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NITA Movie Review: Husband and Wife,  D.A. and Defense Lawyer, Feminism and “The Unwritten Law”

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

adamsRibDoris Attinger follows her husband Warren and catches him with another woman. She pulls a gun out of her purse and—with her eyes closed—blazes away.  Warren is hit in the shoulder, and Doris eventually is charged with attempted murder. Adam Bonner, an assistant D.A., is assigned to prosecute the case, and Adam’s wife Amanda decides to defend Doris.[1] That’s the basic outline of the 1949 MGM comedy, Adam’s Rib, a film that in several ways was way ahead of its time.

Spencer Tracy stars as Adam and Katherine Hepburn stars as Amanda, with the great Judy Holliday as Doris. George Cukor directed, and Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote the Oscar-nominated script. It’s regarded by many (including me) as the best of the six films Hepburn and Tracy made together.

One of the underlying issues in the case is the so-called “unwritten law” that supposedly allowed men who caught their wives with another man to use deadly force without any legal consequence.[2] Early on in the movie, Amanda and Adam have a spirited discussion about this “law,” with Amanda arguing forcefully that it should apply to women just the same as it would to men. Adam doesn’t seem concerned about this; after all, Doris confessed! And when the case comes to trial, Adam chooses to treat the case as one that is essentially an open and shut case of attempted murder. Not so Amanda. Early on, in voir dire, she makes it clear to the jury that her defense of Doris will center around equality for women when placed in the same situations as men. And Amanda proceeds to try the case on exactly that point. (While I know this may sound a bit preachy and even dull, believe me, it isn’t at all. Just wait for the lady weightlifter.)

As the case progresses and Adam and Amanda begin to really spar in court, their marriage starts to suffer. As Adam packs to move out of their apartment, he gives an impassioned speech on how he thinks Amanda is disrespecting the law and what the law means and should mean.[3] (Mark Caldwell and I have used this scene as the final clip in some of our ethics presentations.) After that, Amanda and Adam’s slimy neighbor (David Wayne) makes a play for Amanda and Adam catches him at it. He pulls out a gun and points it at the couple, causing Amanda to burst out that “no one has a right to do that.” Watch what happens next. And if you’re at all worried about the outcome, don’t be. This is Hollywood, it’s 1949, and love and marriage triumph over all.

Amanda Bonner was something new to movies: an effective, skillful woman trial lawyer.  While women lawyers are hardly an oddity today, they certainly were in 1949. While we live in a world where more than half of all entering law students are women, that was not the world of Amanda and Adam Bonner. Amanda is a prototypical feminist and one we can all admire, both as a person and as a lawyer. Bergman and Asimov said it best in their book, Reel Justice: “. . . Amanda Bonner remains the most positive female lawyer role model of all time.”

Of course, there’s one more interesting subtext here. As you may know, Tracy and Hepburn were real-life lovers for nearly thirty years, but kept their relationship a secret. Even though Tracy was estranged from his wife as far back as the ’30s, he wouldn’t divorce her because they were both Roman Catholics. Tracy and Hepburn were as devoted to each other as a couple could be—but they tried to keep their love private, so private that Hepburn didn’t even go to Tracy’s funeral. But as you watch them on screen, you’ll easily see that in their scenes as a couple in love, they weren’t acting.

I hope you’ll search out Adam’s Rib and watch it. Some of it will seem dated, but some of it is as on point as anything released this year. And you have Tracy and Hepburn, which is pretty much all you need for a really great movie!

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[1] Yes, it’s a conflict of interest. But it’s a movie!

[2] While this idea may seem quaint, or even ludicrous, to modern sensibilities, it was actually codified by statue in Texas, New Mexico, and Utah in times past.

[3] Remember that Tracy makes an impassioned speech on what the law means at the climax of Judgment at Nuremberg.

One thought on “NITA Movie Review: Husband and Wife,  D.A. and Defense Lawyer, Feminism and “The Unwritten Law”
  • I echo the Judge’s comments. I first saw this movie in a class in college and watched it about 6 months ago with my wife, who loved it.

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