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The vaults of RKO films have just begin to open, and Warner is testing the water with this legendary Katharine Hepburn acting vehicle, a midwestern critique of social manners written by the author of The Magnificent Ambersons. An early effort from director George Stevens (A Place in the Sun), it's beautifully put together, but raises a number of issues that can't be easily dismissed.
Alice Adams presents Katharine Hepburn at the height of her first star period, before her 'boxoffice poison' years, when she was considered the acting equal of Bette Davis. Under the uncommonly sensitive direction of George Stevens, the fate of the intense, complex Alice becomes an overriding concern. At this time, only William Wyler's dramas could match Stevens' for an intelligent exploration of social norms. The show might have been dated when new, as the book was already twenty years old. But Hepburn's acting and the honesty of Stevens' approach bring the inconsistencies in the story into greater relief. Alice Adams is a serious, quality picture that generates good thought for discussion: Is the story rigged? Is Alice's social situation realistic? And is her deceitful behavior a sign of worthy ambition, or the desperation of a 'pushy' climber?
On a story level, Alice Adams presents a very interesting situation. Her mother appears to have driven her poor father into his sickbed with demands that he somehow become wealthy overnight, so as to enable Alice to compete socially with her snooty friends. Dad is a simple fellow, and well-protected by his paternalistic, friendly boss Mr. Lamb (Charley Grapewin), but Mom insists that he start a company to compete with his old employer. Brother Walter also works at Lamb's pharmaceutical company, and has taken an opposite turn, rejecting the rich 'swells' and hanging out with the in-town subclass: gamblers & musicians, many of whom are blacks.
Alice is invited to a swank party attended by debutantes wearing new gowns, who arrive in fancy cars; once there, she desperately clings to her brother so as not to be pegged a wallflower. It's an unnecessary concern because her 'friends' snub her on the basis of her two-year-old dress ('Crinoline, hmph') and she becomes an invisible presence. She feigns having a good time, sits with the matrons and mothers, and is asked to dance only by other social rejects like Frank Dowling (Grady Sutton, later comedy relief for W.C. Fields).
Alice is all good intentions. She's uncommonly sensitive and understanding of her family's strengths and weaknesses. She's clearly intelligent too. But when she gets the miracle she hoped for, the attention of a handsome, wealthy suitor, she bases her relationship with him on dishonesty. Going beyond mild role-playing meant to enhance her charm and appeal, she pretends that her family's modest circumstances are out of choice instead of necessity, and puts on airs of sophistication. Matters come to a head at a disastrous dinner, which plays like a painfully real Laurel & Hardy short subject (director Stevens photographed dozens of them). The food is miserable, Dad's manners are rough, and it's obvious that she's hired a servant only for the evening. Alice's evasions and illusions crumble.
It's all excellently played, but, even when seen from a perspective of 67 years, the story setup is questionable, as if Booth Tarkington's original was fumbled in adaptation. Something's not right here.
The film's attitude toward blacks is often the first thing criticized, when it's the most accurate aspect of the story. Alice refers to them as darkies, something her brother is 'studying so as to write about', in her evasive fantasies. There's clearly a lively black subculture in town, and Walter's association with it is seen as socially negative. Hattie McDaniel's insolent hired cook/maid is the focus of PC whining, but she's probably exactly what these people would get, trying to create pretenses. McDaniel chews gum, and her demeaning costume wilts in the evening heat, adding to the miserable failure of the dinner.
Alice's slight to the blacks is probably a vestige of the book's original political scheme. Seeking to rise socially, the heroine shows her condescension for a 'lower class', thus placing her as part of a whole system of discrimination, instead of a victim. The film bends over backwards to avoid the kind of social statements associated with Booth Tarkington's writing. Alice aspires to join the social elite, which lives in mansions like millionaires. Mom claims that the rich set were all once people just like them, contemporaries who somehow rose in wealth and stature, while the Adams'es suffered because of Dad's lack of ambition. This seems false from the get-go, as chemist Dad was always an employee of a kind not expected to start out on his own. The rich Palmers appear to be landed gentry, who either always had money, or made it all in the stock boom of the 20s. In the one domestic scene we see at the Palmers, they've either always acted like aristocracy, or have learned to put on airs in a short time. Assuming the story originally took place before the stock crash of '29, this all makes sense. So does the Palmers' offhand dismissal of the Adams'es as cheap pretenders. Their gossip that Alice is 'pushy' and her father an ungrateful thief is hateful and ugly, but not completely untrue.
Alice aspires to join the leisure-loving rich set, the kind of people most Americans only saw driving by in their big cars, or on a movie screen. Her ambition is to better herself, nothing else. We aren't given enough information about Alice to put together a full picture. In the vacuum of the movie, the only alternative to the swanky parties is tossing dice with the servants in the cloakroom. Doesn't she have any acquaintances who aren't rich? Does nobody go to college? Even in the 30's, a smart girl like her would be encouraged to at least try for a scholarship. 1 For Alice, making it with this particular social set is a do-or-die gambit. The only conclusion to be gotten is not that Alice is in a bind, but that she has blinded herself to all but her narrow social goal, an interpretation that the movie doesn't encourage.
The 'world' of Alice Adams is incomplete. It shows a pre-depression America, where prosperous, benevolent employers are able to keep disabled men on salary. Mr. Lamb drops by for informal visits. Even though he belongs to the world of the Palmers, we can't see him returning to a mansion of his own at night. The film accepts all its particulars as givens, without social criticism. The Palmers are guilty only of bad manners, and Dad's irreconcilable problem with Lamb can be fixed as a simple communication problem.
Finally, there's Arthur Russell (classy, fresh-faced Fred MacMurray), Alice's beau. He's a total fantasy, rich, handsome, thoughtful and sensitive, and attracted to Alice for all the right reasons. Already the steady of the gracious Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable), on the screen Arthur makes no sense whatsoever. He's keenly aware of Alice's evasions and lies, yet acts as if they just add to her charm. As their relationship never gets beyond superficial niceties, we wonder why Arthur is hanging around at all. He's not fed up with high society, as he's clearly disturbed by the Adams'es tawdry behavior at the dinner. He doesn't object to the Palmers' verbal attack on the social upstarts, either. As portrayed in the film, he's little more than an extension of Alice's desires. There's no real romantic love in Alice Adams, only desperation and material need. It's the story of a bright girl, in the thrall of the shallow values of her time.
The script (and Hepburn's acting) avoid these contradictions as best they can. Her eventual breakdown when she sends Arthur away is powerful, and the writing does a good job of retaining our sympathy for Alice when she so bravely defends her family and shows her love for her father.
(big, big spoiler)
A docu extra for the DVD acknowledges that the ending of Alice Adams was greatly altered from the book. There Alice apparently learns her lesson, sending Arthur away and grimly enrolling in a trade school, to take some lowly secretarial job, a humbling defeat. This would be more of the A Place in the Sun kind of show that attracted George Stevens later in his career. I can see the original book keeping Alice's beau as a vague unknown (what does she really ever know about him?), but we still wonder what he sees in her, why exactly he hangs around. The obvious reason is that he's looking for an easy sexual conquest outside his social set, before settling down with the 'worthy' Mildred Palmer. A cynical outlook isn't required to arrive at that idea. Is the scene where Alice fixes her Dad's problems with just one emotional speech, also a movie invention? It's surely what we want to see, but it's also very unlikely that Mr. Lamb would so conveniently agree that he'd erred by not exploiting Dad's formula earlier. And what about brother Walter's theft from the firm? Did he really steal the money 'for a friend', or was it originally for himself - for gambling debts, maybe? The film leaves a lot resolved, and its happy ending, while emotionally pleasing, is false.
It's probably too much to ask for perfection, but Alice Adams must have been greatly oversimplified in its adaptation to the screen. Its main interest remains Hepburn's performance, which is surely one of her best. She makes the story inconsistencies almost irrelevant.
George Stevens films always have interesting casting in small parts. Charley Grapewin, a staple in minor John Ford roles, shines here. If Frank Albertson seems familiar, it's because he later played George Bailey's industrialist friend Sam Wainwright in It's a Wonderful Life. Silent light-comedian Jonathan Hale is the stuffy Palmer patriarch, and snooty Hedda Hopper his insufferable wife. Evelyn Venable was a cool beauty (Death Takes a Holiday) who became a respected UCLA professor. Hattie McDaniel's maid for hire is actually a progressive role, if one interprets her slovernly behavior of as contempt for the Adams'es instead of thoughtless racism. According to the IMDB, Walter Brennan's scenes were cut from the show. Did he perhaps play a racketeer to whom Alice's brother owned money?
Warner's DVD of Alice Adams is a beautiful, flawless presentation. Either by lack of interest or preservation problems, few films of this vintage (before a major film stock advance around 1936-37) sparkle on video. The studio either had perfect materials, or invested a lot of good effort restoring this title. The visuals and audio are very, very attractive.
The extras show ambition as well, with a text essay on the film and an excerpt about the film from the docu George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey that include interview material with Katherine Hepburn in the early 1980s.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Alice Adams rates:
Movie: Very good
Supplements: text essay, docu excerpt
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: December 28, 2002
1. admittedly, in the depression, educational aid was hard to come by, usually through merit scholarships from schools themselves. If Alice wanted to improve the 'class' of people she associated with, college would have broadened her horizons, showing her more meaningful life goals. But Alice Adams seems to ignore the depression, taking place in a Tarkington's 1920s world, that just happens to have 1930s automobiles.