Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our series on films released in 1935, the first full year in which Hollywood studios were forced to adhere to the Production Code, which became official in the summer of 1934. The pictures we’ll be looking at are not connected by performers, but rather by their common bond to the censoring of creativity. So far we have covered The Goose And The Gander, Dangerous, No More Ladies, and Star Of Midnight. Today we’re looking at Alice Adams.
Alice Adams (1935)
A small-town girl with social ambitions falls in love with a local playboy.
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Evelyn Venable, Ann Shoemaker, and Hattie McDaniel. Screenplay by Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, and Jane Murfin. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. Directed by George Stevens.
I’d venture to say that, of all the films we’ve yet covered from 1935, Alice Adams is the closest thing to earn the ranks of the elusive classic that we’ve implicitly been seeking. (Stay tuned though — there may be another!) Certainly, if you’re a Hepburn fan, this film is an absolute essential — especially since the actress would later cite Alice as one of her best and favorite roles. Bette Davis seems to have concurred, for she later told the press that the Academy Award she won this year for Dangerous really belonged to Hepburn for Alice Adams. But what I like best about this film (besides Katie Hepburn) is this:
In the small town of South Renford, Alice Adams, the pretty daughter of Virgil Adams, an invalid clerk, is escorted by her brother Walter to an elegant party that is being hosted by Mildred Palmer, a local debutante. Dressed in a two-year-old gown and carrying a bouquet of wilted violets, Alice, who dreams of social acceptance, is snubbed by the Palmers and their guests until Arthur Russell, Mildred’s cousin, asks her to dance. Although entranced by the handsome Arthur, Alice shyly refuses a second dance and asks him to find Walter, who is playing dice with the servants in the cloak room. A humiliated Alice returns home and, after a brave smile for her mother, cries bitterly in her room. Later, however, Alice runs into Arthur in town and walks with him to her house. Embarrassed by the house’s shabby appearance, Alice discourages an eager Arthur from coming inside but agrees to receive him for an evening visit. After two nights of anxious waiting, Alice finally finds Arthur at her door and chats with him on the porch. As Alice’s mother listens by the window, Arthur showers Alice with sincere compliments and asks her to a party that the daughter of Virgil’s employer, J. A. Lamb, is planning. Furious that Alice was not invited by the Lambs, Mrs. Adams later rails against Virgil for his lack of career ambition, which she contends has ruined Alice’s chances at “catching” Arthur.
Overwhelmed by his wife’s arguments, Virgil gives in and, backed by a formula for glue that he had invented years before while working for Lamb, opens his own glue works. Arthur, meanwhile, continues to romance Alice and happily accepts an invitation to a family dinner. Just before the dinner, Arthur hears from Mildred’s father that Lamb has accused Virgil of stealing the glue formula and is planning to open a rival factory. In spite of a surly maid, bad food and her father’s social awkwardness, Alice maintains an overly cheerful facade for Arthur throughout the “formal” dinner. When Walter, who has been caught stealing from Lamb’s company, shows up, however, the evening falls apart, and Alice says goodbye to Arthur, sure that she will never see him again. Lamb then arrives and accuses Virgil of stealing the glue formula. After Virgil yells at his former boss that he is a “mean man,” Alice takes Lamb aside and explains to him that her father opened the factory only to help her. Touched by Alice’s words, Lamb offers to join Virgil in his venture, and hostilities are put aside. Alice then steps out on the porch and finds Arthur waiting for her with open, loving arms. (This summary brought to you by TCM.)
Yes, I like the plot. It’s simple — no pomp and circumstance. You find so little of that in films that star the A+ celebrities — Garbo, Crawford, Davis, Hepburn. It’s wonderfully refreshing and, dare I say it, incredibly human. The conflict of the film rests on the family’s collective desire to be better than — or at least considered better than — they financially are. The mother (Shoemaker) verbally attacks the father (Stone) for their lot in life, the father tries to improve his family’s condition by conducting some potentially shady business, and little Alice Adams tries hard to put up a front for her new rich beau, Fred MacMurray. But before we discuss him and the film’s few flaws, let’s highlight more of the strengths. As I said above, this isn’t a flashy film — in fact, it’s a rather slow picture that allows itself to play naturally over the 90 minutes it is allotted. Films of this pace often seem to take on a lethargic quality, but I’m happy to report that Alice Adams, mostly because of its star and its vested human appeal, never drags and hardly slacks.
And of course there’s Miss Hepburn, who would later say that this picture and this director (Stevens) did so much for her career — allowing for a portrayal that for the first time, had a vulnerability to match her drive. There are no strings attached to this performance — it’s genuine. Naturally, this is Kate Hepburn, so we’re not talking about any average actress. But her unique style works quite effectively, and she takes each beat as its own and plays them all without pretense. She’s victorious in this film — from the very beginning to the very end.
Now’s as good a time as any to talk about the few flaws. Yes, I’m afraid it’s MacMurray. Well, rather, it’s his role. He is the epitome of charm here, and I actually think he and Hepburn have a unique and memorable chemistry. The problem is his role lacks distinction — there’s no dimensionality. It seems he’s more a plot point than a developed character. Now, because the film is primarily concerned with the Adams family, I’m not altogether bothered by his character comparatively falling short in the realization department, but unfortunately, it weakens our understanding and ability to rationalize the attractions that the two share. Why does she like him — and more importantly — why does he like her? This glitch is most glaring in the ending, when they miraculously reunite. Though I was pleased to see a reconciliation, it almost didn’t seem appropriate. (How great it would have been for him to walk away like she insisted he would! In fact, that’s how both the book and the original cut had things, but it was scrapped in favor of a happy ending.) Again, I like him and I even like the ending, but some more meat to his role would have made this film more faceted and made the ending more logical.
Maltin calls the dinner scene — in which the Adams have MacMurray over for dinner — as one of the cinema’s most unforgettable sequences. It certainly is the HIGHEST point in the film, as everything the family has been struggling to pretend they are collides with the romance that has bloomed between Alice and Arthur. I think MVP goes to Hattie McDaniel (incorrectly billed as “McDaniels” here), a gum-chewing attitude-heavy maid and cook that the Adams hire for the dinner. Though she adds humor, the sequence is particularly successful because it’s so appropriately painful to watch. The scenes that follow are also superb — Alice’s realization that it won’t be other people, but her own self that drives Arthur away, and then Mr. Adams’ big and powerful moment with his boss. THAT’S great cinema.
So I’d recommend this film to more than just Hepburn fans. If you like movies — human stories about real people and their foibles — check out Alice Adams. You won’t get anything explosive or shiny, but perhaps you’ll feel a thing or two before the 90 minutes are over.
Come back next Friday for another 1935 Film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!