May 27, 2014
The careers of Katharine Hepburn and George Stevens were forever altered by the flip of a coin. Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman had acquired the rights to make a film version of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Alice Adams for RKO. In an oft-repeated, possibly apocryphal story, they had whittled their choice of directors down to two: William Wyler and George Stevens. The coin ended up in Stevens’ favor. The film would snap Hepburn’s box-office losing streak and net her a Best Actress nomination, while the heretofore unknown Stevens would become an A-list director for decades to come. The movie, which Warner Archive has re-issued on DVD, is a bittersweet portrait of a restless Middle American girl, a working class busybody who yearns to become a sophisticated debutante and is mocked for her efforts. The patrician Hepburn is cast against type as an everyday gal, and she delivers a charmingly gawky performance of a girl masking her insecurities with constant patter and twirlingly nervous fingers. Stevens keeps everything grounded in his patient, unassuming 1930s style, capturing Alice’s many humiliations and recoveries in a slow-burning rubato tempo.
Alice Adams was first made into a film in 1923, directed by Rowland V. Lee and produced by King Vidor. Pandro S. Berman brought it back in ’35, with the country still reeling from the Depression. Centering a film on a financially-strapped small-town family probably felt like good business at the time. Hepburn was eager to adapt such a prestigious book, and tried hard to connect with the material: “I particularly liked my character in Alice Adams. It reminded me of the way small-minded people treated my mother, shunning her and us children, not because they thought we weren’t good enough, but because they thought we thought that we were too good.” Hepburn certainly needed help in conveying a “common” touch, which is why she leaned towards Stevens as her director. Wyler was born in France, and Stevens had more of the small town upbringing to lend to the production. His attitude was, “I had this wonderful book, and all I had to do was not to ruin it.”
Alice Adams is forced to wear last year’s dress and wilted violets instead of fresh roses and a new gown from Paris. Her beloved father Virgil (Fred Stone) is a lifelong clerk and current invalid, with no prospects for advancement into the middle class. So Alice has little hope in attracting her upper crust crush Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), until he asks her for a dance, and becomes smitten.
Her family becomes a constant source of embarrassment, with her degenerate gambler brother Walter (Frank Albertson) shooting craps with the help, while her Dad doesn’t know how to put on a suit. The whole film spins off of these class tensions, which Stevens sets up in the opening scene. Alice is introduced exiting a five-and-dime store with a new egg-shaped compact. She quickly scoots out of the exit and settles next to the doorway of an expensive jewelry shop. It is there she stops and examines her purchase, as if it were the height of luxury. The sequence begins on store marquees, which blare, “South Renford: The Town With a Future”, as if it were a place with no future only a recent time before. If the economy is on the upswing it left the Adams family behind. Alice dreams of high society, but is formulating other means of escape from South Renford. She tells her Dad that she wants to become an actress – which he immediately laughs off. South Renford has a future, but not for women. She also holds idle thoughts of becoming a secretary, at one point climbing the stairs for a training school. But then she is waylaid by Arthur, who commences wooing.
Alice’s whole life is a performance, pretending to be a member of the upper class, adding airs to her speech and walking as if on a runway. She is, essentially, faking it until she makes it. Her affectations can be hilarious, which Stevens facilitates in the two major set-pieces in the film. The first is at a grand ball, which she forces her brother to escort her to in a rickety Model T. She has become adept at hiding her low culture signifiers, so she forces Walter to park outside, so they walk through the rain to the entrance. She walks with rubberized springs in her step, and she has a endless defenses against being alone. She lures the local nerd into a dance, and then plops herself down next to an unattended dowager as if they were close relations. All of her physical and psychological might is pressed into seeming to be happy and popular. Stevens exposes the ruse in one revealing long shot, in which she sits alone, holding her hanky over the adjoining chair, as if her beau were steps away, and not just imaginary.
The other masterful sequence occurs when Alice can no longer avoid inviting Arthur over for dinner. On a sweltering hot day, her parents organize what they believe to be a high society dinner – although their knowledge of said society expired a few decades earlier. It consists of a parade of humiliations that Larry David would cringe to include in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The menu is filled with scalding hot items, making everyone break out in the sweats. They hire a maid for the occasion (Hattie McDaniel in an early role), who could care less about the proceedings. The film repeatedly associates blacks with the lower classes. When Alice walks out of the five-and-dime at the beginning, a black family precedes her. Walter shoots dice with black servants at the ball, which is a major source of embarrassment. She even says he could write a book about the “darkies” because of it. For Alice, racism is an attitude she takes on whenever she is trying to impress Arthur, to be part of the upper echelon. In 1935 this would be a wise course to take. McDaniel, hired at the last minute, is ill-prepared for the dinner. Her character is the virulent stereotype of the lazy black laborer, but McDaniel is able to shape it into something more subversive. With her incessant gum chewing and side-eye, she’s not moving slow because she’s lazy, but that she does not give a shit about these absurd white people.
The ending of Alice Adams was a major point of contention between Stevens and Berman, but as usual, the studio won out. Stevens desired that the movie end like the book, with Alice entering business school to support her family, after her relationship with Arthur falls apart. In a memo Stevens wrote, “Finishing with Alice going to business college rounds out her character in that…she has learned to stand alone and not depend on public approval, men or social acceptance.” This would have added some steel to Alice’s character, who remains lost in a fog of her own dreams of stardom. Berman felt strongly that a romantic ending was necessary, since she is such a romantic character. That is the ending on-screen, and it is almost sadder than Stevens’ intended scenario. She has fallen in love, yes, but with her quicksilver nature how long will it last? She will remain uneducated and stuck in South Renford, without a future.