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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hepburn Steps Out Of Her Class

Small Towns Get A Skewering in Alice Adams (1935)

Threshold problem here was me not sympathizing at all with Hepburn's title character. But was it Alice or the actress playing her? Back we come to reality of some people (many?) being unable to abide Hepburn in any capacity. I'm not quite there, for liking Morning Glory, Holiday, and some of ones with Tracy. Problem is KH putting on airs (all through Alice Adams) that end up an invite to wish her ill. Disclosure I'll make is Hepburn historically tanking in Dixie, according to exhibs who told me her name out front was good as small pox warning. Was it the affectations, or Hepburn being too much Yankee for us? Alice Adams got a happy ending tacked on by interfering RKO. Director George Stevens had a better finish, but they wouldn't let  him use it. Pic was based on a Booth Tarkington novel. His stuff had been popular through the twenties, adapted to silent movies, and regarded a boost for boxoffice. Tarkington may have been what put Alice Adams in profit, for Hepburn's last several had kissed the canvas, and would again (her B.O. "poison" label the result). I'd guess success of Alice Adams had much to do with Orson Welles getting OK for The Magnificent Ambersons (another of Tarkington's) seven years later.

Stevens brought comic sensibilities from Hal Roach to this first high-profile feature assignment. There is sight gagging, "comedy of embarrassment" (unbearable at times), and good luck charm that was Grady Sutton, a Stevens associate from the old "Boy Friends" series at Roach. We get nice sense of small community, but citizenry is dealt with harsh, potshot taken at snobbery, would-be class climbing, and general Babbittry of townfolk you'd not want to live among. A realistic touch: Everywhere it's hot --- inside and out of houses --- dinner wilting even as it's served. We forget what it was like before homes had central air, to which Alice Adams is valued wake-up. There's also arguments street-heard from households, because in those days, people kept windows open (had to --- the heat) and so risked private lives broadcast when shouting started.

Touches like this breathe life into Alice Adams, which according to Stevens in later interviews, had Tarkington dialogue transposed onto the script by director and star as shooting proceeded. Stevens also noted class divisions and have vs. have not as big issues of the time, this being overlay to Depression backdrop. Parents were as concerned as daughters over style of dress for school, hand-me-downs and even home-made clothing a reflection of status (or lack) that a family would have in close-knit towns. There were parties --- some high schools had sororities --- that could make or break girls not yet seventeen. Alice Adams may date, in fact probably did within short years after 1935, but stood pretty accurate for its initial audience, judging by critical success and grosses earned.

AA's third act set-piece is a dinner that goes horribly wrong. Want a twenty minute cringe? Watch this. Everyone is grindingly insincere and trying to be something they're not. Was it so much harder being oneself in the face of Depression, class division, and struggle to fit in? A popular 30's expression was "Oh, Be Yourself." You wish characters would use it on each other here. It's hard to believe life and people had to play-act to such extent, yet Stevens said later that indeed they did, Tarkington's novel being no mere invention of the author's. BT popularity wasn't random --- readers must have felt his novels spoke to true life. Question then, is Tarkington still read, and how's he rated by literary historian/experts? There's a DVD of Alice Adams available, but do note recent showing on TCM in true HD, where I caught it last month.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers Katharine Hepburn:

Always thought her best early films were "Little Women" and "The Little Minister".

In the first she plays a literal brat who has to grow up -- a warmup for her later persona as the smart, nervy adult woman who needs a Spencer Tracy to tame her. Just as gangsters had to be gunned down or reformed to be acceptable, Kate had to be cured of being Kate in most of her later films (in "The African Queen" the prudish spinster overpowers the river rat, but she brings herself down to his level to do it).

In the second, we get soundstage Scottish charm and Kate being unironically cute and girlish. Yes, the gypsy guise is eventually exposed as a plot device, but the character beneath is still a playful kid who has to grow up. The pathos is even thicker than the accents in the last reels, but it's mostly a fun film with a nice subplot about the callow little vicar John Beal saving the loud alcoholic Alan Hale.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Guess I'm on the opposite side of the Hepburn fence. I adore her in practically everything she did.

My problem with ALICE ADAMS may be mine alone. I find Hepburn so (physically) attractive in the film, that I cannot buy her not having a beau. Granted that the character is a bit of a ninny, still, I could only think that, whatever her behavior, a woman who looked like that would have men lined up around the block.

Or maybe just me.

I also think that Fred MacMurray was never more charming or engaging.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Booth Tarkington is one of my favorite authors. In spite of the two Pulitzers, he seems to get very little attention these days, and I think that's a great injustice. You mentioned "readers must have felt his novels spoke to true life"—and I think that's absolutely true; to me the characters and their interactions in his best novels always feel remarkably real and human, sometimes even painfully so. Alice Adams isn't my favorite (The Magnificent Ambersons and The Turmoil are my top two), though I did enjoy it—I'd seen the movie before reading it, and the famously different ending to the novel was a bit of a letdown at first, but on reflection, I did think it 'fit' better with the rest of the story.

7:13 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

I can appreciate your feelings about Hepburn. Although I think she's a wonderful actress her off-screen persona (by all accounts, including her own) is so obnoxious that it makes it hard for me to enjoy her movies. I feel the same toward Spencer Tracy, a talented but smug and self-satisfied actor whom I don't think I could have stood in real life for two seconds. Maybe that explains their famous devotion to each other. They served each other right.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I, too, think Hepburn was the real deal talent-wise and, I'm afraid, have always gotten a kick out of her whack-a-doo off-screen antics. However, this might fall right in line with your observations on regional prejudices, John, since I grew up just outside the lady's hometown, Hartford.

ALICE ADAMS is a great example of a special type of smart 'embarrassment-entertainment' peculiar to the 1930's. The war would do much to upset many of the small town class distinctions shown here (well, at least on screen) and make a lot of the social dynamics in AA seem dated just a decade or so later. Silent films had covered a lot of this ground too, of course, but it was a lot easier to make this stuff less seat squirmy back then; the more stylized medium allowed us to view posers and fakes as sympathetic characters. Harold Lloyd made a fortune playing liars and phoneys who were always humiliating themselves yet audiences never turned away, never winced. The guy was so likeable, even while making an ass of himself! I always thought the early talkies specialized in that can't-look-away-from-a-car-accident queasiness we relish (I think!) in comic scenes like the dinner sequence you mention.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Until reading this piece, I always thought Booth Tarkington was a woman. However, my negative feeling toward Katherine Hepburn remains firmly in place. I never got the concept of "Philadelphia Story," with three men being crazy over her.

1:33 PM  

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