Katherine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy: Adam’s Rib


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Yeah it’s real. Spencer Tracy & Katherine Hepburn in a publicity photo from Woman Of The Year (1942). The start of something strong and lasting

It’s an exchange that is now part of Hollywood folklore. Katherine Hepburn in a production meeting for Woman of The Year met Spencer Tracy for the first time.

Hepburn who was wearing high heels said to Tracy “I’m afraid I’m a bit tall for you, Mr. Tracy”. Producer Joe Mankiewicz who was also at the meeting shot back “Don’t worry, Kate, he’ll cut you down to size.”

Nobody as far as I know ever cut Katherine Hepburn down to size. Her larger than life talent, fierce independence and a strong sense of self wouldn’t allow that but something took hold of her upon meeting Spencer Bonaventure Tracy. A something that would last for 25 years until Tracy’s death in 1967.

For both parties it was something akin to love even though Tracy never divorced his wife. While the affair was kept from the public it was an open secret in Hollywood.

Women of The Year directed by George Stevens showed from the start the incredible chemistry Hepburn and Tracy shared. When Tracy walks in the editor’s office and finds Hepburn straightening her nylons the look they give each other is quiet dynamite.

If Hepburn realized she had met her match it was when the two were doing a scene together and according Hepburn she spilled a glass of water. Without missing a beat Tracy continued to say his lines as he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. They went on with the scene as Kate cleaned up handed the handkerchief to Tracy like nothing had happened. Two professionals with serious chemistry.

That chemistry would carry them thru nine pictures. Some of these were terrific like Pat and Mike,  Desk Set and their final film together the landmark Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Others not so much. Call it bad casting, poor execution, crummy script or what but movies like Keeper of the Flame and Sea of Grass just don’t work.

Yet of all their collaborations none typifies Tracy and Hepburn better than Adam’s Rib. Released in 1949 by MGM and directed by the great George Cukor, Adam’s Rib shows the two stars at the height of their artistry.

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1949 role reversal. The woman drives.

Adam and Amanda Bonner are both lawyers. He works for the District Attorney, she has her own law firm. Everything between the two is right as rain but there are clouds on the horizon when one morning over their morning coffee they read about a woman who attempted to kill her husband after discovering that he’s cheating on her.

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The woman who sets it all in motion. Judy Holliday as Doris Attinger in Adam’s Rib.

Judy Holiday in her movie debut plays Doris Attinger the would be murderess. It’s not hard to see why Holiday was on her way to stardom. She was a comedic genius who the following year would win the Academy Award for Best Actress in Born Yesterday. You feel her desperation and bewilderment but you can’t help but laugh. She’s that good.

The case winds up on Adam’s desk. When he informs Amanda she seeks out Attinger and becomes her representative. Amanda’s aim is to expose the whole double standard that women are subjected to. Adam tries to get her to bow out but this only makes Amanda more determined.

In some ways you can tell this is close to Katherine Hepburn’s heart because she more than anybody in film represented the modern woman. Live life on your terms and if society tells you no then push back and do it anyway. She came of age in which the double standard was just accepted as one of those things. “I don’t make the rules” her secretary says when Amanda quizzes her as to why things are the way they are. “Sure you do.We all do” responds Amanda. No doubt by this time in her life Katherine Hepburn knew of what she spoke.

In court Amanda uses a lot of theatrics to make her point which infuriates her husband. Adam feels that this has gone beyond winning and losing. For him it exposes a blatant disrespect for the judicial system something he holds in high regard. No one gets to make a mockery of it not even his wife.

As you can probably guess this face-off causes a lot of problems with regard to their relationship. Which isn’t helped by their smart-alecky neighbor Kip Laurie (David Wayne) who playfully yet obviously has designs on Amanda.

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Reactions after “the slap”.

This is the weak link for me in Adam’s Rib. Wayne is a fine actor and he went on to do good work in later years but here his Kip Laurie is frankly obnoxious. I understand he’s there to move the story along but I could have honestly done without him.

Be that as it may Adam’s Rib is a joy to watch because Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were arguably the perfect onscreen couple. The way they play off each other, the wonderful overlapping dialogue with half finished sentences and of course the looks they exchange. It doesn’t hurt that the script is by the great husband and wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon who hopefully one day will have a movie made about them.

If you want to see the never ending battle of the sexes personified by two great stars (and real life lovers) you’d be hard pressed to do better than Adam’s Rib.

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