Review: Alice Adams (1936)

Posted by Bennett O'Brian January 2, 2013 0 Comment 6293 views

In Alice Adams a young fresh-faced Katharine Hepburn plays, not surprisingly, Alice Adams. Alice is ashamed of her wretchedly middleclass family and her every thought and action is trained toward her ultimate goal: to marry into the upper echelon of her small Midwestern town. Alice resides in South Renford, which looks like a charming well-kept 1920s American community but is actually a viper’s nest of barbarous judgement and weapons-grade snobbery.

In the opening sequence, we see Alice surreptitiously exiting the dime store as if it were a speakeasy and later we see her picking wild flowers after she has been politely informed of the prices at the flower shop. When the young man she fancies (Arthur, played by Fred MacMurray) walks her home, Alice feels it necessary to explain that her parents can easily afford a larger house but they have too much sentimental attachment to move – which is a lie. You might think that this uphill climb to win the approval of her social peers would make Alice Adams a sympathetically vulnerable character, but somehow it doesn’t. Vulnerable, yes – sympathetic, not exactly. Instead Alice comes off as a flighty, materialistic young woman with skewed priorities and erroneous values. Half an hour into the film, I felt exhausted just from watching the sheer amount of airs being put on during Alice Adams’ Olympic decathlon of social pretense.

There are some strong moments of awkward conversation in Alice Adams where Hepburn nervously prattles on in a near stream-of-consciousness, but the filmmakers refrained from playing them for big laughs. However, there is a very memorable scene in the film that is both humorous and salient. When Alice invites Arthur to dinner at her family home, her mother hires a neighbor’s cook Malena (played by Hattie McDaniel) for the day to make it appear as though they too have a black woman as a live-in maid. Moments before the young suitor arrives, Malena falls down the cellar stairs. When Mr. Adams hears of this, rather than expressing concern for her well being, he immediately asks “Did she break any of our things?” For me the most enjoyable part of the film was McDaniel’s performance during the dinner scene when, still recovering from her fall, Malena has lost interest in maintaining the facade of subservience as she unceremoniously plonks the serving dishes on the dinner table in order to relate her displeasure with the situation.

Alice Adams was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Katharine Hepburn also received a nomination for her performance as Alice; particularly for the film’s last 10 minutes when Alice tearfully begs her father’s employer to show compassion to her family. Alice Adams is also significant in Hepburn’s career because it is the film in which she drops the word “really” a few extra times, thus becoming the primary focus for those looking to parody and imitate Hepburn’s mannerisms. The film’s director, George Stevens, would later be internationally honoured for directing seminal works such as Shane (1951), Giant (1956), A Place in the Sun (1951) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). So why haven’t you heard of this film? My estimation would be that it may have something to do with the ending. In the original Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams finally moves beyond her dreams of domestic affluence when she begins attending a business college to gain employment and earn money for her struggling family. In the RKO adaptation, the entire trajectory of the film seems to be pushing Alice away from the expectations of housewifery and towards some form of autonomy – but in the final minute, Arthur appears and says “I love you Alice” to which Alice says “Gee whiz” and they kiss.

During production there was reportedly a disagreement about this ending between the studio and the filmmakers, with Stevens and Hepburn fighting for the inclusion of the original ending from the novel. The overall effect of the abruptly happy ending in Alice Adams feels like seeing a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with infamously compromised alternative ending (where the discontented wife and mother Nora is set to leave her family behind and suddenly decides to stay – primarily for fear of upsetting the audience.) In the case of A Doll’s House and Alice Adams, contemporary societal expectations weighed heavy on the creative process and the hegemonic need to see a female protagonist clapped back into a matrimonial mold ultimately won out. Which begs the question: When the most progressive and dramatically interesting element of Tarkington’s original novel is Alice’s realignment of her priorities as she reaches out for independence, why even bother making a film adaptation that alters Alice Adams’ ending into that of a housewife who is happily beholden to her wealthy husband?

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