Katharine Hepburn stars as a poor young woman trying to enter snobbish social circles to find a husband in this first major film directed by George Stevens (Woman of the Year, Gunga Din). Hepburn’s character eventually lands a doting beau (Fred MacMurray). Her problem then becomes how to disguise the fact that she comes from modest means.
I like Alice Adams because it features one of Hepburn’s most down-to-earth and relatable performances. But context is important. It’s annoying to watch Hepburn ingratiate herself to a bunch of cold-hearted socialistas, but in the time period, it was the defacto path for young women to ‘come out’, get noticed, and get married. It’s not my favorite shade of Hepburn — I prefer my Kate fierce and defiant. But Alice Adams offers us a look at Hepburn’s vulnerable side. In that context, it’s at turns comical and poignant to watch her twist herself to meet perceived expectations and fail in the trying.
The film’s memorable centerpiece sequence is a fancy dinner Alice’s mother hosts for MacMurray’s character. It’s the first time he’ll be seeing where she lives and the first time he’ll be meeting her parents. But it’s a hot summer day and the food is all very heavy. The maid they hire for the event (Gone with the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel) falls down the cellar stairs from heat exhaustion and can’t keep her cap from sliding into her face. It’s a tragi-comic nightmare through which Hepburn keeps talking and smiling, trying her best to keep MacMurray’s character from noticing the awkwardness surrounding him.
There’s a subplot involving Alice’s father and his employer, and a related one in which Alice’s mother berates her father for not asking for more money or aspiring to have a more lucrative career. Those scenes are tough to watch because you start to like Alice and her mother less for ganging up on dear old dad. MacMurray’s character is also sorely underwritten. But when the film features Hepburn trying to be something she’s not and failing miserably in the attempt, it’s a good time.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Hepburn)