Tuesday, 1 October 2013



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1949 - USA (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

DIRECTOR: George Cukor
SCRIPT: Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin
MUSIC: Miklós Rózsa

Oh how cruel can the Gods of Passing Time be! Oh how ruthless the relativism and changing contexts are! Oh how fresh and provocative, and daring the ADAM'S RIB must have been in 1949. Well, that was a looooong, loooong time ago and today, it isn't. And while it's still a lovely film with superb performances from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, it simply isn't the film it thinks it is any more. And what's worse, in the world of 2013 it also turned into a bit of a bitterly ironic caricature of its own self. Oh what a cruel, cruel trick has the time played on this film indeed!

It is always tricky, when you create art that is supposed to comment on some burning issues of your times. Be it political or social, they just don't tend to last forever. And when the tides turn, we all gain a new perspective on the problems of yesteryear, while the freeze-frame of art preserves them for generations in the amber encasing of 'then and there'. This process is exceptionally evident in the case of ADAM'S RIB, I'm afraid. And it's not exactly the problem of the issues the film is addressing, it's much more about how the film is addressing them. Let me cut to the chase.

The story, although based (loosely) on actual events is nigh on negligible. There's a married couple of lawyers who end up on opposite sides of the same trial. Which only serves as a backdrop for two things: added comedy value and more importantly, the main focus of the film - women rights. No, this is not the 'votes for women' type of thing (after all, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, while we're at the brink of the 50s here), but the more subtle 'equal treatment of the sexes' kind. Which, to some extent, can still be seen as a problem in today's world, although there's no denying how far we have moved from the mentality of the 1940s in that respect. And if you think about it, this is exactly what must have made ADAM'S RIB so remarkable in its own time and era. For the type of thinking that would have been prevalent back then, the ideas highlighted in this film must have been brave to the point of uncomfortable and progressive to the point of rebellious. The message of the film is simple. Despite the fact that the law should treat both sexes equally, the social order is affecting the courts of law which results in unfair treatment of women. And while some women might have been given a space in the professional environment, on many other levels, they are still where they were before the suffrage movement revolution. This inequality is exactly what Katharine Hepburn's Amanda Bonner stands against, both on the courtroom floor and in her own bedroom, so to speak. So far so good, you might say. Well, yes, but there's a catch or two.

The film seems to have a clear stance: women and men should be treated equally. Full stop. The case of adultery, around which the main plot revolves, is an ideal example of the disparity between what's socially acceptable in regard to each sex. And at no point do we get the feeling that a passionate, righteous Amanda could be wrong in her conviction. Many men of that era would probably have had a completely different view on that subject, but that's the point. Both Amanda, and the whole film are there to contest that way of thinking. But you'd be hugely mistaken to think that the film makes no compromises. And the ones it does, at least from today's point of view, undermine the noble idea so much, that the whole premise falls flat on its face and turns that otherwise light-hearted comedy with a serious message into a bit of a farce.

Exhibit A: Little things.
Amanda is by all means a modern woman. She smokes, she's got a high position job and, would you believe, she drives her husband to work. Isn't that sweet? Well, no. Because she drives like a moron. So, we let women do their thing on one hand, but on the other, we make sure to send a message, that they still can't be as good at it as us, the males. Men and women are equal at what they do, only women a little bit less so, it would seem.

Exhibit B: The performance.
Amanda is right. Amanda is righteous. But Amanda is also a bit of a clown. Not intentionally, oh no. It's just that her performance as a defence lawyer tends to be, sort of, uneven and erratic, to say the least. While capable on one hand, she does also have moments, when she doesn't seem to make much of a point. While right in her conviction, she still ends up (occasionally) ridiculed in the courtroom and being rather a submissive and obedient wife in her private life, when the conflict of interest between her and her husband (representing the prosecution) starts to sip down into their fancy apartment. And I can't shake the feeling, that she deserves better. Much better. What ADAM'S RIB needed was Amanda Bonner being a female version of Henry Drummond. But she's not. After all, she's only a woman, so she shouldn't make sense all the time. It'd be against nature or something.

Exhibit C: Amanda the wife (since we're at it).
This is the really bitter one. Long story short, ADAM'S RIB shows us, that no matter how good you are professionally, no matter how progressive you are on social matters, no matter how right you are in your social crusade, at the end of the day, the husband is the victim and it's down to the woman to back off to save the marriage, while the man plays dirty tricks to emotionally blackmail her and eventually get the things his way. And what happens when he admits to being manipulative? Everybody laughs and we have a happy ending, god bless you all. And I won't even delve into the far-fetched intrigue, that leads to the dramatic finale. The build up towards the tables being turned is so ham-fisted, it hurts. The end justifies the means, it would seem, when the bloke needs to come out on top in the end. And from that perspective even the title's wrong and caricatural. Just think about it... Amanda's husband is called Adam, which allegorically is supposed to put Amanda in the position of Biblical Eve. And any way you cut it, referring to women as a 'product' of an Adam's rib (a mere part of a whole, male body) is marking them with inferiority. Therefore Amanda, the woman who stands against her own husband in the courtroom, is the Adam's rib. A woman who brought trouble on Adam and the whole mankind in the Garden of Eden and also, more presently, brought embarrassment and the laugh of the press on her husband's head. I can believe that the reference could have been intended as a joke, but in the end is nothing but derogative. 

Exhibit D: WTF?
The end of the trial is another problem I have with this film. While I appreciate the satire on the vulturous nature of the media, but also the 'common people's' desire to be a centre of attention for the said media, I still feel that the behaviour of the Attingers seems to be showing that while Amanda might fight all the windmills she wants, at the end of the day, nothing changes. Which, again, is rather sad, when you look at it this way.

But don't forget I only refer here to certain aspects of the whole picture. Beside these points the film has a feel light enough and it can easily be considered an old-fashioned, mostly smart and quite light-hearted (despite the gravity of the issues discussed) comedy, which only by that cruel shift of context, which I have brought up at the beginning, became a rather bitter testimony to the times when even when you wanted to highlight the need of fighting for women's rights you still had to make some fun of them as not too cause too much of a stir (or am I over-interpreting here?). Still, well worth watching because and despite of things I've highlighted above, but also for one more reason. The performances. The Katharine Hepburn - Spencer Tracy duo is absolutely sublime and the roles of Kip Lurie (David Wayne) and Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) are not far behind. There's some magnificently timeless acting done in this film, which will bring joy and a warm butter-like feeling to all cinema enthusiasts. For that reason alone I'd watch it again, if it wasn't for the other 985 films still waiting in the queue.


Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: The Actress (Yuen Ling-Yuk) - Stanley Kwan, 1992
Next on the list: The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960
And after that: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - Stephen Elliott, 1994

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