History paints Katharine Hepburn as anything but a delicate, girlish sort, and the woman is often discussed as an ideal feminist. In Alice Adams, a young Hepburn does indeed embody a sort of feminist part, but it is hidden beneath so thick a mask of social properness and female expectations it is nearly unbearable.
Alice belongs to a family consisting of a nearly invalid father whose job is being held at the pharmacy while he recovers, a brother who gambles and is otherwise socially disagreeable, and a mother who wants her daughter’s dreams to come true so much that she pushes the family into untenable situations.
At the film’s start, Alice is preparing to go to a dance at the home of the small town’s upper crust family. The young woman hopes no one will recognize her two-year-old dress and makes a corsage of picked violets when purchasing one proves unaffordable. Her date is her unhappy brother, whose ugly truck prompts Alice to request he park it in the street lest anyone see her exiting it.
At the social affair, Alice walks about with the air and poise of a well sought-after woman, but finds she is the only one left without a dance partner. She eventually subjects herself to dancing with an oafish fellow with whom she earlier would have been too proud to be seen. Just as her situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for us to watch, the handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) asks an introduction with Alice and engages her in a spin around the floor. Arthur is from a wealthy family and is allegedly engaged to the party’s hostess Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). All while dancing, Alice rattles in soft and gay tones about the semi-fictional life she pretends to live. When the dance is over, Alice feigns a full dance card to meet Arthur’s expectation that they are not able to share another dance, despite his desire to. The girl then retreats home, separating her brother from the gambling he was conducting with the servants in the coat closet.
Alice is smitten but knows her social and familial standing is not adequate for the likes of Arthur. Nevertheless, she runs into him on the streets of the town and allows him to walk her home while she again runs her mouth about fanciful things. When they reach her house, Alice tries to walk on by to disguise her shabby dwelling, but the mailman gives her away. Arthur is utterly unphased by any embarrassment Alice thinks she has suffered before him and asks if he may come around some night, to which the girl agrees.
The flowers wilt in their vase as days pass and no Arthur appears. When he does make his debut, the house is in less than pristine condition in Alice’s eyes, so the two retire to the front porch. There Alice again spins yarns of a life not quite her own as she attempts to flirt and offer herself as a suitable mate for the socialite. This activity continues for weeks until finally Alice and her mother (Ann Shoemaker) agree it is time he came around for family dinner.
As Alice has become ever more in love with Arthur, her mother has observed how the family’s financial difficulties negate her romantic efforts. Alice has not been invited to a dance because of her social standing, and must make an excuse as to why she cannot attend with Arthur. The Adams patriarch Virgil (Fred Stone) once developed with a partner a formula for a perfect glue. That partner died and the pharmacy owner took the formula with long-lost promises to produce it for the men. Mrs. Adams thinks Virgil should turn the discovery into a business to better support the family, but the man thinks doing so would betray the boss who has been so kind to him and his family. A final push by mother, and Virgil moves forward and sets up a factory.
The night Arthur comes to dinner is near disaster with sweltering heat, a tardy brother and a hired maid who is inept with serving. When Arthur leaves, the pharmacist J.A. Lamb (Charley Grapewin) arrives to tell Virgil off about the glue formula. He says he is opening his own factory next to the Adams plant and intends to run him out of business. Sour words are exchanged, and Alice finally takes matters into her own hands. She explains why her father decided to open the factory and his true feelings of respect for the employer. Her properness falls away with every word as we see the true woman beneath. Arthur is unknowingly sitting on the porch and has heard the entire situation.
The tragedy of Alice Adams is that the character shows very little of her true self. She is not a particularly masculine sort underneath, but she is far from the delicate flower she puts before Arthur time and time again. It is frustrating to believe Arthur could tolerate Alice’s fakeness and still be interested. The man theoretically should have seen through the mask, but he could not have known that what was beneath would be something he would like. The entire romance seems improbable from the start. When Arthur approaches looking for a dance, I was expecting the gesture to be a cruel joke.
I cannot see myself ever watching Alice Adams again. Hepburn’s performance was great and MacMurray was thoroughly handsome and semi-romantic, but the whole flick set me on edge. Hepburn’s persona made me squirm because all I wanted to do is smack her and tell her to be herself. She doesn’t exactly set a good example for young women who think of themselves as socially inadequate.