May 27, 2014

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


August 20, 2013

Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens.  Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.

After parting with RKO, George Stevens signed with Columbia on May 14, 1940 to produce and direct two features. Harry Cohn wooed him with a promise never to speak to him on the set, which was reportedly honored. Stevens presented Cohn with the Martha Cheavens’ short story “Penny Serenade”, which was to be published in McCalls magazine. Columbia purchased the rights for $25,000 and hired Cheavens as a script consultant. Morrie Ryskind expanded her story into a feature-length screenplay, which tracks the travails of Julie (Dunne) and Roger (Grant) Adams, a married couple at the breaking point. Julie is about to leave him when she spies a scrapbook/record album that collected the history of their love alongside the hits of the day. In a series of flashbacks set to those pop hits, Stevens traces the bloom and decay of their bond, from the meet-cute at a record store to their grieving lows of poverty and irreperable personal loss.

In The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey would play a piano on set to loosen up his actors and stir improvisational ideas. When they cooked up something funny, they would shoot and move on. Stevens was a far more deliberate worker, who Dunne described as “just the opposite” of McCarey, “very slow. But he came well prepared…we would have rehearsals on the set, and…discuss details of how a scene would be played.” He was notorious for shooting a lot of coverage and running up film costs, waiting for the moment in his head to appear in front of the camera. Stevens uses crowded compositions in Penny Serenade, life a series of obstacles Julie and Roger must traverse. Before Roger can make his marriage proposal on New Year’s Eve, he has to navigate packed rooms in which he is continually interrupted. It is only when they squeeze onto the fire escape that Julie can say yes. At their most peaceful moment, when George gets a reporting job in Japan, an earthquake levels their home as Julie is pinned by debris on the staircase.

He also deploys intricately choreographed long takes in the parenting scenes. The camera is fixed, but Grant and Dunne are in constant motion. In one slow-burn gag, Dunne is freaking out about bathing her newly adopted baby, approaching as if it were a caged lion. Grant watches with queasy anticipation next to her, and both of them fail so badly in this simple task that their assistant Applejack (the wonderful Edgar Buchanan) has to take over. The film is unique in how it undercuts traditional notions of motherhood. Dunne does not instantly become nurturing, but has to learn how to care for the child. She is as terrified of hurting the baby as Grant, who handles the kid with goggle eyed terror.

This is one of Grant’s greatest performances, for which he was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar (he lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York). Roger is a playboy crushed by the Depression, unable to provide for his wife and child. Grant has to divert his natural charisma into something darker as the film progresses, culminating in a pained monologue to a judge about to reject their adoption application. It is a plea of pure abjection, Grant bows his head and flexes his body inward, making himself looks small so his emotions seem enormous and true by comparison. It works beautifully, and as Orson Welles said of Make Way For Tomorrow, it could make a stone cry.

The Columbia publicity director at the time, Lou Smith, wrote in a private memo that “I cried three times during the showing and everyone around me was mopping up too…Instead of having actors jump off cliffs, this one will have the audience jumping off.” Penny Serenade is a traditional tearjerker, with a plot that turns on unthinkable tragedy and improbable coincidence. But Stevens, Grant and Dunne treat the material with utmost respect, etching a film of bone-deep melancholy about the terror of child-rearing and the greater horror of losing that child. By the end Stevens shoots the Adams home as a tomb, shadows creeping in on Julie and Roger. Only a miracle can save their marriage, and Penny Serenade is one of those movies that makes you want to believe.