(U.S., George Stevens)
Alice Adams (Katherine Hepburn) desperately longs for acceptance from and admittance to her small Indiana town’s upper crust society. She precariously hangs onto the edges pretending with all her might that she belongs, though she more often than not simply embarrasses herself when assuming airs inconsistent with her humble middle class station. Mostly due to sympathy or childhood friendship (when grownup boundaries are happily absent) some of the rich kids invite her to dances or other functions. These are moments of joy and hope for Alice: for a few brief hours she can pretend she belongs and she can fantasize about a future in which she will be saved from the horrors and shame of secretarial school. Though she clings to these hopes, the others rarely consider her anything more than at best an oddity, at worst a joke.
That she isn’t a debutante rankles her mother (Anne Shoemaker). She has long believed that if her husband (Fred Stone) had shown any initiative he could have made a fortune with a glue formula he invented. Instead Mr. Adams chose to remain a faithful employee for Mr. Lamb (Charles Grapewin), who has taken his formula and let it sit gathering dust and now Mr. Adams has taken a leave of absence because of ill health. Mrs. Adams advocates for her husband to take the formula, open his own factory and make the family’s fortune. Mr. Adams has always refused, citing ethical concerns and loyalty issues, but these heady problems are only intellectual parlor games for his wife. She wants a concrete, stable future for her daughter who, in her view, is meant for something more than a humdrum middle class (lower middle class at that) life.
But Alice loves her father too much to blame him for any of their economic or social shortcomings. After all, he’s done his part: he has worked hard and supported his family. For Alice, it isn’t his fault that he is too sick to work or that he has ethical concerns about taking the formula. Alice’s affection for her father trumps her social ambitions.
The picture opens with Alice preparing for one of the rare dances she is invited to and her mother browbeating her reluctant brother Walter (Frank Albertson) to take her rather than go out to a jazz club. At the dance, while being ignored by everyone including her brother who disappears to roll dice with the house servants, she is noticed by Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), a rich kid new to town. Arthur is intrigued by Alice’s innocent nature and much to everyone’s surprise, most of all Alice, Arthur falls for the girl. But Alice isn’t confident enough to tell Arthur the truth and spends much of the picture pretending she belongs to his world. She piles one lie on another until a disastrous family dinner.
The end of the picture is rosy, but Alice should be fated for disappointment as Booth Tarkington intended in the novel on which this movie is based. It would have been much stronger had RKO not discarded Tarkington’s end, but there is an undeniable charm to the happy ending. I think it speaks to the strength of the script, George Steven’s direction, and Katherine Hepburn’s superlative performance that the weakened end does not diminish from the movie’s worth.