday’s first talking scene in the picture. In those days, there was a lot of chatter about “scene stealing,” but Cukor never knew what exactly was meant by that. “You can’t steal a scene in a movie,” he maintained, “because it’s all controlled by the camera and the editing. The most an actor can do was use little tricks, which he basically didn’t approve of.

Cukor held that Hepburn was not generous and that Holliday didn’t steal the scene–the scene belonged to her and so the full shot needed to be on her. Cukor believed that there was one perfect place to shoot from, where the scene falls into place, and that it was the text, not the director, that determined how a scene should be shot. There was no need to cut to Hepburn, as the audience knew her face. Hepburn, in fact, played the scene in profile, facing away from the camera. With her authority, she directed the audience to look at Holliday.

 

Cast
Spencer Tracy as Adam Bonner
Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Bonner
Judy Holliday as Doris Attinger
Tom Ewell as Warren Attinger
David Wayne as Kip Lurie, songwriter and piano player
Jean Hagen as Beryl Caighn
Hope Emerson as Olympia La Pere
Eve March as Grace
Clarence Kolb as Judge Reiser
Emerson Treacy as Jules Frikke
Polly Moran as Mrs. McGrath
Will Wright as Judge Marcasson
Elizabeth Flournoy as Dr. Margaret Brodeigh
Marvin Kaplan as court stenographer
Will Stanton as taxicab driver (uncredited)
Ray Walker as photographer (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Lawrence Weingarten
Written by Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography George J. Folsey
Edited by George Boemler
Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Distributed by Loew’s Inc.
Release date: November 18, 1949
Running time: 101 minutes
Budget $1,728,000
Box office $3,947,000