Alice Adams remains one of Katharine Hepburn’s most memorable performances and it’s the role that defined her in the 1930s. Hepburn’s characterization of the Booth Tarkington character is the one that launched a thousand Hepburn impersonations, with Kate’s memorable line ( “Really I do, really”) becoming the words used to “channel” an impression of her, though she never speaks the line quite that way; see the above capture with her actual words. It’s attributed to her like “You, you dirty rat” is for James Cagney and the “Judy Judy Judy” routine is for Cary Grant.
Hepburn is the title character, a small-town girl of humble means with aspirations to the upper class. Alice Adams is an alternately sweet, awkward, heartbreaking, and amusing film with the “Hollywood Ending” that Depression-era audiences loved. However, the plot of any film isn’t nearly as important to my viewing enjoyment as the characters and the interplay between them. I’m more interested in what the cast is doing and how they’re behaving more than I am in any intricate plot devices which are bound to disappoint anyway. One never has to worry about giving away how good a performance is as one does with keeping mum about a pivotal plot point.
It’s easy to see why this movie was such a hit for Hepburn. It shows the sweet, vulnerable side of the actress and so much of what I love about the early period of Kate’s career. Like her wonderful performance in Holiday--which I never fail to mention—she’s totally immersed in this character and while I know it’s Katharine Hepburn, I completely buy into what she puts across onscreen. She had yet to emerge into the standardized version of the Kate that emerged with The Philadelphia Story and was fully in evidence in Woman of the Year.
Hepburn as Alice is about as vulnerable a character as I’ve ever seen her play. She was twenty eight in 1935 and is portraying a socially-awkward eighteen-year-old(?) girl. Maybe I’m just a sap for All Things Hepburn but I truly bought into her being a young woman here. Alice behaves like a silly girl with a romantic view of the rich much like her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, who had a pseudo-tragic/romantic view of being an actress. Here, she’s deluded by how she envisions the wealthy.
Alice’s family finds itself in a precarious financial situation. Her father, Virgil (wonderfully played by Fred Stone), is convalescing from serious illness and even though he’s still being paid by his boss, Mr. Lamb, Virgil Adams feels he must work to earn his pay—strange concept in today’s world—and Mrs. Adams who wants Alice to have a better life, badgers Virgil into forming his own glue works company with the formula he helped create years before. Mrs. Adams feels it is their key to success. In a “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, Mrs. Adams believes that they’re long overdue in arriving to their own big time.
The audience must wonder why Alice thinks so highly of these people because in the film they are nothing but shallow, vain, and downright unlikable. I found myself despising those “frozen faced” dopes—to borrow Alice’s brother Walter’s term for them—and wondering why this sweet girl would ever want to belong to such an ugly group; it had everything to do with Alice believing that the grass was greener among the rich. Then, she meets Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). Arthur is smitten with the flighty Alice and cares not one whit about her family’s lack of means. This is what I see as the main emotional draw of this film.
The fact that Alice puts on the air of sophistication and pretends she’s something she isn’t is what makes her so endearing. She has a decent man interested in her but she can’t see that Arthur likes Alice for who she is, not who she’s pretending to be. There’s a heartbreaking feeling to this and you want to cry out to Hepburn’s Alice to just stop with the pretense. Yet when her family is in peril, Alice becomes the strength and drops the silly dreaming. She looks after her ailing father and serves to assuage the pain between her argumentative parents, who are both frustrated by their lack of success. This is what moves Alice to dream of being a wealthy sophisticate, as her real-life family lacks the financial success of their neighbors.
Nowhere in the film is this tension played up more than in the hilarious dinner scene, when poor Arthur is sweating howitzer shells as the Adams’ menu on that particularly sweltering night is to serve hot soup, brussel sprouts, and heavy roast beef and mashed potatoes! MacMurray's low-key facial expressions are hilarious as Hepburn maintains the dopey charade with a running commentary of excuses. MacMurray was perfect for this because what comes through is not his discomfort but his keeping a good face on the whole debacle. He doesn’t try to play up the comedy, as that is done to perfection by Hattie McDaniel (billed as “McDaniels”).
While the entire cast is superb, this is Hepburn’s movie and her performance is the centerpiece. Going into this I thought that Alice Adams would be a melodramatic mess but Hepburn is perfect in every way. Her emotion is genuinely moving and never over-the-top, Alice’s dopey flights of fancy and pretentious desire to be among the wealthy reveals more about the vulnerability of her fragile character than any superficial ambitions she has. Alice is likable but frustrating, as she fails to see just how someone could love her for who she is, not who she wants to be, yet we're never angry with her and we sympathize with her completely. A lovely film and a beautifully appealing performance by Katharine Hepburn--one of her best.