Funny, ahead of its time, and only sporadically corny, this courtroom comedy has a husband and wife taking opposite sides on a controversial assault charge, where a woman shot her philandering husband in, as Inspector Clouseau would call it, a Rit of Fealous Jage. The sexual politics of the time dictate that the woman must be found guilty for her actions, but when any man is pressed whether the same charge would be applicable had the genders been switched, and the man had shot the cheating woman, they guffaw and say “Of course not.” When Spencer Tracy’s lawyer is assigned to be the prosecution for the case, he kvetches that his wife, an outspoken pre-feminism liberal, will never let him hear the end of it. However, when he actually tells her that he’s not only taking the case, but making a serious go of it due to his personal beliefs, she, being an attorney herself, decides to take the young jilted woman’s case herself, pitting her against her husband. The resulting trial, and the bedroom conversations that follow, puts enormous strain on the husband and wife’s ideological differences, and threaten to tear them apart for good due to the nuances and refutable differences of the case.
The primary debate, if it hasn’t been made clear already, is whether men and women are actually equal in the mental and emotional state, and how their gender should be taken into account in regards to the law. Surprisingly enough, the gender politics are relatively modern and progressive for this pre-Eisenhower era. While the wife is, ostensibly, right, and the assaulting woman should be given all the attention and leeway her male counterpart would receive, her husband maintains, rightfully so, that justice should not have reverse sexism, and should take into account her actions above her mental and emotional state, which may or may not have been exacerbated by her gender. The fact that neither side is an extremist crackpot goes a long way to keep the film from devolving into some dated diatribe about sexual politics, and makes the courtroom scenes fun and interesting. Some of the scenes come off as stagey and oddly restricted; this is not Citizen Kane, trying to break all constrictions, but rather a more “studio” star-picture in the traditional sense, holding craft and continuity over realism or stylistic ingenuity. However, the mature handling of the subject matter, along with the sheer personality of the performers, keeps the film from devolving into a relic from a simpler, more naive era.
Despite director George Cukor’s lengthy and prolific experience behind the camera prior to this (The Philadelphia Story, The Women, and uncredited work on Gone With The Wind), the central performers of the film are the motor that keep the film going. As the primary duo, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn are absolutely hilarious and sharp, and make for an endearing on-screen couple. Their legendary real-life romance was already in full swing at this point, and their chemistry is remarkable; even while they circle around their Hays Code-mandated separate beds (for further evidence look up Lucy and Desi’s TV bedroom), the idea that these two share an active marital relationship is never in question. Their interplay is quick-witted and consistently funny, giving the whole project a sense of integrity beyond its progressive subject matter. Other than Tracy-Hepburn, the supporting cast is effective and memorable, with special mention going to Judy Holliday’s hilarious jilted wife; with her shock at her husbands indiscretion being the main argument for her defense, Holliday takes it a step further, and consistently looks and speaks as if she NEVER has a true handling of what’s going on, creating a true gem of a character that, in turn, adds a shade of depth to Hepburn’s headline-grabbing force of nature. The personality of the actors supersedes the occasional stylistic hamminess, and keeps the film a relatable, fun watch over 60 years later.
Recommended to fans of classic studio comedies, Tracy and Hepburn, or of movies that serve as time capsules highlighting outdated values, such as In The Heat Of The Night.