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The battle of the sexes spilled over into the courtroom in 1949, when Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn played husband-and-wife attorneys on opposite sides of an explosive case in their sixth film together - Adam's Rib (1949). For all the courtroom shenanigans as Hepburn tries to prove the sexes equal as a matter of law, the film offers a surprisingly faithful depiction of what really happens during a legal case.
In fact, the story took its inspiration from a real court case. Actress-writer Ruth Gordon and her husband Garson Kanin were driving to their country home under perilous conditions when, to distract her, Kanin asked his wife to tell him an interesting story. The first she thought of was the divorce of actors Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen. They had turned for legal help to married lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who did their jobs so well that after the case was closed the lawyers divorced each other and married their clients. The idea of husband-and-wife lawyers intrigued the husband-and-wife writers, who sat up till four the next morning talking out story possibilities. Even that early, they began referring to the leads as Spence and Kate. Eventually, they sold the screenplay for Man and Wife to MGM, where the title was changed to the less suggestive Adam's Rib.
George Cukor was the natural choice to direct. Not only had he worked with the Kanins on their first screenplay together, A Double Life (1947), but he had directed some of Hepburn's greatest triumphs, including her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and her comeback from box-office poison, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Ironically, Hepburn and Tracy were both in a box-office slump at the end of the 1940s, a situation that Adam's Rib (1949) quickly remedied.
Hepburn was always closely involved in the development of scripts for her films. In addition to attending script conferences, she and Cukor visited courtrooms in Los Angeles to soak up details they could use to make the film more authentic. Once the script was ready, the company moved to New York, where the film was shot almost entirely on location. Cukor was happy for the chance to capture a near-documentary feel for some of the scenes, while Hepburn was happy to return to her conveniently located apartment, where she could walk to the set each morning. Always discreet about their relationship, Tracy took a suite at the Waldorf Towers, a few blocks from Hepburn's apartment.
The legal case on-screen wasn't the only trial associated with Adam's Rib. Kanin had recently scored a Broadway hit with his play Born Yesterday and wanted its star, Judy Holliday, to repeat her stage role. But Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures had bought the film rights and decided that Holliday was too fat and ugly to play the part of an ex-chorus girl on screen. When Kanin shared the problem at a story conference for Adam's Rib, Hepburn suggested casting Holliday in the film's key supporting role, a frumpy housewife who stands trial for shooting her straying husband. She even encouraged the Kanins to build up the role in order to make it more of a showcase, and then she helped convince Holliday to take the part. Initially, the young actress refused, finally admitting to Hepburn that she didn't like a line that referred to her as "Fatso." Hepburn assured her that the word could be changed: "They're writers. They know lots of words." After she signed for the film, Holliday insisted that "fatso" be restored - she realized that it was the only possible line for that scene.
Hepburn continued to boost Holliday throughout shooting, helping her adjust to film acting and convincing Cukor to film the wife's strongest scene - her jailhouse interview with Hepburn - in one long medium shot of the young actress. According to legend, she refused to shoot reaction shots, so the entire scene of more than nine minutes was more or less a screen test for Born Yesterday. Once he saw her in Adam's Rib, Harry Cohn changed his mind and signed Holliday - and Cukor - for the film that would make her a star and bring her the Oscar® for Best Actress. Later, when Kanin praised Hepburn for helping the younger actress, Hepburn brushed the compliment aside: "It was the kind of thing you do because people have done it for you. . . . You never get a chance to repay them, really, so what you do is repay them by doing what you can for someone else when the opportunity comes up."
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn).
BW-102m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller