ADAM'S RIB (1949) OPENS WITH THE DETERMINED, IF HAPLESS, DORIS ATTINGER trailing her husband Warren through the streets of New York to his paramour's apartment. She follows him in, produces a revolver (and an instruction manual for it), and shoots up the place, wounding her husband in the process. The case lands on the desk of Assistant D.A. Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) and looks to be open and shut, until his wife Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn) decides to take up the defense.
The film's screenwriters, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, were themselves married—and presumably experts on what happens when husband and wife share a workplace. And Kanin and Gordon wrote the film specifically for Tracy and Hepburn, off-screen lovers who had to settle for on-screen marriages during their 27 years together, many of them spent living in a cottage on the Hollywood estate of the film's director, George Cukor.
Their Adam and Amanda lead a rather progressive life: He helps cook dinner, and she drives their car to work. Even their nicknames for each other are roughly equal: She's Pinkie; he's Pinky. They sleep in separate beds, however, and you have to wonder what would have happened to this oh-so-balanced equation if a couple of children had been thrown into the mix. For all the film's progressiveness, it did not take the risk of making Amanda a working mother. Or perhaps the screenwriters partially agreed with Kip Lurie, the Bonners' impish neighbor, who decrees that "lawyers should never marry other lawyers. This is called inbreeding, from which comes idiot children—and more lawyers."
Amanda becomes a bit too forward-thinking for Adam's taste when she turns the Attinger case into a battle of the sexes, arguing, basically, that women are held to a different standard than men. At the climax of the ensuing circus, Amanda calls a series of successful women as witnesses, among them a carnival strongwoman who hoists Adam to the courtroom rafters in a show of female muscle. Adam tries to object to this and other outrages, but he's so flustered that all that comes out are exasperated spoonerisms. Inevitably, the Attinger case pushes the Bonner marriage to the brink, culminating with Adam threatening his wife with a very realistic .32 caliber piece of licorice.
Pinky and Pinkie eventually recover their nuptial balance in a brief scene of reconciliation in their Connecticut country house. It's an ending conventional enough that it almost makes you forget what's just happened: Amanda has convinced a jury to acquit a woman who shot her husband.
Hepburn, who died in her own Connecticut home last June at the age of 96, was raised by a mother who was a suffragist and a proponent of birth control. But her winning over the hearts of the jury as Amanda has less to do with her liberal pedigree than with her confidence, wit, and moral presence. These singular attributes gave Hepburn a career that spanned six decades, from early successes like Little Women (1933) to late ones like On Golden Pond (1981). In Adam's Rib, they make her a damn good lawyer, too.
Today, Legally Blonde (and its sequel) tries to show us that smarty-pants need not clash with Prada loafers. Yet Elle Woods is, for better and worse, a cartoon. Reese Witherspoon makes the most of the absurd juxtapositions at the heart of Elle's saucy sorority girl, but you wouldn't want her to be your lawyer. Not if you could have Amanda Bonner instead.