Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Five

25 rib

#25 — Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949)

When considering classic Hollywood cinema, there exists a commonly held, wholly understandable desire to project more modern social belief systems onto certain films, celebrating them for an ahead-of-their-time embrace of, say, greater tolerance or general mindfulness. Fairly often, I suspect this is wishful thinking, an attempt to partially wipe away the decades of lamentable portrayals of, well, really anyone who wasn’t a white male. I love Duck Soup like few other films, but I get woozy with dismay every time I hear Groucho Marx deliver the joke in which “darkies” is a central part of the punchline. A film that provides the counter-argument, that seemingly proves that digging through old films isn’t inherently opening myself up to the miserableness of justly antiquated mindsets presented as the admirable norm, is like a blessing. As much as it tends to be retroactive buffing of material that is at best accidentally prescient, there are times when a classic film genuine seems to be feeling its way toward a mildly revolutionary perspective. Adam’s Rib is precisely that sort of film.

It’s going too far to boast of a proto-feminism sheen, but not by much. The sixth onscreen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn casts the surreptitious offscreen couple as married attorneys, each drawn into the opposing sides of a court case involving the attempted murder of a philandering husband. Tracy’s Adam Bonner is assigned the task of prosecuting the gun-wielding spurned wife (Judy Holliday) and, to Adam’s great chagrin, Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner steps in to handle the defense. In some respects, this is a classic battle of the sexes comedy of the sort that Hollywood long loved. But it shows an uncommon willingness to dig a little deeper into the gender-based disparities within the justice system that provide the sizzling fuse of the plot. These ideas aren’t mere devices to stir the story, but are argued over by the central characters with Amanda fiercely prepared to challenge established norms, pushing back against her husband’s stubbornness as he doubles down with masculine certainty on the reasonable accuracy of the stereotypes that dictate both perception and policy.

George Cukor, a specialist in the delicate balance of tone, directs the film with remarkable commitment to letting the material breathe. The screenplay, written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, allows for some jaggedness in the various exchanges, and an occasional frankness that is even more disarming. Cukor doesn’t soften those verbal blows, but he somehow keeps the proceeding lithe and light, relying shrewdly on the charm of his performances, not just the skilled time at the top of the bill but also the supporting players. Somewhat out of step with the era, Cukor opts for some long, uninterrupted takes, the camera positioned just right and left static, letting the actors carry the scene without fuss or directorial intrusion. Shaped expertly on the page and in the casting, Adam’s Rib doesn’t require finessing, merely attentiveness, and the filmmaker responds accordingly. Maybe that’s key to understanding why Adam’s Rib comes across as a pace or two ahead of other films that offer the temptation to see an eager acceptance of the tomorrow that’s on the way: it’s not just ahead of its time, but confidently so.

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