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.
We sympathize with Alice through this period of suffering because, despite her outward pretentiousness, snobbery, and silliness, her vulnerability—the eager, expectant look in her eyes—shines through. We realize that her pride demands this show of bravado, which reveals how she thinks a society girl enjoying herself at a party would act. At last, giving up all hope of a partner, Alice is going to sit with the old chaperones when she is rescued by the tall dark stranger, whom Mildred introduces to her as Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). Here is Prince Charming, but Alice, thinking Mildred has asked him to dance with her out of pity, is for once silent and natural. After the dance, she asks Russell to find Walter for her so she can go home.
The next day Alice meets Russell again just as she has worked up enough nerve to enter a business college to seek a secretarial job. Having rescued her from a horrible fate—one that would have put any chance of social advancement entirely out of her reach—Russell proceeds to tell her he has been thinking about her and wants to see more of her. Alice immediately assumes her airs and mannerisms, talking incessantly, giving little trills of laughter, fabricating a social background similar to those of the other girls of his acquaintance, and guarding herself against gossip by telling him she is not very popular with men because she shows them she is bored by them.
Russell is anxious to visit and further his acquaintance, but Alice, who is ashamed of her family's shabby house, refuses to let him come inside. Indeed, their entire courtship is conducted on the front porch of the house or at restaurants. Finally, Mrs. Adams practically forces Alice to invite Russell to dinner. Up to this point Alice's strategy has been masterly. She has already warned him against listening to gossip about herself or her family and has used her father's illness as an excuse for always entertaining him outside and not going to dinners and dances to which, unknown to Russell, she has not been invited. As she tells him, with more truth than he knows, she would not dare to be merely herself with him.
Meanwhile, her mother's constant nagging has worn her father down, and despite many misgivings, he has mortgaged the house to start his own glue factory. Virgil Adams feels it is like stealing to take a glue formula developed on company time to start his own business. He likes and trusts his paternalistic employer, J. A. Lamb (for whom he has worked for twenty-five years), and does not want to anger him. But under his wife's relentless hammering he makes the break and rents an old warehouse for his factory. On the evening of the ill-fated dinner he is worried because there has been no response to this action from Lamb, who is not a man to let someone else get the best of him.
In order to do the dinner in style, her mother hires a black maid and cook, Malena (Hattie McDaniel), for the evening. Although it is a hot, humid night, the meal is heavy and elaborate, beginning with caviar sandwiches and hot soup. The slow-moving, gum-chewing Malena, with her maid's cap askew, inelegantly removes plates and thrusts serving trays under people's noses. Everything that can go wrong, does. Virgil Adams' shirtfront keeps popping open, and when he wants more water, he cannot remember the maid's name. The smell of Brussels sprouts pervades the little house, and Russell is obviously ill-at-east as he mops his sweaty neck. Alice chatters brightly, trying to retrieve what she knows is a disaster, but Russell is politely unresponsive. When she offers a penny for his thoughts, he replies uncomfortably that he hasn't any. She takes him outside, "where we belong," and indicates her understanding of his feelings by telling him she knows it is over, that he will not be coming to see her again. After all, when "everything's spoiled you can't do anything but run away," she tells him.
If Alice's romance has reached a crisis point on this hot, humid evening, so have the affairs of her father. Walter tells him he has embezzled one hundred and fifty dollars from Lamb's firm and could be sent to jail. Lamb himself pays a visit and informs Adams he is starting a glue factory of his own, which will mean ruin for Adams. Though Alice's hopes may have been destroyed, she is determined to save her father's dreams if she can. In an emotional scene she persuades Lamb that it is the fault of her and her mother that her father defected. After her plea Lamb agrees to work something out to save both her father and her brother.
The film continues in this fairy-tale manner as Alice goes back out onto the porch to find Russell still there. She will keep her Prince Charming and have a happy ending. When Russell tells her he loves her, her response is the most natural and unaffected thing she says in the whole film—"Gee Whiz!"
Although Alice Adams makes some trenchant comments on middle-class society, particularly in the dance and dinner scenes, and although the argu¬ments between Mr. and Mrs. Adams are sharply realized and almost painful to watch, the film is not wholly successful as social commentary, primarily because of the unrealistic happy ending which was tacked on by the scriptwriters. In the Booth Tarkington novel on which the film was based, Russell leaves and does not return, and Alice actually does climb the stairs to the business college to get a job. It is doubtful, however, that the moviegoing public of the 1930's would have accepted such a downbeat ending (or so the studio believed). Even Tarkington thought the novel's ending would have to be changed before it could be filmed.
Aside from the ending, the film is a perfectly realized portrait of an intelligent, socially ambitious young woman, struggling to find a foothold in a society that has left her and her family behind. At a time when a woman's only socially acceptable career was marriage, Alice looked upon a job as the last resort, and as one which would spell the end of her social aspirations.
The role is sensitively played by a luminous, tremulous Katharine Hepburn. Although Alice's mannerisms and snobbishness are tiresome, we nevertheless become emotionally involved with her and sympathize with her. This is due in no small measure to Hepburn's skill at letting the essential loneliness and vulnerability of the heroine shine through her artificial society manners. It is one of Hepburn's most memorable performances of the 1930's. The rest of the cast lends excellent support, particularly Fred Stone and Ann Shoemaker as Alice's parents, and Hattie McDaniel in a bit part as the hapless Malena. Fred MacMurray is not required to do much except look handsome and romantic, but he is certainly credible as the Prince Charming of a young woman's dreams. All in all, the film is a touching, sometimes realistic, some¬times romantic portrait of small-town life.