Tickling “Adam’s Rib”

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Category: Feminism, Popular Culture & Law, Public
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imagesCAX2MCOUI recently got around to watching the classic 1949 movie “Adam’s Rib,” featuring the charismatic duo Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The movie is about a married couple—Tracy and Hepburn—who are also lawyers.  Tracy’s character, Adam Bonner, is an assistant district attorney.  Hepburn’s character, Amanda Bonner, is a Yale law grad and apparently in private practice.  The two live what we might these days call a DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle. They live in a fabulously decorated two-story apartment filled with expensive looking furniture and paintings, where their maid prepares them breakfast and serves it to them in their bedroom on a silver tray; they enjoy retreating to their country home in Connecticut (fully paid for in only six years, they tell their accountant); and when it comes time for dressing, they retreat to their his-and-hers closets where, particularly in Hepburn’s case, there is an abundance of incredible clothes for all occasions. Adam and Amanda are obviously in love. It appears that for each of them, the other’s accomplishments are a source of pride. 

Until the day Adam is assigned to prosecute Doris Attinger.

Doris Attinger followed her husband Warren one day to his lover’s apartment.  There, after consulting the instruction booklet for her newly purchased gun, she confronted her husband and his lover in an intimate embrace and randomly fired shots into the room. One of them hit her husband.

The story makes the news and Adam and Amanda discuss it over their breakfast in bed, each with their own morning paper, and it’s clear they disagree.  It’s obvious to Adam that Doris should be charged with (and guilty of) a crime.  But Amanda has this “crazy” idea that women should be equal before the law.  That is, a man in Doris’ situation would likely be acquitted, forgiven if you will, for such a response to catching his wife with another man; thus, so should Doris.

When Adam arrives at work that morning, he finds that he has been assigned the Attinger case. When Amanda learns of this, she decides to represent Doris Attinger. And so begins State v. Attinger, Adam v. Amanda, the rule of law v. the spirit of law.

As my colleague David Papke notes in Genre, Gender, and Jurisprudence in Adam’s Rib (1949), Adam “is the legal positivist par excellence. He believes in rules and rights and expects law and legal proceedings to embody the things he holds most dear.” Screening Justice—The Cinema of Law: Significant Films of Law, Order and Social Justice 77 (Strickland et al., eds. 2006). Adam does not believe in trying to circumvent the law, which is what he believes Amanda is trying to do with her defense of Doris Attinger. He believes she is showing “contempt for the law,” and “insult[ing] . . . the dignity of the court.” As Papke notes, “Amanda . . . is more equitable and contextual. Her law and legal system care for people in a supporting, tolerant way.” Id. While Papke correctly notes that the film genders the jurisprudences, we can acknowledge that, in actuality, our legal system contains both.

How the trial plays out and who wins is almost secondary to how the trial affects Adam and Amanda at home.  Amanda behaves almost like a man in the stereotyped sense that she seems to be able to separate work and home. After a day at trial, she returns to their spectacular apartment and expects her relationship with Adam to be the same as it had been. He would commend her on her good work in court and they would be loving and affectionate as always.  She finds that this is not what happens.  Adam cannot separate the Amanda at trial from the Amanda at home and feels he doesn’t know—or much like—either of them.  As he says during one of their quarrels, “I don’t want a competitor, I want a wife!”

For all the apparent seriousness of the themes in “Adam’s Rib,” it is not a serious movie.  Papke classifies it as a “screwball comedy,” Id. at 69-71. There are laugh-aloud moments through the film, including my favorite line from Adam and Amanda’s neighbor, Kip. Kip, a singer-songwriter, has a none-too-subtle crush on Amanda. At one point, when Adam and Amanda are separated, Kip makes his move. His best line: “Lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called in-breeding; from this comes idiot children . . . and other lawyers.” 

The screwball comedy clearly has a place, particularly in that era.  Such comedies “created an America of perfect unity: all classes as one, the rural-urban divide breached, love and decency and neighborliness ascendant,” says Andrew Bergman, a historian of Great Depression movies. (quoted in id. at 71). Americans of the Depression and World War II eras needed such myths presented with such humor. 

But I can’t help but think of the possibilities in an “Adam’s Rib” drama. For example, Amanda Bonner is a Yale law grad in an era when an incredibly tiny number of women were in law school. Assuming that in 1949 Amanda was roughly 40 years old that means she would have been a law student in the mid-1930s. How interesting it would be to know more about that part of her life. Why did she want to be a lawyer? Did she meet Adam then? If so, what did the more traditional Adam think of the woman who dared to enter the men’s profession?

Those women who did graduate law school often did not obtain law-related jobs after graduation. Yet, Amanda Bonner has her own practice. What kind of practice is it? How does she get her clients? We see she has a female secretary who takes her dictation.  And at one point in her office, she calls a young man to bring her the morning paper. But when he tries to speak, she instantly dismisses him. Who was he? A runner? A clerk? Does anyone else work for her?

When she appears in court, she appears to be taken seriously by the male judge, something that did not always happen, especially in that era with its more set socially prescribed roles for men and women. And would an “Adam’s Rib” drama have handled differently Doris Attinger’s reported verbal and physical abuse?

Perhaps it would have been impossible in 1949 to present or develop these themes in a dramatic way and have a movie that anyone would see.  So, instead, we have an entertaining screwball comedy that still can ignite some discussion on those themes, even more than 60 years later.

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One Response to “Tickling “Adam’s Rib””

  1. David Papke Says:

    Your re-imagining of “Adam’s Rib” as a serious, dramatic film is intriguing, but as you note, it may have been impossible for Hollywood to put Hepburn and Tracy together in anything other than a screwball comedy. Genre was a fundamental building block of the Hollywood cinema in the 1940s, and Tracy and Hepburn were both the masters and the symbols of it.

    The critical dimension of a comedy, meanwhile, is not to be overlooked. As in “Adam’s Rib,” comedy usually ends with everything “papered over,” but in the comedy itself there is a derisive attack on some aspect of a particularized status quo. To the extent law and legal proceedings represent and endorse social norms, they are ideal targets for comedy. A film like “Adam’s Rib” can and does lightly subvert dominant ideas about gender, human relations, and justice.

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