Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ALICE ADAMS (RKO 1935) Warner Home Video

George Steven’s Alice Adams (1935) poignantly marks the misadventures of a wallflower, so desperate to fit into polite society that her antics and expectations are easily translated into an astute reflection of the struggles of youth coming of age. The film differs from the Booth Tarkington novel in several respects, most notably in its 'happily ever after' resolution that is pure Hollywood confection circa the 1930s. In the novel Alice's dreams of romance and a life of privilege end badly. Alice accepts her rejection by the upper classes with a stiff upper lip and sense of self-worth and pride rather than tears. She comes to some sort of inward acceptance that the boy of her early school girl crush, Arthur Russell, will never be hers.
While Tarkington's novel is very much a social critique of America's caste system at the turn of the 20th century the film remains a sparkling romantic melodrama that works on its own level even if it is not a faithful literary adaptation. The Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner and Jane Murfin screenplay begins in earnest with Alice (Katherine Hepburn in one of her best roles) daydreaming as she doddles along Main Street in a cloudy romantic haze. Unable to afford the luxury of a corsage, Alice picks a bouquet of violets from the park before hurrying to the less-than-fashionable middle class, mid-western home she shares with her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and ill father, Virgil (Fred Stone) whom Alice dotes on.
Alice's mother is a harsh woman in many respects, but not without a genuine tough love for her daughter. Virgil, however, encourages Alice's flights of fancy, implicitly believing that his girl can have anything she wants if she wants it badly enough. Alice’s older brother, Walter (Frank Albertson) is a scruffy pragmatist; the exact opposite of his sister. He finds the rich for whom he works all day a colossal bore and only grudgingly agrees to chaperone Alice to one of their ritzy society affairs after Alice tells him that he does not have to remain at her side for very long. A dance is being held at the home of local socialite, Mrs. Palmer (Hedda Hopper), a sort of coming out party for her rather snooty daughter, Mildred (Evelyn Venable); a slightly venomous creature who has her eye on fashionable playboy, Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).
Upon her arrival at the Palmer house Alice places herself near the front hall where guests are coming and going. But the society set do not even realize that she is there. At every turn, Alice attempts to make awkward conversation with her peers, but they are oblivious to her fragile need to fit in. This is perhaps the most finely wrought scene in the entire film, one illuminating with painful clarity Alice’s inner desperation and crippling insecurities. Walter, who has sneaked off to schmooze with the hired help, inadvertently lands himself in hot water after he is discovered by Mrs. Palmer shooting craps in the kitchen with her servants.
Meanwhile Alice has fixed her romantic sites on Arthur. Mrs. Palmer encourages Arthur to ask Alice to dance. He does so, though mostly out of cordial politeness. At first, Alice misperceives this as a gesture that he likes her. She is reawakened from this fantasy after Walter is quietly asked to leave the party, forcing Alice to realign her loyalties with her brother and go home. The evening in ruins, Alice retreats to her bedroom in shame. She lies to her father, who has waited up for her, about having a wonderful time at the party, then locks herself away to weep, augmented by Robert De Grasse's brilliant cinematography that mingles Alice’s tears with the light spatter of rain poetically falling just outside her window.
To Alice's great good fortune Arthur comes calling the next afternoon - mildly ashamed of the way he and his friends have behaved the night before. To entice Arthur to her side Alice decides to invite him to dinner, then sets about transforming the family's modest dining room into a den of culture, elegance and refinement. This last act in the film is played strictly for laughs - a rather curious, but salvageable shift in pacing and mood as Arthur arrives for dinner to find the modest home suddenly abuzz with 'piss elegance'.
In Tarkington's original novel, Arthur has come to dinner merely to be entertained by the family's modest attempts at what they misperceive to be cultural refinement. He knows that the event is being staged entirely for his benefit, including the hiring of Malena Burns (Hattie McDaniel) as their maid. These gestures the Arthur of the novel finds both idiotic and utterly laughable. However, in the film, Arthur is genuinely touched by all the effort Alice has gone to simply to impress him.
In altering Arthur's character from cad to congenial love interest, director Stevens’ deflates the point of the novel's last act where Alice comes of age and awakens from her romantic idealism. Still, the decision to fall back on the rather conventional ‘boy meets girl’ scenario doesn't really hurt the movie. In fact, as pure screwball comedy, Alice becoming horrified after learning Malena doesn’t know the first thing about waiting on table (at one point she even loses her hair doily in the soup tureen)proves an enchanting misfire where a good time is generally had by all. Believing that her chances of love with Arthur are ruined, Alice flees in tears to her front porch only to have Arthur come to her side chivalrous and doting, declaring his undying love for her.
Alice Adams comes near the end of Hepburn's first glory period in Hollywood - right before film critics turned on the actress, erroneously declaring her 'box office poison'. And, it is saying much of Hepburn's performance in this film that it eschews all of the strong-willed feminism we generally associate today with Katherine Hepburn as a screen personality. Hepburn's Alice is uncharacteristically tender and fragile, wearing her heart on her sleeve until we, as the audience, hope and pray alongside her that Arthur Russell will live up to her Prince Charming ideal. For his part, Fred MacMurray makes the most out of his then matinee idol good looks. Though he could never be confused with a swarthy or even sophisticated lady's man a la the likes of a Cary Grant or Errol Flynn, MacMurray's Arthur is an amiable young suitor that most middle-class women living in America then must have found deliciously attainable.
At 99 minutes, Alice Adams is a short slice of Americana expertly staged by director Stevens, with solid pacing and memorable vignettes that live up to our expectations for frothy wish fulfillment. Though it hardly belongs in the same class as some of Steven's later masterworks (Gunga Din, The Talk of the Town, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank), Alice Adams nevertheless illustrates sparks of brilliance that the director would later infuse into more meaningful and sustained entertainment.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is a very solid effort indeed. Sourced from restored picture elements, the B&W image is near pristine with a refined gray scale. This is a reference quality mastering effort with fine detail evident in every frame and an almost complete lack of age related artifacts. The image is exceptionally smooth throughout. The audio is mono but very nicely realized. An excised snippet from George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, as well as a brief featurette on Hepburn’s RKO career are the extras. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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