Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review

Cecil B. DeMille takes another stab at the domestic comedy– this time with cavemen thrown in for good measure. The tale concerns married couple on the shady side of thirty. Their union seems doomed when the wife starts stepping out with an exiled aristocrat. The couple’s teenage daughter, a modern maiden, has other ideas and she intends to save her save the marriage at any cost– all while romancing a stuffy paleontologist.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

You are an inexcusable, impertinent product of Movies– Woman Suffrage– and the War!

Adam’s Rib, if it is mentioned at all, is dismissed as Cecil B. DeMille’s late stab at the marital comedy genre, a trend that went out with a whimper. The critics of his day were certainly unkind, damning by faint praise. (Sniff, one of DeMille’s, sniff, better films, if you know what I mean. Sniff.)

But it has been over ninety years since this film was released. Has time been gentle to Adam’s Rib?

Will a good time be had by all?
Will a good time be had by all?

I was very happy to be reviewing this movie. I mean, I must have been a very good little blogger because look at the lovely present 1923 gave me! Milton Sills and Elliott Dexter (squeal!) plus a few building blocks of Bringing Up Baby. And there is even a pre-stardom William Boyd lurking in the background. Oh, Mr. DeMille, you shouldn’t have!

The unhappy married couple of this tale are Michael and Marian Ramsay (Milton Sills and Anna Q. Nilsson). He is a commodities trader who eats, drinks and breathes work. She is a socialite who dreams of a grand romance. Neither of them seem to notice their daughter, Tillie (Pauline Garon).

Don't ask me what she sees in him.
Don’t ask me what she sees in him.

Marian has set her cap at Jaromir (Theodore Kosloff), a deposed king from a tiny eastern European country. It seems that his subjects got tired of him and threw him out. I know the feeling.

Tillie, meanwhile, is in hot pursuit of Professor Nathan Reade (Elliott Dexter), a socially awkward paleontologist who would rather spend time with dinosaur bones than a real, live girl.

He is, presumably, trying to locate the intercostal clavicle.
He is, presumably, trying to locate the intercostal clavicle.

A stuffy paleontologist is happily perched on a scaffolding with his dinosaur skeletons, only to be harassed by an affluent, zany young lady who will not take “no” for an answer? There’s even a scene where she tells him how good looking he is without his glasses! Hmm, now what does this remind us of?

The Bringing Up Baby parallels are unmistakable. (Baby director Howard Hawks was a propman for DeMille’s unit in 1919 and eventually worked his way up to title writer for 1925’s The Road to Yesterday.) You cannot tell me this is a coincidence. Oh, and I guess now is a good time to mention that Adam’s Rib (1923) has nothing whatsoever in common with Adam’s Rib (1949) directed by George Cukor.

Tillie tries to comfort her dad but we all know that deadly look. Jaromir is toast.
Tillie tries to comfort her dad but we all know that deadly look. Jaromir is toast.

Ramsay discovers that his wife is carrying on with Jaromir and he is enraged. Wouldn’t you be? It’s bad enough to have one’s wife be unfaithful but must she carry on with such a twerp? To make matters worse, Jaromir and Marian both flaunt the semi-affair. However, Ramsay discovers a way to get rid of Jaromir. It seems that his old country of Morania has a wheat surplus and no cash. Hmm… What is a commodities trader to do?

Tillie also discovers the affair and declares that she will flirt with Jaromir herself to keep him away from her mother. Marian is unimpressed and continues in her hot pursuit of romance.

He has a cunning plan.
He has a cunning plan.

Ramsay goes through with his plan to get rid of his rival by forcing him back on the throne of Morania. He offers to buy the country’s wheat surplus with cold, hard coin and all they have to do is agree to be ruled by Jaromir the immature man-child. Oh my! This makes United Fruit Company’s banana republics seem tame. (You should really read The Fish That Ate the Whale, an intriguing account of the banana republics. It seems Ramsay did.)

Then the Professor gets upset because he thinks Tillie is stepping out with Jaromir. She explains herself with an elaborate caveman flashback. The entire principal cast reprises their roles in prehistoric form. So Milton Sills and Anna Q. Nilsson are cave-parents and Pauline Garon is their cave-daughter. Elliott Dexter is the cave-nerd and Theodore Kosloff is the cave-twerp. The whole thing ends with Elliott murdering Pauline and Theodore, after which Milton clubs Anna to death.

Oh dear.

Oh dear indeed.
Oh dear indeed.

I mean, seriously, what kind of sick kid is Tillie? Openly fantasizing about her father murdering her mother in cave-person form? However, this is good enough for the Professor and he proposes to Tillie on the spot.

By now, things have gotten pretty serious. Marian has decided to leave her husband for Jaromir and, thanks to some very moody lighting, she accidentally confessed same to her spouse. Ramsay kicks his plan into overdrive, using his house and personal fortune to buy up that wheat.

Jaromir, Marian, Tillie and the Professor are all terribly confused.
Jaromir, Marian, Tillie and the Professor are all terribly confused.

Will Ramsay’s plan work? Or will Marian change her husband? And will the Professor ever learn to appreciate the thoroughly modern Tillie?

Adam’s Rib is one of DeMille’s more elaborate marital comedies and, while it is not as good as Why Change Your Wife, it is still a fun little confection. The movie looks fantastic and even has a few shots of DeMille’s older, moodier style of filmmaking, specifically his so-called Rembrandt lighting.

Stylish!
Stylish!

The plot is goofy in the extreme (screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson specialized in goofy) and it sinks into a Victorian muddle near the end but the first two-thirds and the final couple scenes of the film are a blast.

A big part of the enjoyment is due to the efforts of the cast.

DeMille had been eager to work with Milton Sills for some time. He was not overly fond of Thomas Meighan as a leading man (DeMille considered him to be something of a diva) and had wanted Sills to play the husband in Why Change Your Wife but was overruled by Paramount. Adam’s Rib was the first and last time they worked together. At a time when most actors were tied to their studios, Sills was the rare freelancer who maintained his star status (which made him a bit hard to pin down) but he finally settled down at First National in 1924.

Just wait 'til you see him in "The Sea Hawk"
Just wait ’til you see him in “The Sea Hawk”

Elliott Dexter had already been the leading man in several DeMille films. He and Wallace Reid traded off being DeMille’s go-to featured male star in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s. This was their final film together. Dexter’s health had been declining and his last credited film appearance was as the male lead in 1925 Universal remake of Stella Maris.

Elliott Dexter is back in the saddle!
Elliott Dexter is back in the saddle!

The two leading men represent opposite ways of dealing with the campiness of the material. Milton Sills throws himself in, selling it like he has never sold anything before. (I’m sure the former college professor never thought he would be battling Theodore Kosloff for Anna Q. Nilsson–using a Kewpie doll as a proxy!)

Okay, Jaromir, hand over the Kewpie doll and no one gets hurt.
Okay, Jaromir, hand over the Kewpie doll and no one gets hurt.

Sills spends much of the film looking ready to tear someone in half (specifically Mr. Kosloff) and I think he could do it too (he attempts it at one point). I mean, seriously, he glares, glowers and grimaces more than he did in The Sea Hawk. And in that film, you will recall, he was betrayed, dumped, outlawed, and made a galley slave!

William Boyd sighting!
William Boyd sighting!

Elliott Dexter, on the other hand, embraces the kitsch with a grin and a wink. Admittedly, his character is the zanier of the two but Dexter gives his performance that extra nudge. I must say I am always impressed by his versatility. Compare his brutish physical dominance in A Romance of the Redwoods with his slob-to-suave transformation in Don’t Change Your Husband with his henpecked sweetie in Castles for Two… he never plays the same part twice! It’s easy to see why DeMille used him when he could.

Elliott Dexter as a cave-nerd with Julia Faye’s cave-gossip.
Elliott Dexter as a cave-nerd with Julia Faye’s cave-gossip.

(On a side note, all online biographies list Dexter’s birth year as 1870. According to census records, he was actually born in 1879. I always thought he looked young for his age. How did this mistake happen? Well, it is pure conjecture on my part but mightn’t the 9 have been confused with a 0 in a sloppily written document? Or perhaps the typist pressed one key over 9->0 and no one ever noticed.)

Theodore Kosloff was another DeMille favorite and does he ever camp it up in this film! A bit too much, as a matter of fact. The camping up must be done properly, it can’t verge into goofiness. Well, Kosloff verges. Badly. Seriously, I wanted to hit him. I mean, Anna Q. Nilsson must be really desperate if she wants to trade in this:

Without the cigar, he would be perfect
Without the cigar, he would be perfect

for this:

That’s Jaromir on the left. He has just walked into Ramsay’s fist.
That’s Jaromir on the left. He has just walked into Ramsay’s fist.

What’s wrong with you, woman?

That being said, I have always really liked Nilsson as an actress. She had been a star since the early 1910’s and was subtle at a time when that was not particularly prized. While her looks were her ticket into the movies, it was her enormous talent that kept her there. In this film, she plays her part with an ever-so-slight wink, letting us know that she understands how to handle hokum.

Garon outclassed
Garon outclassed

Pauline Garon tries her best but she is thoroughly outclassed by the veteran hams of the cast. Colleen Moore wrote that Milton Sills was an infamous upstager, that is, he would contrive ways to turn his co-stars’ backs to the camera. You gotta watch the smart ones… (I highly recommend reading her memoirs, by the way.) Between Sills, Dexter and Nilsson, the poor girl never had a prayer. It would have taken a charismatic talent like Colleen Moore or Clara Bow to make this flapper win the day.

Oh for heaven’s sake, Milton!
Oh for heaven’s sake, Milton!

The climax of the film is actually what stops it from being a classic. You see, Ramsay gets his way and Jaromir will be shipped back to be king. (I figure with him on the throne it will be six months, a year tops, before the government is overthrown by Bolsheviks.) The Professor shows up too because the plot says he has to be there. What neither man knows is that Marian is hiding in the apartment– as is Tillie, who was trying to talk her mother out of her folly.

Ramsay and the Professor are in intense competition to see who can be more obnoxiously Victorian.
Ramsay and the Professor are in intense competition to see who can be more obnoxiously Victorian.

Ramsay discovers a monogrammed doodad with his wife’s initials (Note to movie people: Stop buying monogrammed doodads.) and realizes she must be there. But MR can stand for Matilda Ramsay as well as Marian Ramsay. Tillie shows herself and takes the blame. Marian has conveniently fainted, meaning she cannot do the motherly thing and save her daughter. At this revelation, Mighty Milton gets all weepy because his baby girl has been soiled and will never marry a respectable man. I expected more from the leading man of Miss Lulu Bett!

This is baloney because a) she was in Jaromir’s apartment with a few dozen of his advisors, hardly conducive to hanky-panky, b) Ramsay had just moved heaven and earth to get his unfaithful wife back, so the “soiled” label doesn’t seem to be particularly sticking.

Seriously? Seriously?!?!?!
Attending cabinet meetings at 2 in the afternoon, eh? Harlot!

Then the Professor decides he should get all Victorian and offers to marry Tillie to save her reputation. Oh good grief! This is 1923, not 1823. And it is so ridiculously obvious that Tillie is innocent! I mean, just ask those dozens of advisors. And there would be no reason for Jaromir to go along with the deception as he had already agreed to return to his country and marry a European princess. In fact, if mother and daughter had simply shown themselves together, Ramsay would have had his suspicions but no real trouble would come of it.

We are most displeased.
We are most displeased.

After the shotgun wedding, Tillie thinks that the Professor believes in her innocence but he refuses her embraces. He thinks she is guilty, he just wanted to save her from the consequences of her folly. Her folly of visiting an apartment in broad daylight filled with European cabinet ministers. Then he departs to lead a team of explorers into Honduras. I feel bad for Tillie but she did know that the Professor was a stuffy Victorian when she started chasing him. But then he also knew he was romancing a flapper. In any case, Tillie is able to get her man back without resorting to another gory flashback. That’s good because I think one trip into her twisted little mind is enough.

Awwwww!
Awwwww!

What is really frustrating is that the movie gets really cute once Ramsay and Marian patch up their differences and fall back in love. Marian confesses that she was the one in Jaromir’s well-populated apartment and, in a callback to the prehistoric scene, offers to let Ramsay shoot her. His reaction? Don’t be absurd. One of the funniest scenes in the film.

Seeing Milton Sills and Anna Q. Nilsson act like giggly newlyweds really makes me wish that the movie had focused more on their happy life together and less on the Jaromir intrusion.

Fur was out that season
Fur was out that season

Adam’s Rib was something of a financial disappointment. It made back its budget but when you factor in marketing costs, it just broke even. Several external factors have been blamed over the years. The public’s taste for lavish bedroom comedies had waned somewhat and the Scopes Monkey Trial made the caveman flashback even more out of step.

You want my opinion? I think at least a little bit of blame goes to Buster Keaton.His Three Ages was a spoof of epic excess
and historical flashbacks (it specifically skewered D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance). It featured a prehistoric sequence and it premiered the same day as Adam’s Rib. Movies did not have wide national openings in those days but I can imagine that the promotional material featuring Buster in goofy caveman garb was… unhelpful.

Not even Milton Sills can pull this one off.
Not even Milton Sills can pull this one off.

I know Buster wasn’t out to destroy this film but I do think that Adam’s Rib suffered from a badly timed release. I mean, given the choice between seeing Buster Keaton as a zany caveman and Milton Sills as a zany caveman… Well, I’m still taking Milton (do you know how hard his films are to find?) but it would be a hard decision.

While it is no masterpiece, Adam’s Rib is endlessly entertaining. The powerful trio of Milton Sills, Elliott Dexter and Anna Q. Nilsson elevates the hokum and DeMille seems to be having fun with the look and feel of the picture. Howard Hawks fans should enjoy the Bringing Up Baby elements and everyone else can just relax and enjoy the ride.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½

Where can I see it?

Adam’s Rib has been released on DVD by Grapevine Video.

2 Replies to “Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Well, I’m very confused. But I’m always up for a BRINGING UP BABY type movie, even if Hepburn isn’t in it. But I have no patience for men with Freudian/Victorian patriarchal complexes. Bores the brains out of me.

    1. Yes, the climax is one of the most justifiably scorned in silent cinema. And things had been going so well!

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