When actor-turned-playwright-turned screenwriter Garson Kanin and actress-scribe Ruth Gordon wrote on their own, each could come up with nifty characters, snappy palaver and a great fix to resolve or a doozy of a revelation, he with the Broadway smash “Born Yesterday” and the Hollywood memoir “Tracy and Hepburn,” she with the play “Years Ago” and the autobiography “Myself Among Others.”
But when they teamed up, Kanin and Gordon were unstoppable, garnering Academy Award nominations for original screenplay for “A Double Life” (1948), “Adam’s Rib” (1949) and “Pat and Mike” (1952). Their one other collaboration was “The Marrying Kind” (1952). Their expertise with the romantic comedy of sexual antagonism — and sexual equality in the 1940s and ’50s– remains the stuff Hollywood legend.
“For me, ‘Adam’s Rib’ is a film with an entirely unique relationship between a husband and a wife,” says Nancy Meyers, who was nominated with Charles Shyer for best screenplay for “Private Benjamin” (1980), and co-wrote with him “Irreconcilable Differences” (1984), “Baby Boom” (1987) and “Father of the Bride” (1991) among others, all of which she produced and he directed.
“It’s not a classic romantic comedy,” Meyers says of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classic. “There’s no meet-cute, no boy gets girl, boy loses girl. It’s about a husband and wife who have a loving, playful, smart-aleck relationship that gets stretched and pulled and put to the test when the wife takes her husband and his beliefs on in court. It’s original, smart writing that really examines what goes on in a relationship behind closed doors — who wears the pants and all that. It’s timeless.”
All of the Kanin-Gordon films were directed by the legendary George Cukor.
“The quality of those films was very high for several reasons,” says Emanuel Levy, author of “George Cukor: Master of Elegance,” chief film critic for Screen International and a critic for Variety. “They were highly theatrical, with punch lines, witty lines, entrances and exits.
“They were maybe the best battle-of-the-sexes movies from Hollywood. They had great contrast and balance between the male and female characters. The woman is equal to the man in them, and in the cases of ‘Adam’s Rib’ and ‘Pat and Mike,’ they were tailored by Kanin and Gordon and Cukor for the talents of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
“They have a unified collaboration of writers, director and actors in place before they ever approached Louis B. Mayer and MGM with a draft of the screenplay. They would refine the work with readings in Cukor’s home library before the studio was involved.”
The Gordon-Kanin alliance is among the few successful male-female comedy screenwriting teams, such as Meyers-Shyer as well as Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson. Their eventful marriage, which began in 1942 in New York, lasted until Gordon’s death in 1985. (Kanin married actress Marian Seldes in 1990.)
“The thing I remember most from ‘Adam’s Rib’ is the scene where Hepburn and Tracy are sitting in bed, each reading their own copy of the morning paper,” recalls Meyers. “I thought it defined the uniqueness of their marriage. They both wanted the front page first. Separate and equal.”