Aspirations to rise to better circumstances drive the title character in Alice Adams, but it's not a tale of snobbery gone wild. Rather, it's a story of a young woman desperate to be someone, someone more than she is, making her sympathetic.
Unlike her friends and acquaintances, Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) is from a poorer background. Her father Virgil (Fred Stone) could have become wealthy if he had pursued the glue formula he had developed with a fellow coworker, but he was pretty content to stay loyal to his employer J.A. Lamb (Charles Grapewyn). Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker) is loyal and loving to her family, but also distressed that Alice can't move up in the world because of their poverty.
As her circle does intermingle with the elite, Alice does attend a few parties. At one where her brother Walter (Frank Albertson) unhappily escorts her, she meets the young, wealthy and dashing Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), who may or may not be engaged to her frenemy Mildred (Evelyn Venable). While Arthur is taken by Alice and she with him, Alice is also deeply embarrassed and ashamed of her meager world compared to his.
Mrs. Adams finally gets Virgil to quit Lamb's clerk job and start his own glue works so they can move up. Alice hems and haws about Arthur: in love with him but uncertain about his feelings, let alone about how he will react to the depths of the Adams' family deprivation. After a disastrous dinner where the Adamses efforts to impress continuously go awry, both Walter and Virgil face financial ruin thanks to Walter's tricky accounting for Lamb's company and Lamb's assertion that the glue formula was his.
However, Alice stands up for her father and brother to Lamb, who has a change of heart. Arthur, despite her pleas, stays loyal to Alice and declares his love.
As I have not read Booth Tarkington's novel, I can't say how close or far Alice Adams the film stays or strays from the source material. However, here I think that the happy ending is closer to what audiences expected in a tale of love in peril.
At the heart of Alice Adams' success (film and character) is Hepburn's performance. From the moment we first see her, we know the inner conflict, her yearnings to be better. As she goes into a flower shop and sees that despite her best efforts no flower is within her price range, the excuses she creates to not buy are thinly veiled efforts to shield what she considers her shame of poverty.
We like her: her loyalty to her family, her resourcefulness, her deep longing to be not better than others but to be as good as others, or at least how she perceives them to be. "I ought to be something besides just a kind of nobody", she tells Arthur. This is Alice's unofficial motto, and says so much about her. She is not snobbish or trying to put on airs. Instead, she sees this beautiful world that is known to her but cannot fully enter it. She yearns for something better, an ambition to move forward and upward.
In Hepburn's performance you see that love both familial and romantic; when she goes to the window after failing to attract attention while sensing that Arthur, her dream man, is gone, she bursts into tears. It's a deeply moving moment that really hit the viewer.
A lot of the performances in Alice Adams were excellent. A real scene stealer is Hattie McDaniel as Melina, the maid hired to give the Adamses a touch of class. Far from being the highly skilled servant they would have like, Melina is a bit clumsy and confused. It's understandable given that she has little time to learn the lay of the land, and perhaps people will think that McDaniel was a bit of a stereotype.
I saw it through different eyes and think she subverted the cliché of the dimwitted colored maid by showing that in some things she had more sense than the Adams Family. She for example warned that the hot food they were serving was wrong for the weather. She also had wonderful bits of physical comedy, like when she all but thrusts caviar sandwiches at a startled Virgil, unaware of what this dish is. There's also physical comedy such as her struggle to open the sliding doors and a routine where her maid's cap kept slipping. It takes a lot to steal a scene from Katharine Hepburn, but McDaniel did.
Another strong performance was Albertson as Walter, who was more interested in gambling and enjoying himself than in Alice's social aspirations. While he was a reluctant participant, he too loved his sister and family despite his myriad of mistakes. Unlike Alice, he sees through the wealthy facades, constantly calling them "frozen faces".
Sadly though, Walter's character was diminished by Alice's assertion that him socializing and gambling with "coloreds" was an eccentricity versus common sense. "He tells the most wonderful darky stories, and he'll do anything to get them to talk to him," Alice offers Arthur as a reason for his association with people of color. It's a bit cringe-inducing to hear that now, but one has to accept it as a sign of the times.
I would say MacMurray is the weakest link. It does seem incredible that Arthur doesn't at least see that the Adamses are poor and not in his circle. A plot point of whether he believes Virgil stole the formula is left there, though after the disastrous dinner I think he saw they couldn't pull off such a master feat. However, I think this is early in MacMurray's career, so I cut him some slack.
One can quibble that the stolen money and Russell romance situations resolve themselves quickly, but on the whole I found Alice Adams a wonderful and moving picture. With a pitch-perfect performance by Katharine Hepburn and a sympathetic character, Alice Adams is a heroine you want to succeed. It would be nice to see this story retold, but until we get a remake, this version is one worth seeking.