Moments of Movie Wisdom: Women as Competitors in ‘Adam’s Rib’ (1949)

Moments of Movie Wisdom: Women as Competitors in ‘Adam’s Rib’ (1949)
A promotional photograph for the 1949 film “Adam’s Rib” starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. (MovieStillsDB)
Tiffany Brannan
When controversial transgender social media star Dylan Mulvaney was recently named Woman of the Year by Attitude Magazine, I thought of the 1942 movie “Woman of the Year.” I thought of using the scene where Spencer Tracy tells Katharine Hepburn that the outstanding woman of the year isn’t a woman at all as my next moment of movie wisdom, but I already wrote about that scene in June. However, this theme is a recurring one throughout the Tracy and Hepburn collaborations.

Today’s moment of movie wisdom is from “Adam’s Rib” (1949). It takes place 70 minutes into this 101-minute film. The relationship between married lawyers Adam (Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Hepburn) has been strained to the breaking point as they oppose each other in a controversial court case about a woman who shot her husband. Fed up with his wife’s publicity-seeking antics to advance her cause of women’s rights, Adam is packing his things to leave her. As he throws clothes in a suitcase, Amanda continues talking at him. Adam finally fights back by passionately denouncing her unethical legal tactics and explaining his realization that he doesn’t like being married to such a liberated woman.

Adam and Amanda Bonner are a reasonably happy married couple. They both are lawyers in New York City; he is an assistant district attorney, and she is a private lawyer. One morning they get in a heated conversation about a frontpage crime story: housewife and mother Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shot her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell), when she found him in the apartment of another woman, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). Amanda insists that Doris is being condemned for using violence to protect her home, which would be pardoned if a man did the same. Adam argues that women mainly have advantages in the legal system but that no citizen has the right to take the law into his own hands, whether male or female.

To his dismay, Adam is assigned the Attinger case. When Amanda hears this, she decides to defend Mrs. Attinger in court. The press has a field day with the Bonners’ courtroom battle, and Amanda makes the most of the publicity. Knowing that the case itself is relatively simple, Amanda dramatizes the issue by making it about women’s supposed inequality before the law. Between this and the persistent advances of an obnoxious piano player next door, Kip Lurie (David Wayne), Adam is at his breaking point.

A publicity still photograph for the 1949 film “Adam’s Rib.” (MovieStillsDB)
A publicity still photograph for the 1949 film “Adam’s Rib.” (MovieStillsDB)

The Scene

After Amanda makes a fool of Adam in court, she brings him home a present that evening. However, he can’t be bribed into forgiveness like she was in an earlier scene. She tries to talk to him in the living room, but he just leaves the room without saying a word. She finally chases him to the walk-in closet, where he gives up on finding solitude. Instead, he decides to pack a bag so he can find solace somewhere besides their apartment. He finally interrupts her running narrative by saying, “Excuse me, can I say something? Save your eloquence for the jury!”
While throwing things in a suitcase, Adam says that he’s gotten closer to her than ever before during this court case, which has made him see things in her he doesn’t like. Primarily, she has contempt for the law, including the contract of marriage. She thinks she can outsmart that like she’s outsmarted everything else in her fight for “some dimwitted cause.” He concludes by saying that she has split them right down the middle, then he storms out, slamming the door behind him.

Its Significance

This scene is a wake-up call for Amanda. Before that, she is very smug and self-assured while making her case. She thinks that she can go as far as she wants, and it will only help her case. She even uses feminine wiles to manipulate Adam through her intimate knowledge of his nature, driving him to act frazzled and irrational in court. Through all this, she believes that Adam will forgive her no matter what. Although she claims to want true equality for the sexes, she makes the most of her womanhood to keep her husband eating out of her hand. She is surprised when she realizes that she has pushed him too far at last. He wasn’t blind to her tricks and inconsiderate nature before; he just overlooked them as part of his marital duties. However, her disrespectful behavior toward him and the legal process during the Attinger case makes Adam stop overlooking these things.
A screenshot from the original trailer for “Adam's Rib” (1949), featuring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as married lawyers. (Public Domain)
A screenshot from the original trailer for “Adam's Rib” (1949), featuring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as married lawyers. (Public Domain)
Finally, he is tired of being the only one to take their marriage vows seriously: “I’ve done it all the way I said I would. Sickness, health, richer, poorer, better, or worse. This is too worse. This is basic. I’m old-fashioned. I like two sexes. Yeah, and another thing, all of a sudden, I don’t like being married to what is known as a new woman. I want a wife, not a competitor. Competitor! Competitor! If you want to be a big he-woman, go and be it, but not with me.”

The Price of ‘Equality’

This scene takes place the night before the case’s final day. When Adam walks out on her, Amanda is furious. She doesn’t let this slow her down in court, though; while her husband gets so flustered that he turns the jury against him, she remains cool and collected throughout the case. However, after winning the case, Amanda realizes that she may have paid for her victory with her marriage.

“Adam’s Rib” is a masterpiece of cinematography. The acting is amazing, and the script is so realistic. Best of all, it has a message which is just as relevant as it was in 1949, more so, in fact. When women try to become indistinguishable from men, they sacrifice the virtues of true womanhood.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.