Alice Adams – George Stevens
Alice Adams is a poignant story of a young woman’s social ambitions and romantic dreams which are almost thwarted by her family’s lack of money. The film is both a romance with a fairy-tale ending and a commentary on middle-class mores in ,a small Midwestern town in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Katharine Hepburn vividly depicts both the affectations and the vulnerability of a young woman who sees a respectable marriage as the only means to fulfillment and happiness.
The small-town milieu is quickly and indelibly established in the opening scenes, beginning with the camera moving from a sign reading “South Renford, Ind. The town with a future,” past storefront signs, until it tilts down to reveal Alice Adams emerging from a department store. She stops at a florist shop to order a corsage for the dance that evening but nothing seems to satisfy her. We realize that she cannot really afford a corsage when the next scene shows her picking violets in a park to make her own. The sequence conveys perfectly Alice’s poverty, affectation, and aspirations.
Alice’s father (Fred Stone), who is recovering from a long illness, is content with his clerical job with the wholesale drug firm of J. A. Lamb (Charley Grapewin), but her mother (Ann Shoemaker) is not. Bitterly, she tells her husband that they have been left behind in the race for money and social position and that his refusal to start his own business has endangered Alice’s chance to marry well.
Alice’s brother, Walter (Frank Albertson), is not interested in society or social position and has to be cajoled by his mother into taking Alice to the dance given by Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable), a member of a socially prominent family. Walter does not like what he calls those “frozen-faced” society people and is rude to Alice and his mother, saying that Alice should be able to, get somebody to take her since she tries so hard. Underneath his reluctance and brusque exterior, however, he does feel sorry for Alice and finally allows himself to be persuaded.
One of the most memorable sequences in the film, the Palmers’ dance interweaves the romantic fairy-tale element with sharp commentary on Alice’s pretensions and those of the rich and socially prominent people around her. Alice makes Walter park their old car on the street so she can pretend to the butler that their car has broken down. Once inside, she puts on her best society manners, simpering and giggling and talking breathlessly to Walter on inane topics when anyone can overhear their conversation. Walter is embarrassed by her play-acting but agrees to dance the first dance with her. Walter is an excellent dancer, but he mortifies Alice by greeting the black orchestra leader as an old friend.
Abandoned by Walter, who goes off to shoot dice with the cloakroom attendants, Alice, alone and uneasy, pretends desperately that she is having a good time. She is ignored by several men obviously searching for partners, and several of the women comment on her outmoded gown. She is finally rescued by fat Frank Dowling (Grady Sutton), an undesirable partner, who humiliates her by his awkwardness on the dance floor and bores her with his lack of conversation. Finally, even Frank is taken away by his mother, and Alice is alone, pretending she is waiting for a partner. Furtively, she pushes her now bedraggled homemade corsage under her chair and watches as Mildred Palmer greets a tall handsome stranger at the door. When Mildred and the stranger walk by, Alice goes into her act, posing, laughing to herself, and pretending she is having the most amusing thoughts as she waits for her partner.