Does Adam’s Rib give us a glimpse into what life was like in America in the late 1940s, or does it just tell us about what movie audiences expected to see on the big screen in the late 1940s? Looking back that far, it is hard to tell.
The theme of the movie is the double standard regarding the sexes, which in those days meant that when a man had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another woman after he was married, it was no big deal; but if a woman had sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or with another man after she was married, her behavior was shameful and scandalous. Arising out of this general attitude was the “unwritten law,” which held that a man should not be punished for killing his wife’s lover, especially if he caught them in flagrante delicto. But the same latitude was not extended to the wife, should she kill her husband’s lover. It is the assertion of this movie that the double standard is wrong, that men and women should be treated equally.
On the one hand, this movie would seem to be premised on idea that this double standard was widely accepted by society at that time, not only as the way things were, but as the way they ought to be as well. On the other hand, if the double standard were as firmly accepted by society as this movie would have us believe, then a movie like this that challenged that double standard would have been regarded as scandalous and unfit for viewing. In other words, the audience had to be receptive to the idea that the double standard was unfair in order for this film to be successful.
When the movie begins, we see dizzy Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) following her philandering husband Warren (Tom Ewell) on his way to an assignation with Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). The movie is unrelenting it its determination to show us that Doris is klutzy and simpleminded. For example, we see her looking at the instruction booklet just before firing the revolver she has in her hand, as if pulling the trigger was something complicated. The purpose of depicting her in this way, one must suppose, is so that we won’t hold her morally responsible for shooting her husband, which she manages to do after firing wildly around the room. Later, she testifies that she was not trying to shoot anyone, but only trying to scare Beryl into leaving her husband alone.
The scene shifts to the Bonner household, where Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) are being served breakfast in bed by their maid. This is not a special occasion, like an anniversary. It is just another workday for this married couple. Whom do you know today that gets served breakfast in bed by a maid just before going to work? I refer back to my question in the first paragraph: Was this normal in 1949, or was this something people expected to see when they went to the movies?
Anyway, Amanda says that Adam was making strange sounds in his sleep, which she mimics. Because the idea of infidelity is already in our heads, we suspect he was dreaming about having sex with another woman. Whatever the case, she spots the article in the newspaper about Doris shooting Warren, smiles broadly, and says, “Hot dog!” Is this really an occasion for glee? When she says the husband survived, Adam says, “Shame,” a sarcastic response to Amanda’s genuine delight. She says it serves him right. Later, after they leave the bedroom, the maid sees the story and says, “Attagirl.”
It turns out that Adam is an assistant district attorney, and he is assigned to prosecute Doris, while Amanda is also an attorney, who decides to defend Doris. We know this is unrealistic, just a plot device, something that would never be allowed to happen in real life. During the trial, Amanda keeps trying to make the case that there is a double standard for men and women, especially when it comes to the “unwritten law.” However, Amanda does not explicitly say that she believes it should be all right for a woman to kill her husband’s lover. As a further complication, that argument would not apply in any event because Doris did not shoot Beryl, but Warren. Perhaps Amanda meant the unwritten law to say that it is also all right for the husband to kill his unfaithful wife, and so that should apply to the woman as well, allowing her to kill her husband. We don’t know, because Amanda does not say that either. This unwritten law seems to be an unspoken law in this movie as well. In the end, we get a watered-down version, in which Amanda argues that Doris was just trying to protect her home by scaring Beryl, and shooting Warren was just an accident.
Now, it is not just the men in this movie that believe in the double standard. Amanda’s secretary approves of the double standard just as much as the men. At the same time, just like Amanda’s maid, her secretary seems to resent the very double standard she embraces, because upon hearing that a woman shot her husband, she says it served him right, even before knowing any of the details of the case, including the infidelity.
We have already noted that Doris is portrayed as being a dimwit, so as to make her less culpable. Her husband Warren, on the other hand, is depicted as being a real jerk, who says on the witness stand that he does not love his wife and does not know why he married her. Furthermore, he admits that he beats her regularly, often knocking her to the ground. Earlier in the movie, Doris tells Amanda that the first time he hit her, he broke her tooth, the upper-left molar, no less. And the point of this depiction is to make him seem to deserve being shot. These characterizations are so heavy-handed as to make the story completely uninteresting. After all, a man does not have to be a wife-beater to be unfaithful, and his wife does not have to be addlebrained to shoot him in a jealous rage.
The movie tries to have it both ways. During the trial, Amanda calls to the stand three women who are seen to be equal, if not superior, to men, both mentally and physically, the point being that women should be treated the same as men. So, why not have a movie in which, say, the chemist, with several advanced degrees and responsible positions in both the public and private sector, be the one who shot her husband? Flipping back and forth like a Necker cube, the movie wants us to acknowledge that women are equal to men, while at the same time it tries to elicit our compassion for a helpless, weak woman who would be the last person you would offer up as an argument for gender equality.
At this point, I must comment on another double standard, one not made explicit in the movie, but which is definitely present nevertheless: that between blondes and brunettes, or more generally, between blondes and all other women. Aside from an occasional woman seen briefly with no speaking part, Doris is the only blonde in the movie. All the rest are either brunettes, red heads, or elderly women with gray hair. As if the movie had not already made it painfully obvious that Doris is not very bright, the producer must have decided that this had to be reinforced by the dumb-blonde stereotype. But that is not all. During the trial, when Amanda is summing up and wants to drive home her point about the double standard, she implores the jury to imagine Doris as a man. We see Doris transform into a man with dark hair. And then she points to Warren, asking them to imagine him as a woman, at which point he changes into a woman with blond hair.
Anyway, the conflict between Adam and Amanda spills over into their marriage, causing them to break up, leading to apparent infidelity, threats with a fake gun, making up, but with fake tears, and hints of further conflict to come. But at least their reconciliation seems to make sense, sort of. What does not make sense is the reconciliation of Doris and Warren. After she is found not guilty by the jury, Doris and Warren become a loving couple, embracing each other and their three children, ready to go back home and live happily ever after. I’ll bet he beats as soon as he gets her alone, and I’ll give him a week before he starts cheating on her again. Oh wait, I forgot, this is a movie, not real life. Never mind.
Of course, the reason for their reunion is that a more realistic ending for them would have been unthinkable. In other words, suppose Doris had turned to Amanda after her acquittal and said, “Will you help me get a divorce from that louse?” And while I’m on the subject, suppose Amanda had decided she was fed up with Adam’s insufferable attitude toward her on account of the way she defended her client in court, and she decided she would get a divorce as well. That would have offended the audience of 1949 far more than the movie’s challenge to the double standard ever could.