Friday, April 13, 2012

Alice Adams (1935)

RKO Pictures
Director: George Stevens
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray

Katharine Hepburn was at the top of the Hollywood world in 1933. Appearing in the successful and much loved adaptation of Little Women and along with winning an Oscar for Morning Glory, the New England born actress that willed herself into stardom was exactly where she always though she should be. Things turn quickly in Hollywood as a series of box office failures nearly deemed Hepburn poison to the movies, but here in her latest picture, Alice Adams, she would win back admired respect for her acting in a sympathetic role of a young girl of modest means wishing for much more. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, the same man that penned The Magnificent Ambersons, this story brings us a tale of a girl discovering who she wants to be and who she really is lays on two different levels.

Alice Adams is a drama about a middle class girl and her desperate attempts to appear as and fit in with the higher class of people in her town. Alice (Hepburn) is the youngest daughter of a family led by a humble father (Fred Stone) who has worked for years in the same old job as a factory clerk, never rising above. Alice wishes desperately to be of the high class, along with the girls she is acquainted with that put on fancy parties, wear fine gowns, and have all the nice things in life. Despite her embarrassment of being a “lower” class of people, Alice tries to put on the right face in front of her loving father and mother (Ann Shoemaker), while trying to fool those socialites that she is one of them. While at one of the parties Alice meets and takes a liking to the handsome young man, and cousin to one of her social rivals, Arthur (Fred MacMurray). While her family deals with financial risks and troubles, Alice attempts to win Arthur over by posing her family as one of wealthier means by hosting him to a fancy dinner, eating food they would otherwise never eat and even hiring a black house maid (Hattie McDaniel), who too is unrefined, to serve the meal. The meal is an embarrassing moment for Alice as the family manifests just how unrefined they are, but in the end the troubles smooth out and Arthur is still there for Alice.

Personally this film sends a mixed message for me. It is a picture about a girl and her family who happened to be not as rich as the people that surround them, but Hepburn’s character tries to make herself and her family into people they are not. To me, it sends the wrong message that you are not special and need to change to fit in. Here we see Alice and even her mother both wishing to be rich just to fit in with the snobby wealthy socialites that live in their town, when in fact they are happy and doing quite well for themselves. The dinner scene where Alice has her family posing as more elite people is tragic as nothing seems to go right, but in a way you, as an audience member are happy, as this is not who these people are posing as. The character of Arthur serves very much as the person that the audience most represents, wishing desperately that Alice be herself, but not wanting to humiliate her by telling her to her face in front of her family. The ending of the picture differs from the novel as Alice and Arthur end up happy together in the film. It is a very Hollywood ending that surely was made so to please Depression era audiences that perhaps needed a happier ending for this girl, then one of embarrassment and a feeling of failure and loss.

The picture is not heavily driven by the actors, with no stylizing of the mood or action in cinematography, which is a surprise due to the fact that director George Stevens was a cinematographer by trade. Stevens plays it rather simple, not that he was a creative cameraman in his past; mainly working on comedic shorts in his days before recently becoming a feature director. It is an early work for Stevens in the directing chair, a craft that he would expand on greatly in the future. Not to say Stevens was a bland director in this film, for the subject matter was rather straight forward and did not call for any added creativity, as the film is very much driven by Hepburn’s performance.

Hepburn is the main focus of the picture, carrying the title character through the emotional ride of balancing humility and the desire for being an elitist. Hepburn was a polarizing actress at times with her unique accent and style, but she does win you over as she is determined to meekly try to fit in with these people, and win the heart of the man from this crowd, but he happens to love her for herself.

The remaining cast after Hepburn was a gathering of rather no name actors of the time. Fred MacMurray was a twenty-seven year-old stage actor moving to the screen. His performance is a bit stiff at times, and two-dimensional, but he does carry a sense of care underneath his eyes that lets us know a bit of what he may be thinking as Alice fakes her lifestyle to him. Alice’s parents are played by, veteran vaudevillian Fred Stone and movie-novice Ann Shoemaker. Both Stone and Shoemaker had plenty of stage work, which allows them to transfer well to the screen, Stone with his silly, but loving father figure, and Shoemaker as the mother that many could relate to as their own.

Hattie McDaniel makes an appearance as an unrefined maid hired to serve the nice meal to impress MacMurray’s character. In a way her role makes fun of the stereotype of the black maid as McDaniel’s character does her job in a way that is careless and embarrassing to Alice. It pokes fun that just because she is a big black woman does not make her the usual maid of the house. Her role is brief, but worth taking note in the years before racial reform in American cinema.

Alice Adams would be a film that was a labor of love for young Katherine Hepburn. Since she first read the story she wished to play the role of Alice, and was overjoyed when she was handed the role. Despite her wanting of George Cukor to direct the picture, Cukor was tied up in production of the adaptation to David Copperfield. Cukor suggested on William Wyler for the job, but the studio went with Stevens instead for his ability to deliver what the studio wanted, mainly on time and under budget. The original script was written with the very happy ending of Arthur and Alice in love, a very dissimilar outcome from the novel which left the relationship unresolved. Stevens and Hepburn would discard much of the original script, rewriting it with a conclusion that left the couple up in the air, but RKO would step in and force a happy ending to the movie. This was seen as an intelligent decision considering its time, as a happy ending helped to make this a successful film in 1935 for RKO and for Hepburn who received her second Academy Award nomination for her performance. In the long run a more real life ending might have made for a more artistic conclusion, but Alice Adams stood as one of Hepburn’s most favorite roles she had ever performed in her career.

Alice Adams makes for a pleasant, little film that showcased the talents of a younger Hepburn after he first quick fall from her from success. Personally, I have mixed feeling about the story, but that is not to say it is not a good film. With a cast of small actors, the picture is a good mix of characters. We introduced to a very young Fred MacMurray as he just begins his career as a Hollywood actor. In the end it is seen as a small boost in the arm of Hepburn’s career above anything else if one is curious to watch Hepburn in her more youthful days.

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