Adam’s Rib: Cukor’s Feminist Comedy–Part One

Part One:

In 1949, the Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon came up with a fine screen comedy for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, under George Cukor’s direction. After the great experience with “A Double Life,” which Cukor directed, the new movie, “Adam’s Rib,” was meant to be another happy combination for all concerned.
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 (Ruth Gordon was also an actress), not only for their comic inventiveness, but also 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, 1949, and Cukor began principal photography on May 31.
At one level, “Adam’s Rib” is a situation comedy about two 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 liberal, modern marriage, presumably based on equality. 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 way ahead of its time. Indeed, in 1949, 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, like many of their other joint films, as an extension to their natural interaction offscreen. 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,” Katharine Hepburn told me, when I interviewed her in her house, “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.”