Sunday, October 25, 2015

Go Ask Alice

As readers of this blog might guess, I'm a big fan of 1930s Hollywood. One film often listed as a classic from that era is Alice Adams (1935) but I don't think I can go that far.  I recently watched it again and the same problems were there that I always have.

The film is based on Booth Tarkington's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and had already been adapted into a silent feature in 1923.  Tarkington is one of those middlebrow authors highly regarded in his day, but now would be almost entirely forgotten if Hollywood hadn't based some movies on his work, especially Alice Adams, Monsieur Beaucaire and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Katharine Hepburn plays the title character.  Director George Stevens does a good job showing the desperation of Alice.  Her family isn't doing well (though only by Hollywood standards--looks to me like they've got a pretty nice house, and the father, though stuck in bed with an unnamed and not too unpleasant illness, is still receiving a salary from his former employer) but she wants very badly to be part of the social scene.  The high society people in her town, however, don't see her as much more than a pushy social climber, which isn't far from the truth.

She goes to a fancy party, dressed in last year's clothes, requiring her brother as an escort.  There she meets Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), a rich, handsome stranger from out of town.  He seems taken with her.  The question is why?

Of course, the young Hepburn is adorable, so we don't need another reason.  Except if that's a good enough reason, then why aren't all the other boys in town flocking to her.

Anyway, the couple begin an odd relationship.  In the novel it takes place over several weeks, but it's pretty much a day or two here--the magic of movies.  The question becomes, once again, what does he see in her? There's Mildred Palmer, beautiful as well, and from a good family, waiting for him.  Perhaps Russell likes things from the rough side of town, but there's no indication of that.  His character is a cipher, existing only as an object that Alice wants to win.

The trouble is everything Alice says is transparently false.  It's doubtful she says one honest line to Arthur--she's always trying to convince him her family comes from money and so on.  Why doesn't he see through her, and if he does, why doesn't he care that she can't be truthful? (It's not as if they have sex--their relationship is chaste.)

The big set piece is Arthur coming to Alice's house for dinner, where she tries to convince him how classy her family is but everything goes wrong. It probably plays well as comedy in a theatre, but when you watch it alone, it's mostly sad.  And Alice is at her worst--she comes across as a frantic, neurotic girl.  There's just nothing to entice Arthur.

And yet, at the end, even after she tells him to go, he sticks around and the two embrace.  This is not the ending Hepburn or director George Stevens wanted, but the front office demanded it. No doubt they were right, box office-wise.  Still, it makes no sense.  But even if Hepburn got her bittersweet ending, it'd still be impossible to see how her character got as far as she did with MacMurray.  Most guys would run from a girl like Alice, and they'd be well rid of her.

The film isn't helped much by George Stevens' direction. He's considered a classic, and I suppose that's fair, but so often he adds a lugubrious layer to the proceedings.  His romantic comedies of the era like Swing Time, Woman Of The Year and The More The Merrier (some call Alice Adams a romantic comedy, and maybe it is) are famous, but I've never found his work to have quite the sparkle of contemporaries like Capra or Hawks or Lubitsch or McCarey or Cukor or Preston Sturges or even La Cava.  Stevens and Hepburn shaped the material and made it their own (often going back to the original novel), but I bet any one of these directors would have turned out something a bit more lively, and perhaps brought Alice a little more down to earth.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe Stevens understood the material and did it the only way that could work.  The film was a success in its day, and is still remembered.  But just to name Hepburn movies of the era, I'd rather see Hawks' Bringing Up Baby or Cukor's The Philadelphia Story or La Cava's Stage Door.

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