Alice Adams (1935) – The Katharine Hepburn Project #2

The Katharine Hepburn Project is alive and well! You may have noticed I didn’t stick to my pledge of one-movie-per-month in June. I thought I’d do two in July to make up for it, but I’m swiftly running out of time. We’ll see if that happens. If not, August becomes the double-up month! Anyway, on to our feature.

1935-alice-adams-2

Alice Adams, the next Katharine Hepburn movie available (chronologically) on iTunes, is a portrait of a young woman who wants desperately to belong to the “in-crowd”. Sadly, she can’t because her family is poor. The film opens with her preparing for and attending a dance at a rich girl’s house. She’s purchased a powder puff she’s very proud of, and she’s added new flounces to disguise a two-year-old organdy dress. To add insult to injury, her unwilling brother is her escort. He spends most of the night playing craps in the coat closet with the staff.

Alice spends most of the time hovering in the hallway, pretending to be waiting for her escort and looking longingly at the fellows passing by, hoping desperately that someone (other than “Fat Frank Dowling”) will ask her to dance. Eventually, our hunky male lead, Mr. Arthur Russell, does just that. This is the youngest I’ve ever seen Fred MacMurray, and golly gee whillikers does he look just like Benedict Cumberbatch. I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of this movie, but it gets a thumbs-up in the eye-candy department.

This opening scene at the dance is really really long—and she actually leaves early! Thank goodness she doesn’t stay for the duration. In fact, she leaves in shame when Arthur discovers her brother gambling with the help.

So now seems like a good time to point out this film’s painfully racist moments. When Alice later runs into Arthur on the street, she makes up a story about how her brother “tells the most wonderful darkie stories”, and he only spends time with “them” to get material. The treatment of the woman they hire to serve a fancy dinner later in the film isn’t much better. And yes, those attitudes were nothing out of the ordinary in 1935, but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to watch from 2015. (Especially considering how far we haven’t come since then.) Alice Adams is hardly alone in having such uncomfortable bits–Holiday Inn (a film I manage to love) has Bing Crosby in blackface—but unlike Holiday Inn, Alice Adams doesn’t have a mostly-lovely plot and performances to even partly balance out the awfulness of such scenes.

The truth is, I don’t like Alice very much. She’s too caught up in appearing to be something she’s not. I find it off-putting. She spins lies far too easily for my taste. Perhaps if I’d seen this film when I was in high school I’d have a different view of it. In fact, I’m certain I would have. At this point in my life I’m so far beyond caring what most people think, I find it almost impossible to relate to her.

Now to focus on Kate herself for a moment, she’s the only reason I didn’t downright dislike Alice. To the character’s credit, she did have a lot of warmth and a real can-do attitude. In a lesser actor’s hands, those traits may not have shined enough to smooth out my annoyance. I think I mentioned Katharine Hepburn “glowing” as Jo in Little Women. Here, she’s positively effulgent. It’s not just the cheesecloth-close-ups that make her seem beautiful and approachable, it’s her beaming smile when she’s making someone happy.

Okay, so she’s not altogether unlikable.

Arthur sure likes her enough in the end—though he’s kind of a non-entity. He only exists to be a focus for her affection. He’s a very good-looking plot point—giving us a little bit of drama near the end when we wonder if the things he’s heard will turn him against Alice. Of course they don’t. And of course he declares he loves her. And of course I got weepy. But let’s be clear: My threshold for weepiness in old movies is very very low, so this doesn’t say much about the film.

The lack of character development is what bothered me the most. Alice doesn’t learn anything or change, she just gets what she wants in the end. Arthur is such a nothing-character, I spent the whole movie suspecting he was only spending time with her to shame her later. I never for a moment thought he actually liked her until he declared it at the end. Alice’s mother, a materialistic bully, doesn’t grow either–though at least her scheming is what brings the family low just before the denouement. I admit to feeling perverse pleasure at their downfall just because I thought she’d see how wrong she’d been. That doesn’t really pan out as explicitly as I’d like. Her father would have been one of the few likable characters if the performance was better, but I did not enjoy watching him. He was supposed to be a bit of a wet rag, but he took the wet-raggedness too far. It was as if all they needed was someone to recite the lines on the screen, with no real feeling behind them.

For all the bashing I’ve just done, I didn’t hate this film. It was a mediocre slice-of-life flick from the 30s. I’d rather watch one of those than plenty of other movies from a few decades later. I doubt I’ll watch this one again, but I’m not sorry I saw it. If you like Katharine Hepburn, it’s certainly worth watching.

About the Patron:

Erik Stadnik (@sjcaustenite on Twitter) is one of my favorite people in the world. I met him in person the same weekend I met my spouse, and I fell in love with both of them in different ways. In fact, Steven and I chose Erik to perform our wedding ceremony. He did it perfectly. He is also the intelligent, well-spoken co-host of three excellent podcasts, The Doctor Who Book Club, Doctor Who: The Writers’ Room, and The Classic Horror Cast. His always erudite and insightful blog can be found at erikandhispointlessblog.blogspot.com.

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