Alice Adams (1935) Director: George Stevens
After several disappointing flops, Alice Adams rejuvenated Katharine Hepburn’s Hollywood career from its glory with such hits as Morning Glory. It is based on the 1921 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington (winner of the Pulitzer in 1922). I decided to watch this film in conjunction with reading the novel as I make my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners.
It tells the story of Alice Adams, the daughter of a glue factory worker in a provincial Indiana town (Tarkington frequently wrote novels about his Midwest home of Indianapolis). She is insecure about her family’s class-status and dreams of becoming a lady. Thus she and her mother constantly push their father to make more money. Alice attends a ball one evening with many of the well-to-do families where, after much alone-time off the dance floor, she meets a gentleman who expresses interest in her. She is embarrassed, however, when he finds her brother playing games with the servants in a backroom. She continues to play a facade of wealth and grandeur as he gently courts her throughout the film, until the Adams family hosts him for dinner one hot evening at their humble house. Alice is routinely embarrassed by her family’s actions and the dinner erupts in chaos when they find out her brother stole $150 from the glue factory for a friend. Her father’s career is nearly ruined until it is saved at the last moment by Alice. At this point Hepburn wanted the film to end, to leave the question of her relationship ambiguous to the audience, however RKO decided a happy ending was necessary to prevent suicide at the box office.
RKO was known to tamper with film endings, most notoriously in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, another film based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Booth Tarkington. Alice Adams was nominated for two Academy Awards, but lost both. The Director, George Stevens, would go on to create several later Hollywood successes, including Swing Time, Gunga Din, and Shane, among others.
The sad yearning of Alice Adams, a simple Midwestern girl with aristocratic dreams, is beautifully captured by Katharine Hepburn. Previously, Hepburn was known for portraying strong and confident characters, so Alice Adams, in her innocent naivette, was a departure and it is amusing to watch a Bryn Mawr woman portray a blue-collar girl. However, the film is nothing without Hepburn, and appropriately the film injected new life into Hepburn’s career from this point forward. Alice Adams is a delightfully simple film full of hope as well as nostalgia for simpler times. Scenes of note include the sadness of Alice as she sits alone at the dance, the warm evening on the porch of her family’s home, and her walks around town as she runs into her gentleman-lover unexpectedly. It is always amusing seeing the ways in which American upper-crust patrician actors and writers (Katharine Hepburn and Booth Tarkington) portray the blue collar workers of the nation.