Alice Adams (1935)
Alice Adams (1935) is RKO's touching, effectively poignant portrayal of small-town, mid-Western American pretenses in the early 1900s. The film's screenplay (by Dorothy Yost and Mortimer Offner) was based on Jane Murfin's adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1921 prize-winning novel of the same name about a girl in a mid-sized Indiana city. It contains a wonderful and mature performance by Katharine Hepburn, probably her best work in the 1930s, as a social-climbing, vulnerable young woman stigmatized by her family's lower-class origins and lack of ambition, who sees a respectable marriage to a wealthy man as her only means to be fulfilled and find happiness. This film was made earlier in 1923 during the silent era with Florence Vidor.
This film was the first major directing success of George Stevens and it was responsible for inaugurating his career. He was better known for later films, such as: Swing Time (1936), Gunga Din (1939), Penny Serenade (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), Woman of the Year (1942) (his third and final film with Hepburn), The More the Merrier (1943), I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and Giant (1956). The film was nominated for two Academy Awards and lost both: Outstanding Production (or Best Picture) and Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn, her second nomination) - Hepburn lost to Bette Davis nominated for her role in Dangerous (1935).The Story
In the opening scene, a banner is displayed above a small Midwestern town in Indiana, heralding: 75th JUBILEE YEAR - SOUTH RENFORD, The Town With a Future. The camera moves from the newspaper storefront's sign: "SOUTH RENFORD NEWS, Circulation 5000" to the right, panning past other signs: Vogue Smart Shop and Samuels 5-10-15 cents Store. It moves downward to the street level to reveal one of the department store's customers furtively and nervously emerging and following a large black matron escorting two children - the slim, self-conscious young title heroine Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) doesn't wish to be observed in the cheap store. She wears a dark, neatly-trimmed dress, with a hat and veil.
Down the street in front of the Vogue Smart Shop, she poses there and admires a cheap, plastic egg-shaped compact kit that she has just purchased in the dime store. In the upper-class Nashio Florist shop, she inquires about a corsage for the elegant, exclusive Palmer Party, all the while straining to impress the clerk: "Something nice to wear to the party." With frustrated hopes and ambitions, she pretends that she is in the small town's wealthy social circle, using an affected accent and assuming an attitude. Since orchid, gardenia, and violet corsages are considerably above her affordable price range (at $5/, $6.50 or $2/apiece), she feigns dis-satisfaction and leaves:
When one goes to a lot of parties, it's so difficult to find something new and original, something no one else would think of wearing...I should have come in earlier when you had a better selection but I-I have so many engagements. Well, I hardly see anything that will do.
In a nearby park, she picks "186" violets and makes her own corsage - even though it is prohibited by a "DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS" sign. With this one fluid scene, it illustrates how Alice is a naive, energetic, fiercely determined, imaginative, and impoverished young girl who is painfully shamed by her social status, while projecting hopefully-optimistic mannerisms that she is prosperous. When she bursts through the front door (screen right) of her modest home, the drab, shabby accommodations of her family are revealed.
Her father Virgil Adams (Fred Stone) is recuperating and bed-ridden from a long illness. He is cared for by her mother Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker), who bitterly disdains her drawling husband's low-paying clerical job with the wholesale drug firm of Lamb and Co. - a twenty-five year long occupation she believes impoverishes all of them and endangers Alice's chances:
No, I'm not doin' any hintin', Virgil, but of course when you get well, you can't go back to that old hole again...Look at your daughter. She's going to a big party tonight. And she's got to wear a dress that's two years old. How do you expect her to get anywhere?
In reality, Alice has a modest, middle-class upbringing and poor family without, in her opinion, proper social graces, but she is supportive of her father's self-pitying plight and sympathetic to the affliction brought on him by her status-conscious mother. She sticks her head into his bedroom door, and makes a mock-sour face to inspire him to smile: "Poor old Daddykins." As she approaches his bed, she takes his hand tenderly:
Aw! Every time he's better, someone talks him into getting mad and he has a relapse. It's a shame...You're not a failure, Daddy. You're not. I'm gonna talk to Mother.
In the family's kitchen while she arranges her violets, Alice cheerfully proposes treating her father with self-respect:
Alice: Don't you think you and I are both a little selfish trying to make poor old Dad go out and get something better? After all, we've got enough, really.
Mother: Enough? I suppose you've got a limousine to take you to the dance tonight. I suppose you've only got to call the florist and order up some orchids.
Alice: Not orchids, mother, violets. The first of the season, picked fresh today.
Mother: I suppose you picked yourself a new dress, too.
Alice: You know, I don't think anyone will recognize that organdy [cotton fabric] with the new flounces [ruffled trim] on it.
The door slams, announcing the arrival of her rude, insensitively-cruel brother Walter (Frank Albertson) - he is expected to escort Alice to the Palmer Party, but he is reluctant to be associated with the socially-prominent: "I'm no society snake. I'm as liable to go to that Palmer dance as I am to eat a couple barrels of broken glass...Aw, let her get somebody else to take her. She ought to at least be able to get one fella I should think. She tries hard enough." After heart-felt begging, Alice's mother cajoles her grumbling son Walter into taking Alice to the Palmer party, although she later blamefully tells her husband:
And it's a shame for a girl as pretty as Alice is to have to depend on her brother takin' her out when she could have any man in town if she only had some money to buy some decent clothes...She's not run after the way the other girls are because she's poor and hasn't any background.
While primping at the front hall mirror, Alice voices her adolescent, fairy-tale romance expectations: "I hope I'll meet someone tall and dark and romantic, someone I've dreamed of all my life." But the reality is more down-to-earth. Her mother insists that she drape her father's old raincoat over her shoulders. And Walter drives her in a broken-down jalopy with wobbly wheels that he borrowed from a friend. Alice is embarrassed and dismayed by its condition: "Gee Whiz, I can't go in...!" She demands that he park the eye-sore car ("this awful mess") down the street outside the Palmer mansion gates. Outside the front door, she explains to the butler, unnecessarily, their arrival on foot: "A joke on us. Our car broke down outside the gate."
The camera is positioned inside the Palmer house as the door is opened for them into the fancy, exclusive party scene. After hurriedly entering, she speaks out of the side of her mouth to her brother to hide her father's coat: "Walter! Your coat back there." Her brother brusquely tells her: "Relax, nobody's lookin' at ya!" She runs over to the receiving line, aggressively fingering the wealthy young Mildred Palmer's (Evelyn Venable) pearl necklace while gushing: "That's what I thought you were going to do, but you look simply darling in those..." The snobbish parents merely tolerate Alice and her brother before speeding them through the reception line.
After sharing an accustomed first dance with her brother, she exaggeratedly and loudly compliments him to make an impression, play-acting: "It's wonderful and a mystery as where you ever learned to do it...why, everybody's having a lovely time...Why, you naughty old Walter! Aren't you ashamed to be such a wonderful dancer and then only dance with little me? You could go on the stage if you wanted to. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have everyone clapping their hands and shouting 'Hurrah!, Hurrah for Walter Adams!'...You know you'd like it. Just think. Everybody shouting 'Hurrah! Hurrah!'"
Walter regards the pretentious, high-society company of the Palmers in the reception line as "frozen-faced": "They passed you on like you had something catching." She is mortified and turns away when he greets the black orchestra leader as a friend: "Hi ya, Sam!" Alice doesn't really belong, and her pathetic efforts to appear chic are ruined by her brother's vulgarities. He rejects her idea that he dance with other guests, with plans of his own to ditch her as soon as possible:
I'm as liable to dance with those sticks as I am to buy a bucket of rusty tacks and eat 'em. What a bunch! As soon as I get rid of you, I'm goin' back to that little room where I left my hat and coat and smoke myself to death.
When Alice coquettishly looks toward a would-be dancing partner, he approaches, but ignores her and proceeds to ask a girl behind her to dance. The white-gowned young woman awkwardly plays with the hand-picked bouquet of wilting violets in her hand, acting excessively nervous as she is ignored and passed over. She overhears the loud, snide conversation of two passing girls commenting on her outdated gown: "Organdy. Perhaps we're wrong." Nonetheless, Alice puts on a smiling face, pretending that she is enjoying herself. Looking like the proverbial wallflower, she is rescued by a request to dance from overweight, boring and unpopular Frank Dowling (Grady Sutton), but he is clumsy, awkward, and out-of-step on the dance floor. She suggests "sitting out" the next dance with him in the hallway, where she deliberately drops her dead bouquet under her chair and kicks it away. She first glimpses her "Prince Charming," the rich, handsome and unpretentious Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), "some sort of cousin to the Palmer family," as he is greeted by Mildred at the front door. According to Frank, "they say he's got wads of money. He and Mildred are supposed to be engaged...Well, if they're not, they soon will be." When Mildred and Arthur walk by, Alice feigns amusement to appear happy, silly and amused. To her horror, Arthur notices her bedraggled bouquet and delivers it to her with a smile.
A tiny, vulnerable figure in the distance, Alice is left alone in the hallway, as she watches a roomful of couples dancing beyond her. She fidgets and grows agitated, slightly hurt and bravely pretending to be oblivious to her isolation. She saunters back and forth, acting as she imagines society girls would be. She hides her crumpled bouquet in a large planter vase, and daintily powders her nose. Expectantly, she claims that one of the vacant chairs is being held for her non-existent partner. Walter has retreated to a back room where he is throwing dice with the black cloakroom attendants. Then to her utter amazement and shock, as she sits next to old-lady chaperones in an adjoining room, Mildred introduces her to Arthur Russell: "He wants to ask you for this dance." Struck by the thought that she is being asked to dance out of pity, she is silent and paralyzed. She accepts the invitation: "Oh, yes indeed," and is taken in his arms. She effortlessly melts into him and dances gracefully during a waltz, explaining why she is not very talkative:
Alice: When anyone dances as beautifully as you do, conversation's hardly necessary, is it?
Arthur: That depends upon who's talking.
Alice: (When the dance ends) I guess that's all.
Arthur: I wish we could dance the next one together, but I guess we're both all booked up.
When she learns from him that her "disappearing" brother has been playing dice in the cloak room, her hopes of respectability are dashed and she asks to be taken home by Walter. Forlorn and despairing, she returns to her bedroom. In a beautifully-photographed scene from the outside, she sobs at her window. Rain falls on the panes of glass as she weeps.