Friday, December 21, 2018


On Saturday, January 12, the Egyptian Theatre will host a screening of the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy classic Adam's Rib. After the film, various contributors to the book When Women Wrote Hollywood: Essays on Female Screenwriters in the Early Film Industry will appear in person for a signing. Below is an excerpted essay from the book by Rosanne Welch that explores the screenwriting team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

Listen Adam. I know that deep down you agree with me with all I believe and want and hope for. We couldn’t be so close if you didn’t. If I didn’t feel you did.

Adam’s Rib by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin

From the start Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin had a writing career like few other writers in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. Their career earned them praise as “probably the greatest pure screenwriting collaboration in all Hollywood history." They wrote all four of their films as original screenplays on speculation, not under the auspices of a particular studio producer, and the same personal friend, George Cukor, directed all four films. This resulted in the fact that none of their films underwent major studio rewrites by other writers. Gordon and Kanin were involved in the production of each film beginning in pre-production and all the way through filming and post- production periods; a privilege not granted to many screenwriters then or now.

In the introduction to his interview with Kanin in 1991, Patrick McGilligan claims, "The films the Kanins wrote together signaled, to a large extent, the high tide of American sophisticated comedy. No films were (are) more admired by other Hollywood comedy writers—few films play as well today, without embarrassing concessions to yesteryear’s artificialities.” His words are backed up by the fact that three of the four films—A Double Life (1947), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952)—earned Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay. Only one can be considered in the genre of traditional boy- =meets-girl romantic comedy (Pat and Mike) while one (A Double Life), fills the genre of Broadway- based film in that it concerns the life of an actor overwhelmed by his role as Othello. Two of the four films delve deeply into the study of marriage, Adam’s Rib and The Marrying Kind (1952). One a comedy, one a drama, yet both deal with the gender politics of the day. The diversity of the films in tone and genre shows that the Gordon/Kanins were given rare privileges by the studio system in a period when most Hollywood artists—writers, directors, and actors—were typecast in one genre or another for the duration of their careers.

The Gordon/Kanin scripts also helped invent Katharine Hepburn’s popular culture reputation for female empowerment. Upon Gordon’s death in 1985, New York Times writer Mel Gussow wrote in his appreciation of her work: “Every time you enjoy Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn sparring in Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, remember who created their characters and wrote their witty dialogue. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s contribution to the symbiosis of the Tracy-Hepburn team is inestimable." Biographers and critics of Hepburn often claimed that she based her independent women persona and characters on a combination of her mother and of Eleanor Roosevelt. I contend that the Hepburn was also, even if subconsciously, basing the women in her Tracy/Hepburn films on Ruth Gordon. As actress and writer Elaine May once observed to Kanin about his wife, “She really is about the only person who gives you the feeling that maybe it could be a woman’s world." 

Gordon and Kanin clearly had a feminist agenda at work in their films, one that focuses on the need for both members of a marriage to understand the inherent equality of the sexes and to respect the equal intellectual capacity of wives. When summarizing Kanin’s screenwriting career, author Richard Corliss says “Because of Kanin’s close collaboration with his wife on scripts written for another, very close couple - [Spencer] Tracy and Katharine Hepburn - the ‘marriages’ portrayed in Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike have a sense of natural familiarity and mutual respect rare in Hollywood domestic comedies.” In fact, the Gordon/Kanin marriage proved so intrinsic to the work and the work to the marriage that once the work infringed on the marriage, the couple chose to end the working partnership in order to save the marital partnership. Decisiveness and determination seemed to be in their individual DNA from the beginning of their separate careers.

Gordon and Kanin wrote what became Adam’s Rib with their friends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in mind to play the married lawyers. The male lawyer, Adam, is assigned by his firm to prosecute a woman for shooting at her philandering husband as the female lawyer, Amanda, takes up the defense of the accused shooter. Their original title Man and Wife highlighted the battle of the sexes theme of the story and it was purchased by MGM, not the usual way business was done in the late forties/early fifties. Studio executives thought the title too risqué, hence the change, but they loved the script. Studio producer Lawrence Weingarten said in an interview later in life, “It was the first time in thirty years that the studio had seen a screenplay that was ready to shoot immediately, without changes." Stanley Cavell in Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage believes the equality represented in the fictional marriage was essential to why the film worked.

The sense of participation or partnership in their intimacy is essential to the way the film works, because it is exactly this intimacy that the woman puts on trial in taking her marriage to court. We will not understand her bravery (nor, hence, the man’s) unless we know that for her their intimacy, their privacy, their home at home, is almost everything.

Orit Kamir notes the gender transcendence in the piece when he writes, "The ancient notion of 'couple' takes on a new dimension when, in the context of Hollywood’s conventions, the viewer is invited to identify with a symbiotic pair of male-female heroes. Gender roles - both on and off screen - are transcended when the man-woman couple is posed as the fundamental unity reconciling contradictory myths."

Discussing which films he chose to analyze for his book on great romantic comedies, Kimmel calls Adam’s Rib “arguably the best of the Spencer Tracy / Katharine Hepburn matchups,” where, as married lawyers on opposing sides of a case, the question of sexism (a word not yet coined) could be addressed within in the conventions of a traditional “battle of the sexes." Later, in a chapter dedicated to the film, Kimmel reiterates that the film "never became dated because the argument put forth by Hepburn’s character still exists. Amanda’s idea that there ought not to be a double standard for men and women is born of not only Hepburn’s (and Ruth Gordon’s) independence and feistiness, but the dawning of a new attitude about women’s roles after they had contributed so greatly to the recent war effort…. Amanda’s case that women should be subjected to the same expectations as men anticipates the debates that would take place in the 1960s and 1970s."

Finally, Kimmel insists the major reason this particular battle of the sexes stays contemporary is because “this is a couple deeply in love, and part of their fun comes from their playful contention.” Several critics and film historians claim that the natural charisma between Hepburn and Tracy helped make the films they made together, including Gordon and Kanin films, so successful, and this certainly contributed. Kanin himself contributed to that idea in his own biography of the couple, Tracy and Hepburn: an Intimate Memoir (1970). The next collaborator considered in discussions of Adam’s Rib has generally been George Cukor, who directed all four of the original Gordon/Kanin screenplays and ensured the couple’s continued control over content. The trio shared an equal creative relationship. According to Cukor:

"It was a very happy and very equal collaboration. Ruth and Garson worked very closely together—no question of a writer trying to get his wife a job. Garson was a brilliant playwright and screenwriter and had the enormous advantage of knowing his métier very well—he’d already directed some successful comedies. Many of the lovely directorial touches in our films together were in the script."