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Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) is a small town girl of humble origins dreaming of a better life in George Stevens' captivating 1935 social drama, Alice Adams. With a father on medical leave from his lowly clerk job, Alice has few of the material advantages of the wealthier, socially connected girls in South Renford, Indiana. Alice's father is content with his job at local tycoon J.A. Lamb's firm, but her mother (Ann Shoemaker) is not and is continually criticizing Mr. Adams (Fred Stone) for his lack of ambition.
In a painful depiction of Alice's social exclusion, she attends a fancy gathering at wealthy friend Mildred Palmer's (Evelyn Venable) mansion with her protesting brother Walter (Frank Albertson) reluctantly acting as her date. At the party, Alice is repeatedly shunned by the girls, who smile limply at her or make cutting remarks about her dress, and by the boys who will not deign to ask her for a dance. Perpetually optimistic, but clearly hurt by the treatment, Alice sits in her out-of-date dress and wilted violets stolen from the town park's flower bed, waiting for some acknowledgment from her peers. Hepburn makes Alice's efforts to fit in with the richer crowd genuinely painful to watch as she is snubbed by not only her peers, but their parents.
When the kind, charming, new man in town Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) picks up her discarded nosegay of violets, Alice has her first taste of genuine romance. After the couple dance at the ball, Alice falls hard for the rich, attentive Russell. A chance meeting in town leads to a flirtation and the promise of more romance despite Russell's engagement to Mildred Palmer.
Prodded by her mother, Alice makes the disastrous decision of inviting Russell to dinner on the hottest night of the summer where the family pretends to be wealthy but their crude manners, a gum-chewing rented maid (Hattie McDaniel) and every conceivable disaster threaten to ruin the evening.
Though McDaniel's role as the ornery maid is a typically racist Hollywood vision of a work-shirking, rude "domestic," the actress once answered her critics, who asked why she played such roles, "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one!"
The ending of Booth Tarkington's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was hopelessly gloomy, with Russell deserting Alice soon after witnessing her uncouth family and hearing of her brother's having stolen from his employer. King Vidor's 1923 version of the film retained that downbeat ending. But in the midst of the Depression, Hollywood was not likely to make such a mistake, and, as Tarkington himself suspected from prior experiences with the movie industry, Alice Adams ended on a fairy tale note.
The film was a huge success with audiences. It garnered Hepburn her second Oscar nomination (after 1933's Morning Glory), though she lost to Bette Davis in Dangerous. The New York World-Telegram said of the star "Miss Hepburn gives a performance that is superb - a performance that captures all the loneliness and heartache of the character." The New York Times said "Alice is as striking and sensitive a performance as any she has given."
Alice Adams was also the first major film for 30-year-old director Stevens, who took what might have been an ordinary melodrama about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks yearning for acceptance, and made it into riveting, compelling social commentary. Stevens expertly conveys the cruelty and claustrophobia of small-town American life, where some families made fortunes and others, like the Adams, merely eked out a living.
In her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life (Random House), Hepburn recalled working with Stevens: "He had done a number of Wheeler and Woolsey comedies and I felt that Alice Adams could benefit by being directed by someone with a good sense of humor. Otherwise it might be a bit heavy sledding.....We talked. I had the feeling that he was fascinated by the book. I had somehow decided that the well-known directors who were interested in the job were mainly fascinated in working with me rather than being fascinated by the subject matter." But Hepburn soon discovered the reverse was true. "George told me later that at the time he had not read the book and that his great dream had been to work with me. Actually, he was so busy finishing the movie he was shooting that he wasn't able to read ours until after the first meeting with Pandro [Berman, a producer] and me." Despite his lack of preparation for their first meeting, Hepburn found Stevens "a really brilliant director" but they did have a major fight over one scene; it was when Alice retreats to her room in tears and watches the rain outside her window. Hepburn got so cold filming the sequence she had trouble generating real tears. When she bitterly complained, Stevens was barely able to contain his rage. In the end, though, Hepburn delivered exactly what he wanted. Weeks later, she recalled, "He told me that he had damn near walked off the picture" over that scene. Despite that altercation, Hepburn said, "George and I remained good friends. I did only two other pictures with Stevens: Quality Street , no good, and Woman of the Year , my first with Spencer Tracy - big hit. I learned a lot from him."
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Dorothy Yost and Mortimer Offner based on the novel by Booth Tarkington
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Production Design: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams), Fred MacMurray (Arthur Russell), Fred Stone (Mr. Adams), Evelyn Venable (Mildred Palmer), Frank Albertson (Walter Adams), Ann Shoemaker (Mrs. Adams), Charley Grapewin (Mr. Lamb), Grady Sutton (Frank Dowling).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster