I know director George Stevens for his later dramatic work, such as Giant and A Place in the Sun, as well as the western Shane, all of which he either won or was nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Here, he gives us one of his earliest works, Alice Adams, which was the film that largely broke the ground for his career. This film was also the one that helped revive Katharine Hepburn’s failing career; after she won Best Actress in 1933, her subsequent films threatened to turn audiences away from her forever, and it was this film that set her career back on track and improved her popularity. Watching it myself, it’s fairly easy to see why; both Hepburn and Stevens are largely responsible for what does work about this film, along with an able script adapted from yet another literary source, as so many Best Picture nominees (then and now) are. It’s only what the film actually presents to us, instead of how it is presented, that has the potential to roll some eyes among those who would take the time to view this one.
Hepburn is the eponymous Alice Adams, who lives with her family in their modest house; her father is quite ill, but still retains a job for himself at a factory for when he gets better, while her brother mostly lives his own life, gambling and cavorting with the ‘lower-class’ citizens of the town. This rankles both Alice and her mother, both of whom are wannabe social climbers of the highest order and the stiffest lip; Alice goes to several social engagements, where she puts on airs and pretends she and her family is much more well off than they actually are, all to gain the approval of her social circles and find some meaning to her otherwise personally-empty life as a poor person, and her mother is largely the reason for Alice’s personality and attitude, being of the same caliber. Things go by well enough, until one dance where Arthur Russell, the wealthy and to-do fiance of the party’s hostess, takes a liking to Alice, and wishes to get to know her better, and the family must try and find a way to scrape by on their image so that Alice and Arthur can spend time together without Arthur finding out about Alice’s true finances and social standing. After I finished my viewing of Alice Adams, I was really unsure of how to go about describing it and its unique brand of entertainment value, especially to those who might be interested in a viewing of their own. The best I can do is to make a comparison to a more modern movie; in the way that Bridesmaids takes awkward comedy to as uncomfortable a level as that film did, Alice Adams pretty much does the same with awkward drama. Most of what you’ll be experiencing during a viewing of Alice Adams is generally feeling really awkward about how desperately the Adams family tries to hold themselves and their thinnest of social veneers together in the face of other people, including and especially Arthur Russell. To say that it’s cringe-worthy is to undersell it; there were a few moments that I swear I could audibly hear nails screeching on a chalkboard as Alice’s expressions and sanity threatened to splinter right there on the screen as the charade was nearing its collapse. If that doesn’t sound like entertainment to you, in all fairness, stay the hell away from Alice Adams; you’d only be doing yourself a disservice trying to stomach your way through it.
Now, there’s quite a bit about Alice Adams that does work; mostly, it’s George Stevens’ simple and reserved direction, as well as Katharine Hepburn’s nearly perfect performance. Indeed, most of the reason the film and what transpires is as awkward and cringe-worthy as it is is because of Hepburn and every subtle turn of her expressions, which she plays exactly the way she needed to for the material. But, therein lies the rub; it’s the material itself that is ultimately what makes this as unpleasant a watch as it is. I’ve never found the concept of milking awkwardness for every drop that a film can as entertainment, and that’s unfortunately exactly what Alice Adams does. Not to mention the fact that Alice, and especially her mother, are absolutely repugnant characters at heart, and you don’t get any sort of rewarding feeling or satisfaction from a viewing of this film. Hepburn is excellent, but there’s plenty of better films where she’s just as good that are more worth your time.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10