#213. Adam’s Rib (1949)

I cringe now to acknowledge it but the whole bias against romantic comedies that I brought into the List was, in essence, a gender thing. I thought they were vapid, girly, sentimental, pointless, misleading.

            Then I saw 42nd Street and Love Me Tonight and She Done Him Wrong and then alter on there was the Preston Sturges stuff, mainly The Lady Eve, and Philadelphia Story was pretty hypnotic – great romantic comedies that are all genuinely fnny and manage to give me the flutters I’d always been so closed off from.

            So the whole romcom pantheon still isn’t up there with my favorite subgenres, but it sports  a lotta titles I like,a dn even when my frustration with them was rekindled with the fast-talking Howard Hawks stuff (Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday), Adam’s Rib is so much my kind of romcom that, floppy and windswept as my temperament and aesthetic resolve appears to be, I’m all aboard with the genre again. Eager for more.

            This ongoing dialogue I’m having with myself about these sorts of movies adds a layer of intrigue to them, and I probably watch with a little more focus on account of how it’ll influence that internal discourse, but on top of that, in this case, I was interested in Adam’s Rib not only cuz I got to see Spencer Tracy, whose stardom seems to have rivaled that of his contemporary male A-listers even though I don’t think he’s appeared on the List since my beloved Captains Courageous of 1937, but also cuz I get to see him share the screen with Katherine Hepburn, who I wasn’t crazy about in Bringing Up Baby, where she plays a lip-chewing ditz, but who swept me away as charismatic and lithe and graceful and gorgeous in Philadelphia Story. She also plays an interesting role in Scott Eyman’s biography of John Ford, as one of the director’s more serious extra-marital romances.

            Also the other woman in Tracy’s life, my understanding is that their affair was an open secret. Need to look into it some more.

            But yeah, I think the open secrecy of their affair is apparent on screen, because when they go about the most domestic scenes here, as a pair of married lawyers, they show a fullbodied comfort with each other that I think we only otherwise see in like the fifth season of a TV show, when the actors have spent a few thousand hours together.

            It got me thinking of the covert romance between Bogart and Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there does seem to be an iceberg effect on their dialogue in that movie (fitting, too, since it’s a Hemingway adaptation), where there’s a huge chunk of meaning beneath every short simple sentence. Their sultry looks and quips are made all the more suggestive for the shared secret that they wear in their manner.

            Anyway. Adam’s Rib.

            What happens at the outset is an enraged woman shoots her adulterous husband. Only wounds him. Spencer Tracy is the prosecutor on the husband’s side in the trial and, after he and his wife (Hepburn) bicker at home about what they read of the case in the paper, Hepburn becomes the woman’s defense.

            It’s directed by George Cukor, whose masterpiece is still a few years ahead of us with A Star is Born, and here he shows great style in a lowkey way. He’ll plant the camera so that two parties of a conversation will occupy different halves of the frame and then he’ll just let it sit there for minutes at a time, capturing these long takes with extraordinary dialogue and beautiful, natural, compelling performances from his cast (one of the most notable comes from Judy Holliday, who plays the gun-toting wife, in her first exchange with Hepburn at the police station).

Director George Cukor

            Similar to Sullivan’s Travels, one of Preston Sturges’s better flicks, this romantic comedy gets pretty bleak toward the end. Like, despair-inducing. (There’s something about the way a tear rolls down Spencer Tracy’s face; it’s more meaningful than other tears on other faces.) But it gets kinda hokey too. Elaborate. There’s a fake robbery, Spencer Tracy gets lifted overhead in the courtroom by a female powerlifter.

            The tone’s a little all-over-the-place, but that’s fine. The overall experience is beautiful and funny and charming as hell. I recommend it.

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