“Alice Adams,” based on Booth Tarkington's 1921 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, is remarkable for its social realism in depicting life on the other side of the tracks. Its eponymous heroine (Katharine Hepburn) is a feisty, individualistic adolescent of the lower-middle class, determined to better her position in life.
Alice lives in South Renford, Indiana, which, celebrating its 75th Jubilee Year, is described as “The Town with a Future.” The town's size, projected through the circulation of its local newspaper, is about 5000. Its class divisions are established right away when the camera pans along Main Street, dwelling on “Vogue,” an elegant store, then crosses to “Samuels, a 5-l0-15 cents store.” Alice shops at “Samuels.”
Alice's black-and-white dress makes her look different than anybody else's. She also talks differently. Stopping at the florist, she asks for something nice to wear to a party. “The Palmer party, I suppose,” says the florist, indicating that it's the social event in town. Upon learning that orchids cost five dollars, she says, “I wore orchids to the last party.” The price of gardenias is also beyond her reach. “Oh, no!” says Alice, “Gardenias are so…so ordinary, I want something different.” “When one goes to a lot of parties,” she explains, “it's difficult to find something new and original.” Violets, at two dollars a bunch, “wouldn't go with my gown,” she says with a little tinkling laugh, “I really should have come here earlier, when you had a better selection, but I had so many engagements.” Lacking money to buy any corsage, she picks some flowers at Belleview Park, despite a big sign warning “Don't Pick the Flowers.”
Frustrated, but maintaining an aura of fake cheerfulness, she returns to her dilapidated house, a structure of square pillars, surrounded by ragged lawn and no flowers. The gate is sagging and needs to be lifted, and inside, the lower hall is small and crowded, the wallpaper fading, and the flowered carpet worn out. Alice's father, Virgil (Fred Stone), good-hearted if childish, is recovering from illness, spending most of the time in bed. Her mother (Evelyn Venable), a once attractive woman, looks tired and let down; her face expresses discontent. She constantly bullies her husband: “When you get well, you mustn't go back to that old hole again.” But he still thinks the Lamb's “is the best wholesale drug company in the state!” “If you don't owe it to me, at least you owe it to your children,” says Mrs. Adams, urging him to make a new courageous venture. She wants him to start up a glue factory, for which he has a secret formula.
Mrs. Adams is terribly upset when Alice has to wear a dress that is two-year-old: “With such a dress, how do you expect her to get anywhere” Alice is the family's moral center, the mediator and reconciliator, understanding her mother's frustrations and her father's weaknesses. “You are not a failure,” she reassures her father, a feeling he continuously gets from his embittered wife.
Terribly embarrassed that her loutish brother, Walter (Frank Albertson) has to escort her to the Palmers' dance, she attempts to keep her dignity and pride. Walter is doing it reluctantly: “I'm no society snake. “I'm just as liable to go to that Palmer dance as I am to eat a couple of barrels of broken glass.” Besides, he believes that Alice “ought to be able to get one man,” for “she sure tries hard enough.” For her part, Mrs. Adams holds that Alice “might have any man in town if she only had money to buy decent clothes,” but she is “poor and hasn't any background.”
In the next scene, Alice is in her room, a small bedroom with inexpensive furniture of white enamel and dotted Swiss curtains and bedspread. Standing in front of a mirror, she pretends to brush off her imaginary suitors: “Just two dances–that all you may have, you naughty boys! Why don't you dance with the other girls” Alice is as snobbish as the other girls, hoping to look nice enough “not to have dance with that fat Frank Dowling.” “All I want,” she says “is for him to ask me just once, so I can treat him the way the other girls do.” Her fantasy is to meet “somebody new, who is tall and dark and romantic,” somebody she has dreamed of all her life.
They arrive at the party in Walter's T Ford roadster, a wreck with the engine already boiling. Wearing her father's old raincoat, Alice asks Walter to leave it in the men's dressing room. “Joke on us!” she tells embarrassingly the doorman, “our car broke down outside!” In a medium long shot, the dance hall reveals high ceilings and an imposing, dignified, room with fine paintings and marble vases. The contrast with Alice's house and Walter's car makes it all the more elegant. Walter thinks Mildred and her parents are “frozen-faced joints,” but for Alice they are “just dignified.”
Alice pitifully tries to attract the men's attention, but she is left alone, unattended, with people passing her right and left. She is further exposed to snotty remarks about her dress, “Oh, organdie! Nobody wears organdie for evening gowns except in mid-summer,” which makes her face fall down. Director Stevens uses effectively high-angle and long shots to accentuate Alice's isolation, an isolation that is spatial and social. This sequence also captures a most touching moment.
Concerned that someone is listening, Alice makes a fake speech of what a great dancer her brother is, shaking her bouquet of flowers in his face. But her brother is as cruel as one can be. “They passed you on,” he remarks scornfully, “like you had something catching.” Noting the pathetic withered look of her flowers, Alice freshens it by rearranging the leaves. The first invitation to dance comes, of course, from Frank Dowley, to the great disapproval of his mother. Frank is a Mama's boy (a prevalent type in such films) who resents his domineering mother. “I wish you'd understand that I can ask for my own dances,” he tells his nudging mother. “I just thought I was doing you a favor,” replies his mother, offended for being “talked to like that–by your own son–before strangers.”
In the process, Frank mashes Alice's flowers, and all she can do is drop her faded corsage, hoping no one will see it. But Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) picks it up and returns it to her. Alice fabricates the impression that she is alone temporarily, by choice. Crossing one knee over the other, she keeps the foot swinging in time to the music. Once in a while she glances up casually, biting her lower lip, giving the appearance of restraining an inward smile. “I'm just waiting for my escort to return,” she tells a young man who asks if the chairs are taken. Finally, she walks to Mrs. Dresser, to catch her breath. She desperately tries to keep up a conversation, pretending the woman is her aunt. “I'd rather talk to (older) women like you,” she tells the elegant lady, “than to girls of my own age.”
Her dancing with Arthur is all pretense and play-acting. In sharp transition, in the next scene the camera cuts to her home, with Alice telling her mother of the “lovely” time she had. She then walks to her room, buries he face in the pillow, and sobs. The camera cuts to her heartbroken mother, listening to Alice's crying.
Alice's ambition, like that of numerous adolescents in small-town films, is “to be somebody besides just a kind of nobody.” She tells her father, “I want to go on the stage, I know I can act.” Her father reminds her that both her mother and aunt Flora wanted to be actresses. “I expect ninety percent of the women are sure they'd make mighty fine actresses–if they ever got the chance.” The film thus reflects the upward mobility aspirations of many small-town girls during the Depression, all seeking glamorous careers in Hollywood, the dream factory.
Alice lives in two worlds: a dreamy world, to which she periodically escapes, and a dreary, everyday world, defined by her family. In one of her greatest screen performances, Katharine Hepburn renders beautifully the mixture of desperate existence with strong hopefulness for the future. Alice is pretentious, posing and talking in grandiloquent manner, using French words to impress Arthur.
Alice excels at what Erving Goffman has called impression-management, orchestrating a positive image while concealing disreputable and undesirable aspects of her persona. She lies about her family's status, rattling about their nonexistent wealth. Caught by Arthur in front of the business school, she pretends to be there looking for a secretary for her father. She recites (badly) scenes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, telling Arthur he ought to have seen her when she had “stage fever.” Forgetting a line, she makes it look as if she decided to stop on purpose. When Arthur compliments her dancing, she pretends not to be surprised: “I ought to dance well, when I think of my dancing teachers, all sort of fancy instructors. I suppose that's what daughters have fathers for, isn't it To throw money away on them.”
Told that Arthur is engaged to Mildred, the strong-willed Alice dismisses the information as: “He didn't seem like an engaged man to me. Anyhow–not so terribly.” Listening to Arthur talk about the “large and long dinners” at the Palmers, Alice envies him for being “in a social whirl.” “Father's illness,” she says, “has simply tied me to the house and everyone has to come here–that is, if they want to see me.” “Most people bore me,” she tells Arthur, “particularly the men in this town, and I show it.” This has made her, she believes, “a terribly unpopular character!” And continuing to fabricate, she says, “At the average party I'd a lot rather find a clever old woman and talk to her than dance with nine-tenth of these nonentities.”
More than anything else, she is concerned–actually obsessed–with people talking about her. “Didn't Mildred tell you what sort of a girl I am” she repeatedly asks Arthur. Petrified that “something will interfere” with their relationship, Alice says, “people talk about one another fearfully in this town,” but “they don't always talk the truth. They make up things.” “Wouldn't it be wonderful,” she suggests, “if two people could just keep themselves to themselves, if they could manage to be friends without people talking about them.” But Alice is right, gossip in town is rampant and it's malicious. She is described by Mildred's mother as a “too conspicuous young woman,” and “a pushing sort of girl.” Mrs. Palmer holds that “every girl who meets Mildred and tries to push the acquaintance isn't a friend of hers.” Alice regards Mildred as a role model “because she's perfect.” “We all adore her,” she tells Arthur, “she's like some big, noble, cold statue, way above the rest of us.”
“Everybody who is anybody in town has been asked to the Lamb's party,” Mrs. Adams needles her husband, “your daughter is being snubbed and picked on by every girl in town–and it's all on account of you.” The problem with Virgil is that “he had fallen behind the race;” 25 years ago, the people they knew weren't any better off. But while they have gone up the ladder, Virgil remained a clerk “down in that old hole!” Mrs. Adams fears that Alice will “dry up into a miserable old maid!” the ultimate fear of screen mothers. She's still young, “she has a chance for happiness, if she only had a father who had gumption enough to be a man.”
While the class distinctions are well-defined, the rich people in most l930s movies are benevolent. For instance, Mr. Lamb, Virgil's employer, comes to their house after Walter has stolen 150 dollars from the business. “I can see you were pushed into this thing by circumstances,” he tells Walter, “I've lived long enough to know that circumstances can beat the best of us.” He then suggests mending differences and working together again. In congruence to dominant ideology during the Depression, success is thus attributable to social circumstances and differential opportunities rather than social class or individual talent.
Katharine Hepburn received a well deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination; the winner was Betty Davis for “Dangerous.” The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael has poignantly observed that Hepburn’s affectations would make her a dislikable character if we did not feel the desperation behind them, most evident in a brilliantly staged party scene that conveys affectively what could be described as comedy of humiliation.