Alice Adams (1935)

“I don’t know why he likes me; sometimes I’m afraid he wouldn’t if he knew me.”

Alice Adams Poster

Synopsis:
A socially ambitious young woman (Katharine Hepburn) lies about her family’s status to impress her wealthy new beau (Fred MacMurray); meanwhile, her mother (Ann Shoemaker) — desperate to give Hepburn and her brother (Frank Albertson) a better chance in life — convinces Hepburn’s father (Fred Stone) to betray his loyal employer (Charley Grapewin) by starting his own business.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Katharine Hepburn had one of her greatest successes playing the young heroine of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel” about a “smart, imaginative, energetic, yet dissatisfied small-town girl” who “covets being on equal social footing with her richer acquaintances” and “is so obsessed with improving her social standing that she assumes an affected attitude whenever she leaves her house”. Peary argues that “we’d dislike [Hepburn’s Alice] except that we admire her love for and loyalty to [her family members], despite their constantly letting her down and causing her grief”; and he points out that “we understand her desperate need to escape her sad home life”. He posits that women may “like this film better than men because they can relate to Alice blowing it in public, in front of an attractive man, by trying too hard, talking too much, and smiling and laughing in an attempt to conceal… nervousness and embarrassment”, but he adds that he personally finds “it too painful to watch”.

Speaking as a female viewer, I can firmly attest that I don’t find the film any less disturbing than Peary; indeed, it’s nearly as depressing as Hepburn’s notorious downer of a debut film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). I’m ultimately most in agreement with the assessment provided by DVD Savant, who notes that Alice Adams is “beautifully put together… but raises a number of issues that can’t be easily dismissed” — most specifically the puzzling nature of MacMurray’s attraction to Hepburn. Sure, she’s pretty, but he’s supposedly engaged to his wealthy (and equally pretty) cousin — so what in the world is he doing pursuing Hepburn? We learn absolutely nothing about him — he functions purely as a projection of Hepburn’s fantasies; while it’s clear as day that she’s putting him on, he simply grins at her like a vacuous dolt. Also frustrating is the film’s tendency to shift in tone between poignant social drama and comedy; meanwhile, the utterly unrealistic denouement between Stone and Grapewin — as well as the obviously tacked-on happy ending (deviating from the original novel) — leave one feeling somewhat cheated (though Peary himself claims to “find [the ending] a relief after watching Alice suffer”).

With that said, the film has much to recommend it — beginning with Hepburn’s passionately committed, nuanced portrayal as Alice. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names Hepburn Best Actress of the Year for her work here, and it’s hard to argue with his choice. Although she’s an infuriating protagonist to sympathize with — not to mention frustratingly variable (one moment painfully awkward, the next coyly flirtatious) — Hepburn nonetheless brings her to achingly vulnerable life. Meanwhile, the supporting cast (consisting of many little-known faces) is excellent all around — most notably circus performer Fred Stone as Alice’s sad sack father; Frank Albertson as her wastrel brother (who perfectly embodies the cynical antithesis of Alice’s socially conscientious desperation); and droll Hattie McDaniel (in a “scene-stealing performance”) as Malena.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams
    Alice Adams Hepburn2
  • Fred Stone as Virgil Adams
    Alice Adams Stone
  • Frank Albertson as Walter Adams
    Alice Adams Albertson
  • Hattie McDaniel as Malena
    Alice Adams McDaniels
  • Charley Grapewin as Mr. Lamb
    Alice Adams Grapewin
  • Luminous cinematography by Robert De Grasse
    Alice Adams Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for Hepburn’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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One Response to “Alice Adams (1935)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, esp. not for Hepburn’s terrible performance.

    In Hepburn’s defense (if necessary), Alice is not, as written, an easy character to play – one would have to mine a lot of subtext in order to (maybe) make the part work. At this point in her early career, ‘subtext’ was a word Hepburn was unfamiliar with; she plays (and often overplays) the role completely on the surface and almost in a complete vacuum.

    So much so, for example, that she says things like “cahn’t” and “dahnce” – when no one else in her family talks that way; implying that Alice might be from another family (if not another planet). Hepburn isn’t merely playing Alice as affected; she had a lot of bad habits in her early films and she needed a strong director who would know what to do with her. …That wouldn’t really begin to happen until things like ‘Stage Door’ and, esp., ‘Bringing Up Baby’.

    Hepburn’s Alice is, alas, insufferable – a goddamn phony and a constant liar. Who can sympathize with her? She goes to a dance early on – and must be an idiot not to notice that hardly anyone there likes her…yet she’s determined to fit in with a crowd that keeps itself snobbishly above her. What’s wrong with her? Is she just so much of a snob herself that she can’t opt for nicer people?

    I could throttle her for her constant nervous laughter alone.

    When she says about Arthur, “I don’t know why he likes me…”…well, I believe her! Esp. later, during the dinner scene: she prattles on so in such a bizarre manner, it not only begs patience – it’s easy to think she’s a little insane. She’s *that* self-involved.

    As a result, Alice’s ‘big pay-off’ at the end makes no sense. Hepburn has not given her character any kind of arc to play. What should have been at the end of a slow transition to change comes as abruptly as a runaway train; you just can’t buy it.

    Meanwhile…nearly everyone else in the cast is giving more realistic performances. (~although, as written, Shoemaker’s Mrs. Adams appears to be the source of Alice’s neurosis and mania; which may be the point of the story but, if so, that goes unexplored.)

    I spent most of the film admiring the nuanced work of Albertson as Walter, Stone as Mr. Adams, Grady Sutton as Frank (at the dance) – and even McDaniel, giving us very welcome comic relief.

    As a film, though, this is one long haul.

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