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November Family Portraits: Alice Adams (1935)

As the holidays approach and we spend more time with our families, sharing meals, remembering the good old days, or squabbling, we will examine films from the classic era which depict these complex, formative relationships. Today Adam and Samantha discuss Alice Adams.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Katharine Hepburn stars as Alice Adams, a poor girl whose loose acquaintance with wealthy society types leaves her on the outside looking in and wishing she could secure her spot among them. There isn't much chance for her considering her father is an out-of-work factory employee and her brother is a ne'er-do-well with no interest in making friends with rich snobs. Her mother does her best to aid her. Fred MacMurray plays wealthy Arthur Russell, and is exactly as he was later in life, pleasant, somewhat stiff, but sporting a youthfully trim physique that looks great in a suit; we can understand why he is such a catch. His relaxed manner is no-doubt appealing to the high-strung Alice who scrutinizes everyone's motives and behaviors in order to respond properly. It is when she is open and honest with Arthur that she is most successful, and she is incredibly likeable to the audience because she is realistic about her social position and her chances for marrying into the upper class.

ADAM WILLIAMS: The agony that inflicts the Adams family is laid bare when Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker) scolds her infirm husband Virgil (Fred Stone), telling him that he has “fallen behind in the race.”

SG: Alice Adams is a screen adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel. The studio tacked on a happy ending, which feels ingenuine and disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. Until then, the story is a poignant examination of the social structures in a small town and a time capsule for the era.

There are several standout scenes. In one, brother Walter (Frank Albertson) dutifully escorts Alice to a society dance where she is largely ignored and shuffled into corners where she can wilt, hoping someone will willingly ask her to dance. Walter embarrasses her by daring to be friendly with the black musicians and by enjoying himself in a back room by gambling. The other is an expertly-crafted cringe-comedy dinner party scene featuring Hattie McDaniel as a hired maid who indifferently chomps her gum and serves dinner as sloppily as she can without being immediately sacked. The day is so hot, everyone politely nibbles at their several courses while sweat drips from their brows. It is clear that director George Stevens came from a comedy background, shooting and directing comedies for Hal Roach.

AW: There is a lot of momentum leading up to that dinner scene. The film draws Arthur Russell progressively further into the Adams home with each act. The first act brings him to the sidewalk outside the humble abode, the “foolish little house where I live,” as Alice casually dismisses it. The second act has Russell belatedly show up on the front porch—Alice keeps him outside with the excuse that her father needs quiet. The dinner scene—from preparing the meal to the evening’s close—runs a full half an hour and bridges the second and third acts of the film. It’s here that Russell crosses the threshold and gets a full view of the Adams home. Alice and her mother desperately attempt to rise above their social rank. Hattie McDaniel steals the show while barely uttering a word. This painfully awkward scene touches on all five senses. The pungent taste of caviar—that staple food of well-to-do parties. The heat of the stuffy, pre-air-conditioning home. The steam from the sweetbreads à la crème. The sulfurous odor of overcooked brussels sprouts. Alice’s endless stream of cringe-worthy bon mots. Her attempt to sound like the smart set ends up sounding equally uninformed and condescending with utterances like, “I’m afraid you’re not a real gourmet, daddy. That’s a French word. It means epicure.”

SG: Have you ever had sweetbreads?

AW: No, I have not. Nor have I had a chilled aspic. Alice would certainly consider me a pleb.

SG: I never have either. These days, most places have air conditioning. I certainly don't tailor my meals to the seasons. But I remember growing up without air conditioning and having deli sandwiches or grilled foods or quickly-prepared dinners that didn't require the oven to be on very long in the summer.

AW: As a person who wilts at any temperature above 72 degrees, I found the discomfort in this scene palpable.

The character Alice Adams is deceitful, materialistic, insecure, and overbearing. That she still manages to tug on the heartstrings is a testament to Hepburn’s ability. It’s a remarkable high-wire act; one moment she’s haughty and pretentious, the next she’s quietly reflective. During the restaurant scene, she vaguely ruminates about being “sadly happy,” how even in moments of contentedness she has a sense of foreboding. These moments obliterate any question as to how someone of a higher caste like Arthur would fall for poor Alice.

ALICE: Our summer evenings will be over before that, Arthur Russell. ARTHUR: Why? ALICE: Oh, good heavens. Almost a proposal in a single word.

SG: This deftly written scene is degraded slightly in the choice of an abrupt transition to close-up, assumedly to showcase Hepburn's acting in an important scene. Instead of being dramatic, it feels awkward and forced.

AW: It is undoubtedly a showcase for Hepburn, but that entire scene worked for me. Besides the distinctive line readings, I was also impressed with her physicality. I’m thinking particularly of the way she curls up on the porch swing with feline grace.

There are a few names in the credits that deserve highlighting. As a general rule, I prefer movies where Grady Sutton makes an appearance over those that are Sutton-less. To that point, George Stevens directed Grady in 21 shorts and features, so almost by default I’m a fan of the director.

The other names that should be highlighted are the Art Directors, Van Nest Polglase and Perry Ferguson. A 1936 New York Times profile on Polglase, “Meet the Set Designer,” outlines the importance of this job. “They influence mood and tempo and provide unconscious drama; they are the most subtle, even sinister, workers in Hollywood, for if their endeavors are apparent to the customers they have failed.” The advent of home video and its ease of pausing and reviewing movies has made the background details far easier to appreciate. Polglase and his associates demonstrated their ability to conjure up luxurious, dream-like sets in the Astaire and Rogers movies, but a more grounded film like Alice Adams shows that their attention to detail was equally applied to recreating a lived-in lower-middle class Midwestern home, complete with worn chairs and exposed lamp cords. I’ve included a photo illustrating the art direction on two separate breakfast scenes: the humble Adams home versus the opulent Palmer household.

SG: I love the Adams home. Those built-in shelves and decorative spindles on the front staircase are beautiful, as is that stained glass lamp on the front room table. This film was released August 23, 1935. There was a silent version starring Florence Vidor released in 1923, which I would love to see.

AW: In 1950, Variety reported that Judy Garland was doing a musical remake of Alice Adams for RKO. Obviously, this never came to fruition but it’s an interesting project to ponder.

SG: Photoplay called the film a, "superbly acted, perfectly directed, exquisitely written screen masterpiece... To miss it is to miss greatness."

According to Motion Picture Daily, this movie did very well in Portland and Minneapolis.

I award this movie 3 stars. It could have been four had the studio not copped out of the more appropriate ending from the novel.

AW: A proper ending is so rare in Hollywood that I can overlook that fault. The script, direction, acting, and art design are excellent. The plight of the Adams family is emotionally wrenching in a complex, often humorous, way. There was a letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s movie critic, Mae Tinee, complaining that the audience “…laughed and snickered […] little realizing that the sardonic humor, and the stinging stabs were aimed at smug persons like themselves.” I wonder if this person misread the audience reaction. I was snickering too, but it was out of discomfort. I agree that George Steven’s background with unassuming two-reeler comedies informed his work here on this important A-lister based on a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Embarrassment by proxy—a staple of comedy shorts—is the dynamism underpinning the drama. I was riveted to this movie: four stars, without hesitation.

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