Katharine Hepburn gives one of her finest performances in the screen version of Booth Tarkington's prize-winning novel.
After making a name on the Broadway stage in 1931's "The Warrior's Husband," Katharine Hepburn was reluctant to leave for Hollywood. RKO Pictures wooed Hepburn with a lucrative offer of $1500 a week for 1932's A Bill of Divorcement, and a film star was born. Hepburn continued to find success in Hollywood throughout the mid-'30s, including a trumpeted role in Little Women. In 1935, rookie George Stevens was assigned to direct Alice Adams after he won a coin toss over William Wyler. Adapted from Booth Tarkington's 1921 prize-winning novel, Alice Adams was a huge hit for RKO and garnered Hepburn the first of many Academy Award nominations. Alice Adams makes her DVD debut sporting an all-new digital transfer from restored picture and audio elements courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Facts of the Case
Social circles are tightly drawn in 1920s Indiana. Though lower-class Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) is invited to a formal dance among her high-class friends, she must re-fashion an old dress and pick a corsage of violets from the park. Alice simply doesn't have the money to compete with the other girls, and it shows by her lack of gentlemen callers. Alice's father is a simple man who, despite the complaints of Alice's mother, loves his low-paying job at a drug company. Alice's reluctant brother escorts her to the dance. They park their clunker around the block so no one will see. At the party, Alice is routinely ignored, despite her attempts at social interaction. Finally she catches the eye of Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), a handsome well-to-do newcomer to town, who is unaware of Alice's standing. During a slow dance, Alice indicates that she is the daughter of a wealthy businessman. When Russell discovers Alice's brother gambling in the coatroom, Alice is sure Russell will never call. The next day Alice meets Russell on the street and maintains the charade. He asks to see her often. Though they share many dates, Russell never gets past Alice's front porch. She's too ashamed to let him inside. Finally, Alice's mother insists Alice invite Russell to dinner at their house. Despite their attempts to "put on airs" (including hiring a maid for a day), their lack of wealth is apparent. Will Russell love Alice for who she is instead of who she has pretended to be?
Alice Adams is a difficult film to appreciate roughly 70 years after its original release. The film is a social satire of the 1920s, intended for audiences in the 1930s. This is somewhat akin to watching an old rerun of the 1970s TV show Happy Days, which lightly satired the '50s. Watch it now and the humor falls a little flat. It plays like a jumbled-up retro mess, as much a product of its time as the time it's trying to reproduce. Alice Adams suffers from this same phenomenon. While critic James Agee called the film "a portrait of an era—uproariously funny and perceptive," today it's difficult to see where the satire begins and ends.
In fact, I didn't realize Alice Adams was a comedy until the halfway mark because I was so depressed for Alice. This poor girl tries to fit into the upper class and is roundly humiliated. She cries herself to sleep. She protects her dysfunctional family from embarrassment. Alice carries so much shame, it is difficult to laugh at her plight. The dinner scene, which is intended to be the comic highlight of the film, plays tragic. Alice Adams also suffers from scenes of intense eye-rolling melodrama, and a preposterous sub-plot about Alice's father discovering a "secret formula" for glue. There are several scenes of bigotry in Alice Adams. Alice is horrified when her brother acknowledges the black bandleader at the dance, and again when he's caught gambling with the black coat checker. Later Alice explains to Russell that her brother "just likes the stories darkies tell." Hattie McDaniel, famous for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind, plays the bumbling maid-for-a-day. Alice Adams may inadvertently teach us more about social prejudices of the '30s than it does about the previous decade.
Alice Adams is partially redeemed through a winning performance by Katharine Hepburn. She makes Alice's plight very moving and Alice always appealing. Hepburn hit a career peak with Alice Adams before being labeled "box office poison" later in the decade. Fred MacMurray is likeable as Russell, perfecting a persona he would later bank on in endless Disney fare like The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor.
Alice Adams makes its DVD debut with an impressive new black and white digital transfer, which preserves its original aspect ratio. According to the packaging, the film's picture and audio elements were recently restored. Even so, there are some scratches and lines in the print. Black levels are solid, contrast is good, and there are few instances of edge enhancement. If every film that is almost 70 years old looked this good, I'd be a happy camper. Alice Adams is presented with a clean Dolby mono mix that, again, probably sounds better than it has any right to. Also included are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Alice Adams is light in terms of special features. The main event is a six-minute clip from the 1985 documentary "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey," which includes interviews with producer Pandro S. Berman and the reclusive Miss Hepburn herself. They primarily speak of how Stevens secured the director's chair on Alice Adams. Also included on the disc is the short essay "Katharine Hepburn: The RKO Years," which, you guessed it, details the Hepburn's time at RKO.
Though Warner Brothers must be commended for treating this film as a classic, Alice Adams doesn't quite live up to the honor. Die-hard Hepburn fans and film buffs may want to check this disc out, others needn't bother.
Alice Adams is guilty, but counting time served, will be back on the street very soon!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Excerpt from the Documentary "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey"
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