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Saturday, 12 May 2007

Alice Adams (1937) George Stevens

I'm watching Alice Adams on 12th May, which would have been Katharine Hepburn's 100th birthday, which she only missed by four years, and TCM's Robert Osborne talked it up substantially beforehand: it's his favourite of all her performances, which was Oscar nominated and which Bette Davis said should have won instead of her own for Dangerous; and it's also the film that put director George Stevens on the map. It's based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, the author of The Magnificent Ambersons; it's set in South Renford; and it's initially difficult to work out just what the point of it is.

Naturally Alice Adams is the heroine and is played by Katharine Hepburn. She first appears to be exactly the sort of character Kate plays best: an intelligent realist unafraid to be happy and able to see through any of her mother's bitching at her father. Then it soon becomes readily apparent that she's a addicted social climber, eager to put on all sorts of artificial airs and graces to hang out with a artificial bunch of snobs, even though she's really a complete fish out of water in every sense and has to fib her way into or out of every situation. Now I'm all for improving one's self, but only to places that would honestly count as improvements. Kate is admittedly superb but it's nigh on impossible to feel any sympathy for her character who's so real yet desperately trying to be so plastic.

The best invented stories, or in other words the biggest whoppers, are for the benefit of the young and dashing Fred MacMurray, playing Arthur Russell who's engaged to one of the snobs but somehow falls for Alice anyway. How she truly expects to get anywhere with him while telling such horrendous fibs I really don't know, but maybe in her heart of hearts she doesn't believe it'll do her any good and she can at least live in the moment. Her worst behaviour in general is reserved for her brother Walter, who is played by Frank Albertson and is happily as common as muck.

He's a little abrasive, talking like a Warner Brothers gangster, but is something of a diamond in the rough. He doesn't want to take his sister to the Palmer party that occupies much of the first half of the film, but does anyway because she's set on going and doesn't have anyone else to take her. That's pretty good behaviour given that she's the only kid who ever gets anything. Alice spends her days flitting around doing nothing except chat up someone else's fiancee, and has attention and what little money there is lavished on her, while he gets to work for a living and provide for himself.

The only person he recognises at the Palmer party is the bandleader, Skinny Sam of Skinny Sam and His Hot Shot Stooges and he spends his time, once she dismisses him, throwing dice in the cloakroom. He's hardly the real focus of the film, but he's a real person with real concerns and he's worth a hundred Alices because of it. So is Virgil Adams, Alice's father, who has worked for the same firm for decades and who both respects his boss and is respected by him in return. He's played by Fred Stone, who is as solid at keeping out of the background as Albertson.

That leaves Alice's mother, Mildred, very well played by Evelyn Venable but rather than the doting mother she's supposed to be, she's really the villain of the piece. She's the cause of Alice's delusions of grandeur, the impetus for a rift between Virgil and his boss and I honestly can't see anything good in her character at all. Even Alice has some hidden depths, not that they count for much, but her mother's completely worthless.

What a strange film! The acting is solid throughout and includes some truly great performances, but it's a complete waste. Katharine Hepburn is superb and so is Hattie McDaniel in a reasonably short supporting role as the cook that Mildred and Alice hire to make and serve a ridiculously out of place grand dinner when Arthur comes to visit, but their great talents on show don't make for a good film. I despised it and everything it seemed to stand for. I wouldn't want to have anything to do with a real Alice Adams, which really doesn't make her much fo a heroine, and the world would be a better place without her mother. Even the apparently whiter than white boyfriend, Arthur, is a complete waste. He doesn't do, say or mean anything of note and just seems to be.

To my way of thinking, I could watch this to enjoy Kate and Hattie McDaniel ably demonstrating their huge talents, but as for story I only cared for the background bits about Walter and Virgil and Mr Lamb. They weren't the focus, they weren't fully fleshed out and didn't get the time and attention they deserved. Instead we had to watch all these nothings. What a waste.

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