Women in Film Feature #1 – Alice Adams (1935)


p5209_p_v8_aaAlice Adams (1935)
Directed by: George Stevens
Written by: Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, Jane Murfin (Based on Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington)
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Ann Shoemaker, Frank Albertson, Evelyn Venable, Hattie McDaniel

Katharine Hepburn is an actress who left quite possibly the single greatest impression on Hollywood films in the entire history of women in film, only being matched quite recently by the terrific Meryl Streep.  She was an actress praised for her range, starring in dramas, romances, comedies, and everything in between, but never did she allow her male counterparts to outshine her on the screen.  Instead of portraying female characters who were weak and subservient to their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, bosses, etc., Kat typically chose strong-willed parts that better fit her more progressive views.  Any woman currently wearing jeans, khakis, or anything or the sort also has Katharine Hepburn to thank, as her fashion sense on and off the screen led to generations of her fans being influenced by her stylistic choices.  Hepburn’s career would span more than six decades, see a record four Academy Award wins, as well as another eight nominations for the award.  Hepburn’s most famous works include Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and On Golden Pond.

George Stevens’ 1935 film Alice Adams is the early project that helped to push Kat into the spotlight after suffering from a brief slump period following her first Oscar win for 1933’s Morning Glory.  The project would not only rejuvenate the career of its star, but would also serve as a launching pad for director George Stevens – who would go on to direct Hepburn again to an Academy Award nomination in Woman of the Year in 1942.  Stevens would go on to direct such acclaimed films as Gunga Din, The More the Merrier, The Talk of the Town, A Place in the Sun (for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Director), Shane, Giant (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Director), and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Alice Adams would see Katharine earn her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars, with her performance being praised for the hope, optimism, determination, and stubbornness found in her titular character who is fighting an uphill battle against the social class system so that she can impress the man she truly loves.  Alice Adams was adapted from the novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1922.  The film adaptation was praised for taking Tarkington’s biting social commentary and turning it into a loyal yet humanistic and accessible picture for all to enjoy.  Starring alongside Hepburn is a young Fred MacMurray, star of such future films as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Apartment, and the television hit sitcom My Three Sons.  Though it would take more than thirty years for star Katharine Hepburn to win her second Academy Award, Alice Adams is an important moment in her early career that could have done just as much to hinder it as it did help propel her into the mainstream.  She would star in acclaimed dramas and comedies for decades after playing the titular Alice Adams, finding a place in the hearts of moviegoers worldwide.

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Katharine Hepburn and Grady Sutton during the early dance scene in 1935’s Alice Adams.

Alice Adams tells the story of young Alice (Katharine Hepburn), the youngest member of the Adams family.  The family consists of Mr. Adams (Fred Stone), Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker), and Alice’s older brother Walter (Frank Albertson).  The family lives in poverty, and there is a great deal of tension between all members: Mrs. Adams is frustrated with her husband’s lack of ambition and with the limited potential of Alice due to their social standing, Mr. Adams is ill and being kept on salary by the factory he works at, and their son has a gambling addiction that is slowly tearing him apart.  At the beginning of the film, Alice attends a high class dance without a date, so is escorted to the event by her brother.  Once there, she is quickly taken by the handsome and wealthy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).  Russell notices young Alice as well, and is immediately charmed with her personality, despite the very clear class difference between the two.  Following the dance, Arthur begins to court Alice, who tries desperately to cover up her own social class and the poverty her family lives in.  Arthur looks the other way on each occasion, even ignoring petty town gossip about Mr. Adams.  Eventually, Alice is talked into inviting the charming Arthur Russell to dinner at the Adams residence, where the family desperately tries to act as a cohesive and wealthy unit.  Will the Adams family be able to charm the wealthy young man into making things serious with their ambitious daughter, or will the class divide between the two families prove to be too much?  Find out in George Stevens’ Oscar-nominated Alice Adams!

The idea of somebody pretending they’re of a social class above or below their own is an age-old story in the land of Hollywood, and one that seemed to work a great deal in the golden age of films.  Alice Adams tells a very familiar story and hits all of the major notes along the way, but does it with such passion and charm that it’s impossible to not recognize this as at least a noteworthy early effort from its cast and crew.  George Stevens directs the film with such a soft hand that it’s almost impossible to tell that it’s coming from the same man who shot the epic tale Giant just two decades later.  It’s intimate and personal, but never delves too deep into any of the characters or their motivations.  The restraint shown by Stevens and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse keeps things flowing smoothly, and never pauses for too long for fear of losing its audience.  The photography is soft and soaked in beautiful shadows, making it feel at times like a picture with a much higher budget.  The single best thing about Alice Adams (and probably the only reason people are still talking about it today) is the performance of a young Katharine Hepburn.  Her portrayal of Alice is strong-willed and overly-ambitious, and Hepburn’s real-life persona fits the bill perfectly.  You can feel the heartbreak and frustration felt by each member of the family when faced with the difficulties of living in poverty, most notably with Alice.  She tries her absolute best to impress a man who is technically far out of her league, arguably going much further than she ever should have dared.  She’s blinded by her love for a man she hardly knows, and can’t see that he doesn’t even care about the social difference with which she’s so obsessed with.  The harder she tries to push the issue with Arthur, the more she risks pushing this man away and out of her life forever.  Hepburn is absolutely terrific in the film, and her Academy Award nomination was well-deserved.  Fred Stone is also very good as Alice’s ill father, showing off a great deal of comedic abilities in his sympathetic (but stubborn and cowardly) supporting character.  Another standout is the very young Fred MacMurray, who was never known for his great performances.  MacMurray does just enough heavy lifting to believable as the wealthy Arthur Russell, and is incredibly charming (and dreamy) in the role.  On a minor note, it’s incredibly difficult to see the way African Americans are portrayed throughout the film, especially after my marathon on Black Directors where everybody on screen was treated equally, regardless of race or class.  It’s not something I can hold against the film because of the era it was made in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t cringe during certain (admittedly very minor) moments.

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Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) and Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) in George Stevens’ Alice Adams.

Alice Adams is an above average film made memorable by a single performance, which serves as the film’s greatest advantage.  Katharine Hepburn is terrific as the titular Alice, and there’s no wonder why the role saw her once again grow in esteem of American audiences.  Director George Stevens shows some early promise for what would be an incredible career, but never quite pulls the trigger on what could have truly been a remarkable film.  The finished product serves as a showcase for one of history’s greatest actresses, and little more.  It’s charming, funny, sweet, and sappy, but probably isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be thinking about long after the credits have rolled.  Alice Adams is recommended.

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Filed under Reviews, Women in Film

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