“When they were together, there was something electrifying about them”: On Adam’s Rib (1949)

image: MGM/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

Genesis 2:21-24

Adam and Eve—what a power couple. Oh, how fascinating, beautiful alphas absolutely dominate the spotlight and completely occupy our attention. Together, they amass a wholly unique center of gravity, basking in mystique’s charismatic glow, while others outside of their vaunted, flat sphere are relegated to orbit darkly in the wings. Marriage is the institutionalization of this monopolization, an exclusive declaration of gravity, one bound by law and cultural normativity. The King James Bible would have us believe that married couples are actually
one flesh. Lolz. Often, if another enters the picture, they are cast as an interloper, or worse, a homewrecker. Biblically speaking: flesh-eaters? The hype surrounding Bennifers, Brangelinas, and TomKats the world over would have you believe that unity is power, and that portmanteaus rule, but we know better. These arrangements are frangible and fraught at best.

I am obsessed with desire, attraction, and what keeps people together. Are we motivated by lack or plenitude? What happens when we face fear, take risks, and venture outside of normative visions of who we are and are allowed to be? Indeed, couples exert a strange social sway and have their utility, but throughout history, there have been a near infinite number of arrangements and agreements that people enter into. Even in the midst of the Cold War, at the height of the grip of the American image of the nuclear family, people lived far outside the confines of this limited social unit. So, how are you digging under barbed wire, escaping patriarchal demands of what living together has to be? What is the flavor of your dysfunction?

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy brandished an especially pungent blend of functional dysfunction and embodied a heady sense of what coupledom may mean. As stars onscreen, they were 100 proof, one of the most successful pairings in American cinema throughout their run of nine films together. Offscreen, they were Hollywood’s open secret: a clandestine couple that managed a long-running affair by being invisible in all the right places. It’s complicated: they hewed to and buttressed extremely patriarchal prejudices on-screen and off—all while they skirted the confines of Biblically-sanctioned marriage together (in fact, they never married each other and Spencer stayed married throughout their 26-year affair).

It shouldn’t have worked, but they were miraculously charming together.

According to Angela Lansbury, their co-star in State of the Union, “What was exciting about Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn was their presence, I mean collectively. Their personalities as well as their talents were orchestrated so marvelously. It was almost as if they had a secret language all their own. I began to think of them as one person, really. I suppose most people did.”

Garson Kanin, one half of the husband/wife writing team with Ruth Gordon (regular collaborators with Spence and Kate), expands on their marvelous charisma together. “People talk about their he-she chemistry, and there is something in it. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were two of the most interesting people who ever lived, but together they were even more fascinating. These were two people who brought out the best in each other and complemented each other and teased each other and created a tremendous sense of empathy. It was something that we all reveled in. And the amazing thing is, Kate and Spencer did this instinctively from the beginning—and when they were together, there was something electrifying about them.”

Celebrity couples don’t always create the same empathy Kate and Spence were capable of conjuring. It’s easy to cynically scoff in checkout lanes at the grocery store as tabloids would try and have you believe that so-and-so have found THE ONE, TRUE LOVE. Sure, I want to believe, but even on social media where content is king, it’s not hard to see through the most adamant proclamations of love for one’s significant other. Kate and Spence, on the other hand, simply exuded charm and absolutely crackled with sensual gravity.

Adam’s Rib, boasts truckloads of this “he-she chemistry.” It was the couple’s sixth movie together and is often cited as their best; a battle-of-the-sexes, “the hilarious answer to who wears the pants.” In it, Spence and Kate play married lawyers, Adam and Amanda Bonner. They respectively represent a husband (Tom Ewell) and wife (Judy Holliday) involved in a crime of passion: the wife shot her husband after trailing him and cornering him in the apartment of another woman (Jean Hagen). Adam believes the law is the law and the wife should be tried and found guilty post-haste. Amanda fundamentally disagrees and believes that the wife is being treated unfairly in the court of public opinion and in the eyes of the law:

Amanda: Now, look, all I’m trying to say is that there are lots of things that a man can do and in society’s eyes, it’s all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing, the same, mind you, and she’s an outcast.

Adam: Finished?

Amanda: No. Now, I’m not blaming you personally, Adam, because this is so.

Adam: Oh, well, that’s awfully large of you.

Amanda: No, no, it’s not your fault. All I’m saying is why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law where women are supposed to be equal?

Adam: Mostly, I think females get advantages.

Amanda: We don’t want advantages and we don’t want prejudices.

Adam: Oh, don’t get excited honey and don’t…Oh, you’re giving me the Bryn Mawr accent.


This repartee not only outlines the central conflict in the film, it also follows the contours of their offscreen banter, or “verbal tennis” as Stanley Kramer called it. That is, Kate was notorious for her patrician accent, her “self-imposed aura of authority,” her “iron-clad rules for
everything,” and her “total utter conviction to back them up.” Onscreen, Kate exercises this “total utter conviction” and often needles Spence’s character, a “man’s man,” until he “slowly puts out his big paw and slaps the lady down.” As Kate said, “The American public likes to see that.” Kate admitted that this onscreen dynamic bled into their offscreen relationship, as well. “To most men, I’m a nuisance because I’m so busy I get to be a pest, but Spencer is so masculine that once in a while he rather smashes me down, and there’s something nice about me when I’m smashed down.”

Ok, fucked-up, but this “slapping,” and “smashing down” is a persistent and essential theme in the larger Tracy/Hepburn story as well as most of their films. In Adam’s Rib, Adam is “needled” by the fact that Amanda takes the case. Indeed, he’s pissed, but he tries to handle it by scowling and barking at Amanda. What really works him up, what triggers his “big paw,” is some mutual needling by Kip (David Wayne), an interloping neighbor—a musician from across the hall who is as talented as he is persistent as he is obnoxious. Kip unabashedly courts Amanda, who also happens to be his lawyer, and outwardly flirts with her in front of Adam. Amanda exercises a practiced flip of the wrist and repeatedly demurs, “Oh, Kip,” to get him to shut up and to behave. He doesn’t. He heckles and wolf-whistles throughout Adam and Amanda’s home movies at a dinner party. He pens a song, “Farewell Amanda,” (which was actually written for the movie by Kate’s friend, Cole Porter), and this song becomes a hit on the radio.

This song plays a key role in a rub-down turned fight scene, a pivotal turning point in Adam and Amanda’s increasingly prickly marriage. After a contentious day in court that culminates in a bench clearing brawl about Adam’s brutal cross examination of the defendant and his insinuation that she displays violent bursts of temper, a title card announces “That Evening,” accompanied by the strains of “Farewell Amanda” on a squeaky violin. We find that Adam and Amanda are wrapped only in towels and are giving each other massages at home. Adam lies prostrate on the massage table. As he complains about the judge, who he believes is prejudiced, Amanda tries to get him to shut up and relax.

Amanda: [massaging] Quiet, please. It doesn’t do you any good if you don’t… Wait a minute. Relax.

Adam: I’m relaxed.

Amanda: Uh, you’re not. I can feel.

Adam: So can I.

Amanda: You can?

Adam: Hmm.

Amanda: [slaps Adam’s rear]

Adam: Ow! What are you doing?

Amanda: Testing.

Bemused, Adam shifts his head and Amanda begins to massage his scalp, her fingers coursing through his hair. He moans with pleasure, “Oh. Oh. Oh, I thank you, thank you, thank you.” Amanda massages and flashes an open-mouthed grin (a Hepburn specialty). They turn to chat about aging, especially appropriate because they were both in their 40’s in this film, remarkable in the light of Hollywood’s inveterate youth-obsession, especially for stars. In this light, their bodies are remarkable: lived in, comfortable, flesh and shadow. The body work in this scene is intimate, cozy, and warm.

Then Adam gets up. As they switch positions, he puts on a robe to cover up. He offers to turn on the radio to listen to the news. Instead of news, Kip’s recent hit, “Farewell Amanda” plays. Grimacing, Adam announces, “I got the station with the bad news,” and turns towards the work of returning Amanda’s massage. Amanda sinks into Adam’s opening overtures and begins to hum along delightedly to the radio. She sings as the verse repeats and extends in development, which pulls Adam into a rage. He raises his “big paw” and slams down on her rear, the smack reverberating as Amanda shoots up in shocked panic. 

Amanda: You really meant that!

Adam: Why, no!

Amanda: Yes you did. I can tell. I know your touch. I know a slap from a slug!

Adam: Well, okay, okay.

Amanda: I’m not so sure it is. I’m not so sure I care to expose myself to typical instinctive masculine brutality.

Adam: Oh, come now!

Amanda: And it felt not only as though you meant it, but as though you felt you had a right to. I can tell.


They blow up. Adam admits he’s sore and while he denies that Kip is the problem, he says he’s ashamed of Amanda and her performance in the courtroom. She breaks down and starts crying vehemently; he mocks her tears, patronizes her, and vows that she will lose the case. He tries to get her back to the massage, to have a drink, and as he hones in on her, she winds up and kicks him in the shin. “Let’s all be manly,” she yells as she storms off. The next title card is a Punch and Judy caricature of Amanda and Adam in the newspaper, beating each other over the head with bats, referring to the court case, but equally illustrating their trouble at home.

One might expect Amanda to take action and leave, but it is actually Adam who leaves. In a later scene, he bemoans being married to a “new woman,” and complains, “I want a wife, not a competitor.” As he is set to storm out, Amanda warns, “Don’t you dare slam that door.” He takes a beat, stares at her, and then slams the door so hard that a mirror falls from the wall, Amanda steps back in horror, knocking down a plant, which tips a lamp, that knocks a bauble, that hits the arm of a record player, that lands on the platter, that starts to spin and play “Farewell, Amanda.”

While this Rube Goldberg string of cause and effect neatly tells us where we are headed and why, it doesn’t really track with the way the world works offscreen. That is, life moves in more bewildering ways; waves of emotion and torrents of desire easily exceed any simple explanation of this for that. Kate and Spence built an entire life together in incongruous circumstances, falling in and out of each other’s lives while maintaining an unbreakable bond outside of marriage that nevertheless upheld the vow to love in sickness and in health, for better or for worse—sometimes for much, much worse.

Kate never wanted to be married. Her older brother Tom died tragically when she was young, which would initially be labeled an apparent suicide by hanging, but then recast as a terrible accident. In the aftermath, she became a “third parent” to her younger siblings. “I sort of became two people instead of one—a boy and a girl. That’s why I practically raised the other kids. I was a third parent.” Notably, although Howard Hughes proposed to her, she ultimately turned him down. Spence maintained a 44-year marriage with Louise Tracy (née Treadwell), but they were estranged for the vast majority of it. They had a son and a daughter, and it is said that Tracy’s guilt over his son’s deafness kept him from ever divorcing Louise.

It didn’t keep him from other women. He not only pursued co-stars, he frequently cornered women on set; Jean Harlow would quip, “His movie contract gave him a license to feel.” James Cagney said, “Spence loved all kinds of women, but the women that really got to him were the ones with that extra something called class. And for some reason, he really got to them.” When Kate and Spence got to each other, his ineligibility for marriage actually turned out to be a plus for her; she had no interest in the institution. And when it came to his multiple layers of infidelity, Kate said, “What am I supposed to say when this comes up? I mean, he was married to someone else. Besides, we never owned each other. If a person wants to stray, there isn’t a hell of a lot you can do about it. Is there?”

They both loved sex; the familiar touch of the Adam’s Rib massage scene was no fluke. Kate and Spence were both “intensely physical creatures,” with many athletic interests and considerable talent on the pitch. Their “he-she chemistry” clearly spilled from the silver screen into more intimate corners. Kate waxed eloquent, saying, “It’s a force of life, sex; you can’t deny the thrill of riding high, wide, and handsome with someone you love.”

Too true, but before riding “high, wide, and handsome,” what are you looking for in a partner? Often, we want someone who can keep up. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz said, “Spencer wanted someone who would match him point for point, who would put up a fight—not too much of a fight, mind you—someone who was exciting to be around, someone stimulating. God knows Kate was all those things.” In turn, Spence was broadly considered the actor’s actor, a genius of presence, an instinctual maverick who could cut through any and all bullshit to bring a scene alive in novel ways. His gaze intimidated even seasoned pros. Kate was an accomplished actor, but she was much more measured and limited in her delivery. Adam’s Rib director and lifetime friend of the couple, George Cukor, said, “It was not a one-sided affair. He was as good for her as she was for him,” and Kate also said, “Spencer made me live beyond my potential.”

 And as much as they enjoyed mutually challenging each other, they “delighted in each other’s company,” and kept a kind of “bunker mentality” when it came to the press. That is, for all of their thirst for fame and attention, they fought tirelessly to protect their own, private sphere. Kate was notoriously cagey in interviews and even violent toward hapless photographers. She went as far as to write a sprawling piece in the Virginia Law Weekly entitled, “The Predicament of the Public Figure,” in which she lambasts the press’ bent toward practically pornographic sensationalism and prying into the private lives of people in the spotlight. Somehow, the Hollywood press played along and protected Spence and Kate’s relationship, rarely writing about their offscreen relationship at all. Even Richard Nixon, as a young Congressman from California on the House Un-American Activities Committee, would play along. When Herbert Hoover presented the committee with the files focused on Tracy and Hepburn’s illicit relationship, Nixon declined. He believed that any attempt to drag the couple through the mud would backfire because the American public adored them so much.

Publicly, Kate extolled Spence’s “wisdom, strength, and moral courage.” However, privately, she understood how “confused, weak, and self-destructive” he really was. A raging alcoholic, Spence was prone to frequent binges, especially in the face of adversity. He would use his self-destruction as a cudgel to try and keep Kate close, especially as she would become engaged to work in the theater, far away from him. Nonetheless, Kate frequently played nursemaid, and even reveled in the role, eventually curtailing her career to care for an increasingly ailing Spence, his health deteriorating as a life of alcoholism took its rapid toll. Kate found him irresistible not only as the generation’s greatest actor and a worthy lover, but as someone  simultaneously appealing as “both a father and child surrogate.” As a friend would say, “Just the fact that someone needs you can be a powerful aphrodisiac.”

This threat of self-destruction as a cudgel acts as an even bigger “paw” in one of the final scenes of Adam’s Rib. Amanda, fresh off of winning the court case against Adam, is celebrating in her apartment alone with Kip, who is as relentless and obnoxious as ever. While he never succeeds in getting Amanda to agree to an actual kiss, he convinces her to play pretend, mid-champagne toast, “like they do on the stage, like [husband and wife acting team] Lunt and Fontanne. You be Lunt and I’ll be Fontanne. Uh, the other way.” As they lunge into a melodramatic stage “kiss,” Adam enters the room with a revolver in his hand. Amanda freezes with an open mouth smile, sees her husband, sees the gun, and panics. She tries to reason, but begins to argue, “Stop it Adam, stop it. You’ve no right. You can’t do what you’re doing. No one has a right to…” At this ejaculation, she is brought 180 degrees from her initial position, the argument that won her the court case, and Adam sits smug as the movie going public gets to see Hepburn’s character humiliated and brought to sense by Tracy, slapped down once and for all.

Adam glowers, and points the revolver into his mouth. Amanda and Kip both scream and cover their eyes. Adam chews the tip off of the gun. “Licorice,” he garbles between bites. “If there’s anything I’m a sucker for, it’s licorice.”

This scene, while intending to be farcical, is absolutely grotesque. Kate would later say

I think on film we came to represent the perfect American couple… Certainly the ideal man is Spencer: sports-loving, a man’s man. Strong-looking, a big sort of head, boar neck, a man. And I think I represent a woman. I needle a man. I irritate him, I try to get around him, yet if he put a big paw out, he could squash me. I think this is the sort of romantic, ideal picture of the male and female in the United States. I’m always skitting about, and he’s the big bear, and every once in a while he turns and growls, and I tremble. And every once in a while he turns and says some terrible thing, and everybody laughs at me and I get furious. It’s very male-female.

In reality, Kate was Spence’s salvation, the sole human who cared most for him. After Spence died, she would keep the cottage he rented from Cukor for eleven years and would stay there whenever she was in California, surrounded by his mundane things: a toothbrush, flannel shirts, his slippers, his red leather chair. While the King James Bible would have you believe man gave something of himself to create woman, it is far too often that women give endlessly to support wounded men. And yet, the gravity of need is strong, intoxicating. 

In the end of the film, after going through the motions of a divorce, Adam wins back Amanda with tears; she is drawn to his need. Later that night, he shows her that he can turn on the waterworks, just as he mocked her for crying earlier to get her way. Amanda believes this proves her point that there is no difference between the sexes. 

Amanda: Well, maybe there is a difference, but it’s a little difference.

Adam: Well, you know, as the French say—

Amanda: What do they say?

Adam: “Vive la difference”

Amanda: Which means?

Adam: Which means hooray for that little difference.

He closes the bed curtains, shuts the audience out, and the couple retires to privacy, presumably to love, perhaps with some light spanking thrown in. In this final retreat, the couple claims their right to living and loving on their own gloriously imperfect terms. The juggernaut images of iconic couples splattered on tabloids, flooding social media, and lighting the silver screen cannot hold a candle to the warmth and persistence of the intimate, actual spark that draws you to someone, no matter how bewildering it may be. Behind the curtain, we find the thrill of meeting our match, the capacity to care and be cared for, even our tolerance for cruelty. Just outside the curtain may await the many people that champion the couple’s love. And still, behind the curtain, the true power couple works together to know when to give, when to take, and when to say enough is enough.