Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The shabby Dumb And Dumber To has us thinking about better films starring famous comedy duos.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made nine films together, most of them frothy comedies which pitted the lovebirds against each other in games of friendly, stubborn competition. Of these movies, the one everyone seems to remember most fondly is Adam’s Rib. Part of that could be the peerless filmmaking happening around the two stars: The opening scene of a fed-up housewife (Judy Holliday) stalking her cheating husband through New York plays like a vivid snapshot of the city circa the late ’40s, and director George Cukor employs an unusually large number of long takes, often allowing the inspired spats between his leads to play out in unbroken real time. But the much more likely explanation for the film’s enduring popularity has to be the way it took the gender politics underlying many of the duo’s collaborations and made them the full-fledged focus. Hepburn, whose characters sometimes fought for the equal footing they deserved, was here charged with waging cultural war on behalf of all women. The film’s ballyhooed battle of the sexes has real stakes, or at least did in 1949.
Written specifically for the on and offscreen couple by real-life spouses Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Adam’s Rib finds married lawyers Adam (Tracy) and Amanda (Hepburn) on opposite sides of an attempted-murder case—he working for the prosecution, she defending the female culprit on principle. Legally speaking, Amanda’s twisting of the justice system to suit her needs is somewhat indefensible (though so is the way Adam eventually gets her back for it). Nevertheless, the film supplies Hepburn with a steady stream of cogent, passionate arguments—a case against institutional sexism that seems like common sense now, but which qualified as progressive nearly half a century ago. But if that element of the movie looks dated and heavy-handed from our (marginally) more enlightened present, the romantic rapport feels timeless: Adam, exasperated by his wife’s rhetorical tactics, still recognizes that he’s met (and shacked up with) his match. Tracy had to have known the same about Hepburn, even if he did demand top billing.
Availability: Adam’s Rib is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.