Reading, Watching 06.04
Who Wears the Pants Around Here?
This is a regular feature for paid subscribers, wherein I write a little bit about what I’ve been recently reading, watching, and/or listening to. I hope you enjoy!
In Adam’s Rib (1949), Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are husband and wife lawyers. When a woman is accused of trying to kill her husband and his lover in a fit of rage, Tracy as D.A. gets the brief as prosecutor. Hepburn, something of a crusading feminist or “New Woman,” as they said at the time, decides to defend the woman in spite of her husband. Directed by George Cukor, maker of Philadelphia Story (1940), another of the classic screwball comedies, Adam’s Rib represents the end of its era and genre. The classic period for screwball and its sub-genre the “comedy of remarriage” had been the 1930s and 40s. Coming on the cusp of the 1950s reassertion of domesticity, Adam’s Rib feels of the last hurrah of the progressive gender politics of those films. Tracy and Spencer have a very cute and close marriage. In fact, by 1949 standards the film shows a lot of intimacy between the two. Still, Hepburn pursues her case and cause to the point of almost breaking up her marriage. Tracy, once the indulgent husband, adopts a position of reaction when faced with a wife who actually wants to live up to the ideals of being a “New Woman.”
A big knock on Hepburn’s use in these pictures is that she’s usually a smart, uppity lady who’s cut down to size and put her in place by a man. I don’t think that’s really true, but that certainly doesn’t happen in this one: Hepburn triumphs, Tracy submits. Or does he? The movie tagline is that it’s “the hilarious answer to wears the pants.” The answer, I guess, is that they both do and don’t at various times. These films portray marriage as an equal institution where two people very much in love and appreciative of each others fine qualities could nonetheless have their own lives and projects. They might still clash a bit, but once they adjust to each others needs, that’s understood to be all part of the fun.
These pictures implicitly contain a view of love and romance that still persists to this era: marriage as an equal partnership between two strong-willed, self-actualized individuals, who nonetheless want to stay together. Actually, I think they are quite a bit sexier and funnier than the predominant view of romance in the movies today, which is—what exactly? Does it even exist? They put the romance in romantic comedy in a way that’s sweet but doesn’t feel terribly sentimental: love wins in the end, but no one loses their wit. In real life, Tracey and Hepburn were very much in love albeit with a modern arrangement where they did not get married at all and secretly cohabitated in a cottage on Cukor’s estate. Their effortless chemistry and enjoyment of each other’s personalities comes through, making the movie sublime and even a little uncanny. It’s like Hollywood caught lightning in a bottle with these two actual lovers. I think that’s probably why the studio heads, usually so worried about scandal, looked the other way about Tracey and Hepburn’s ménage: they knew it was just dynamite on screen.