Prior to being labeled “box office poison” the mid-1930s, Katharine Hepburn’s career was looking up. And George Stevens’ 1935 romantic drama Alice Adams had become one of the most successful of her career thus far. There was a brief period after her Academy Award-winning performance in 1933’s Morning Glory where she had slightly declined in the public eye, but Alice Adams seemed to rectify that. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, the film follows a young woman as she attempts to climb up the social ladder and marry wealthy while trying to dust her lower class life under the rug.
Although I would hesitate to call the film particularly progressive, with the exception being that Alice’s older brother (Frank Albertson) associates with black people willingly (the caveat being he’s a gambler and a slacker), Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Adams pleasantly avoids being insufferable. The general concept of the film, that a poor person must hide their poverty in order to retain an image of class, was not new and will always be a trope to some degree. But there’s a certain kind of self-sufficiency in Hepburn’s acting that never comes off as selfish.
More often than not, it is her mother (Ann Shoemaker) that fixates on money as a symbol, but in a sadly nagging manner, drifting into the emasculating of Alice’s father (Fred Stone). What’s interesting about this dynamic is that Alice’s mother understand the power that money has, the influence, and the opportunities that money can give. Money is less to her a tangible thing and more a symbol of progress and wealth. But what feels bothersome is that Mrs. Adams is not actually concerned with her daughter’s opportunities, but more her own. She certain drives home the point that Alice “can’t go to the dance in a dress she’s already owned” and thus must reuse, but these seem to be more residual effects of the fact that Mrs. Adams, too, was a social climber. One feels a sense of pity for Mr. Adams, who, out of his control, had to quit his job and subsequently never took advantage of the amazing glue recipe he and his former partner had created. Mr. Adams certainly wants his daughter to have these opportunities, but is harder on himself and more pessimistic about them.
Alice feel refreshing in comparison. Juxtaposed against the two extremes of her bickering, argumentative parents, Alice’s methodology seems slightly more reserved. No less determined, but she seems to understand the subtlety involved in social climbing, and her desire to do so feels more representative of both understanding money’s power as well as more sensitive to that idea. That being said, part of what makes her character interesting is that despite this understanding, there is still a deep sense of naiveté, with Alice trying to hide and/or ignore the fact that she’s poor. Everyone must in these kinds of stories, but she does so in a childlike manner. And her understanding of wealth as symbol is maybe more childish than her mother’s, at least in how she manifests it through dialogue the natural assumption that people’s daughters shower in money, etc.).
That Alice’s romance with rich boy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) seems to bloom more organically than either she or the audience would expect is also a highlight. MacMurray’s warm screen presence is an absolutely unassuming performance. (Also, he gets really sweaty, which is funny.) He is, as all Prince Charmings must be, very understanding and very genuine. And though Arthur himself isn’t a particularly interesting character, Alice’s reaction to him makes her more interesting. There’s a careful, uncalculated oscillation that occurs as Alice falls in love with him, and when money, despite however she may be explicit in the dialogue, ceases to matter in comparison to earning his love. It is, for lack of a better word, sweet.
Alice Adams is a perfectly competent, even deftly made melodrama, and though it makes the usual narrative pivots in this kind of “almost rags to riches” story, there are interesting dynamics at play. Hepburn, bringing life to the screen as always, is wonderful and, against all odds, does not overplay her hand. Instead, she brings sweetness and nuance to a story of quiet desperation.