Adam’s Rib, a 1949 sorta-romantic comedy about feuding married lawyers who take opposite sides of a criminal case, was the seventh of ten collaborations between actress Katharine Hepburn and director George Cukor. It was also the third of five collaborations between Cukor and actor Spencer Tracy and the fifth of nine films to feature the famous Hepburn/Tracy duo. Yet the movie’s striking opening scene features neither Hepburn nor Tracy; it follows the character Doris Attinger as she tails her husband and discovers, as she has suspected, that he is cheating on her. The scene isn’t played for farcical laughs; it’s not unlike something out of Pickup On South Street, as Doris tails her husband into the subway and reveals that she’s carrying a handgun. There’s a comic note as she consults a handbook on how to use the weapon, but traces of zaniness disappear when she does, in fact, shoot her husband (albeit non-fatally). Her crime of passion will subsequently divide the lawyers played by Hepburn and Tracy, providing the engine for a relatively genteel (if thoughtful) romantic-matrimony comedy.
Doris is played by Judy Holliday, who receives the first close-up in Adam’s Rib (and several more after that) before taking a backseat to the two stars. Holliday may not be as closely associated with Cukor as Hepburn and Tracy, if only because she hasn’t ascended to her costars’ level of iconography. Holliday is singular enough for that kind of honor: Most of her characters maintain her signature high-pitched voice, wear similarly shortish, semi-curled blonde hairdos, and have at least a few occasions to flash a room-lighting smile. But there’s also something wonderfully unglamorous about Holliday, even when she’s decked out in beautiful gowns. She often has the dazed look of someone who doesn’t entirely realize that she’s turning on the charm. Plenty of performers become stars by appearing effortless; Holliday sometimes appears so effortless that she couldn’t possibly go after that movie-star brass ring.
Beyond that, she only made about a dozen features. Cukor directed Holliday in her first credited one, Winged Victory, and her four major roles that followed, starting with Adam’s Rib. After her run with Cukor, which also included Born Yesterday (1950), The Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen To You (1954), she made only four more films before dying of breast cancer at the age of 43, in 1965.
Her four films with Cukor are a big part of her career—and really just a few drops in the bucket of his, a studio-system epic spanning over 40 features (averaging at least one a year, sometimes more, during the ’40s and ’50s) including a number of beloved classics: The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady, The Women, Little Women, A Star Is Born, Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, and Born Yesterday. It would be difficult, then, to argue that Holliday helped Cukor as much as vice versa; Cukor, Hepburn, and Tracy practically conspired to break Holliday into feature films. But when a filmmaker does work as varied and numerous as Cukor, a star as specific and idiosyncratic as Holliday can provide a clear point of departure, if only for a few years at a time.
Born Yesterday, which would have been Cukor’s follow-up to Adam’s Rib if he didn’t slip a Lana Turner drama in the middle, represents a particular peak for both parties—one classic that wouldn’t be on Cukor’s CV without Holliday. She reprised a role she first played on stage, and won a Best Actress Oscar for it, while Cukor made perhaps his best-loved movie of the ’50s, one of his last classics before a final triumph over a decade later.
Holliday’s first line in Born Yesterday, repeated several times throughout the film, is a nasal, honking “WHAAAT,” shouted out of a window by Billie Dawn (Holliday) in response to her uncouth boyfriend Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Brock has come to Washington, D.C., to make some sleazy business deals with politicians, and quickly becomes worried that Billie will embarrass him in meetings. He hires Paul Verrall (William Holden), a local reporter, to “smooth the rough edges off,” not realizing the two will fall in love. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t play coy with this development; it seems to happen almost immediately, which fits in with some of Cukor’s other romantic comedies, which often (though not always) follow characters who are essentially already in love with each other.
The attempted refinement of a brassy dame has been a durable plot for works of art from Pygmalion to The House Bunny; Cukor himself took another crack when he adapted the Pygmalion-based musical My Fair Lady for the screen in 1964, and won an Oscar for his trouble. Born Yesterday distinguishes itself both with Cukor’s direction and Holliday’s starmaking performance. Cukor’s aesthetic respects the film’s (and his) theatrical roots—a fair portion of it is long dialogue scenes taking place in a hotel room—while taking advantage of his cinematic confidence and skill with actors. Holliday, with her squawky New York voice, is very funny as Billie, but she plays notes of melancholy, too. The way she mumbles at the ends of sentences implies that she’s not accustomed to being taken seriously, or maybe even heard at all, creating the distinction between Billie being dumb and Billie having the curiosity and excitement wrung out of her by a lousy relationship. Her dizzy-dame shtick doesn’t register as shtick at all—it’s more grounded and less confident than traditional screwball.
Cukor gets on Holliday’s wavelength, slowing down the movie around the half-hour mark in a scene where Billie and Harry play gin, with long pauses for card-flipping and dealing until Harry finally reiterates his point about Billie needing more sophistication—and Billie waiting some more before offering her rebuttal. Until that rebuttal, the game plays out in a single take. Of course, movies in Cukor’s era(s) had far fewer cuts than contemporary cinema, but Cukor especially favors the capturing of dialogue—especially one-on-one arguments—in single shots. Adam’s Rib has a number of long conversations that play out in extended takes, although most of them involve Hepburn and Tracy, not Holliday. Holliday would get her own Cukor comedy-of-remarriage picture with The Marrying Kind, only it’s even heavier on the remarriage (Hepburn and Tracy’s relationship never truly seems in doubt) and vastly lighter on the comedy.
The Marrying Kind has even more marriage bona fides in that it was written by the husband-and-wife team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Kanin had some kind of a hand in all of the major Cukor/Holliday films, having written the screenplay to Adam’s Rib with Gordon and It Should Happen To You on his own, as well as the original stage version of Born Yesterday. The Marrying Kind follows a couple played by Holliday and Aldo Ray as they file for divorce with a judge, and recount the story of their marriage in a series of flashbacks. There’s a certain ironic oddity in the pairing: Holliday was still potentially early in her film career (though as it turned out, not as early as she should have been), and this was Ray’s first big starring role, in contrast with long-standing chemistry enjoyed by the stars of Adam’s Rib. They’re new stars playing regular people who have been through the wringer.
That less-practiced quality is appropriate for the young couple’s innocent beginnings. But Holliday works better as a figure of contrast, and Ray’s lummox-y charisma is sort of the dude version of her (albeit not shining as brightly); their only contrast is in size. As a duo, their mutual weariness takes over, and they seem ill-equipped to help each other, much less deal with the rest of the world. Holliday sounds more tired and marble-mouthed than in Born Yesterday, and rather than giving his newfound star a bubbly showcase, Cukor emphasizes her serious side. One of the film’s most memorable scenes chronicles an argument between Holliday and Ray over an epic three-minute take, with Cukor’s camera coming in and backing out as needed to keep them in the frame as they move.
It’s a knockout on its own, but part of a wearying whole. Cukor didn’t exclusively make comedies, but The Marrying Kind, especially considering its proximity and resemblance to Adam’s Rib, feels lacking in levity. The film is never more than lightly amusing, but takes a particularly grim turn (hinted at earlier) when the couple recounts the drowning death of their son. Cukor stages the scene effectively, with Holliday singing and playing a ukulele in the foreground as a mass of people gathers in a panic in the background, by the lake where their son has gone swimming. But there’s something bloodless and calculated about the melodrama; the child’s death becomes one more obstacle in the way of a happy marriage. It’s not the fault of the performers, especially not Holliday; her rawness briefly makes the anguish believable. But if Cukor takes expert advantage of stagy qualities in Adam’s Rib and Born Yesterday, he succumbs to kitchen-sink melodrama in The Marrying Kind. His ability to ground his comedies doesn’t feel reversible here, where some lightness might have given the movie—and Holliday—more to do.
At the risk of sounding lowbrow, It Should Happen To You is more what audiences might reasonably expect from a Cukor-directed Judy Holliday vehicle. Holliday plays Gladys Glover, a plucky if somewhat discouraged woman from Binghamton, living in Manhattan but recently fired from her job. She rents a billboard over Columbus Circle advertising herself—not as an employee, particularly, but simply her name—and becomes famous as the woman with the name on the sign. This fame complicates her sorta-relationship with filmmaker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon, in his first big role; Holliday, barely out of her own up-and-comer stage, was apparently a magnet for other up-and-comers).
As in Born Yesterday, Holliday plays someone with a tentative grasp of her own worth; she takes childlike pleasure in looking at her name up on a big sign (and later, on several signs all around Manhattan). Most of that pleasure seems purely momentary; Gladys doesn’t seem to aspire to anything more than being known. As far as Cukor leading ladies, Holliday represents a break from the confidence of someone like Katharine Hepburn. Typical Hepburn characters banter and parry, going after what they want; Holliday characters tumble into comebacks, struggle, and trail off.
But Cukor doesn’t use these qualities as an excuse to make his movies daffier; even a relative trifle like It Should Happen To You has a certain moral gravity. Gladys doesn’t exactly say that she wants to be famous for being famous, but that’s exactly what happens to her. It seems prescient today, albeit filtered through some quaint notions that are more of their time, particularly Pete’s extolling the virtues of not standing out from a crowd—and his claim that privacy is what people want most in the world. Though the movie is sympathetic to Gladys, it clearly shares Pete’s concerns (which, to a modern audience, may come off as condescending concern-trolling) and views her story as a cautionary one.
Though Gladys Glover may not represent a mortal threat to our American way of life (no matter how much Lemmon kvetches about her misguided desire), Cukor’s films with Holliday do allow her a surprising sense of rawness and even danger. That’s especially true of her gun-toting first scene in Adam’s Rib, but there’s a more subtle danger even in It Should Happen To You, where her character’s very wants (to see her name on giant signs, irrespective of any particular accomplishment) feel out of whack compared to other rom-com or even screwball heroines. A lot of screwball characters want something understandable and go after it in wacky or unpredictable ways. Holliday isn’t opaque enough to be described as unknowable, but there’s a lack of calculation in her characters that brings them to their unpredictability in ways that feel both natural and, sometimes, a little unnerving.
There’s also something poignant about much of Holliday’s career appearing as a five-year phase toward the end of Cukor’s (he would continue working sporadically through 1981, but only made a half-dozen films, two for television, after winning his Oscar for My Fair Lady). In some ways, his films with Holliday are a Cukor career in miniature: a theatrical adaptation, a drama about marriage, a couple of romantic comedies including a Tracy/Hepburn pairing. Holliday, with her very specific voice and presence, doesn’t necessarily seem like the ideal actor to partner with when creating (intentionally or not) a late-career retrospective of various types of material. But she adapts, by seeming not to adapt at all. “Was that an accident or did you do it on purpose?” a suitor asks Gladys Glover at one point in It Should Happen To You. She responds: “To tell you the truth, I don’t know.” A lot of actors could say that line. But Cukor and Holliday make it sound like the truth.
Next time: An incredibly busy actor buckles down with a self-impressed genius.