Katharine Hepburn had made a successful start of her Hollywood career in the early 1930s with a string of fine pictures including Morning Glory and Little Women. However, several misfires ( The Little Minister, Break of Hearts ) put her star-status in danger. RKO was eager to have her regain her popularity with the public and so, to accomplish this, Hepburn and producer Pandro S. Berman decided her next part should be the titular role in the film adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1922 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "Alice Adams".
In his novel, Tarkington had penned a satiric and shrewd observation of the claustrophobia and class distinction prevalent in small town America shortly after World War I. Alice Adams is an optimistic wisp of a girl who strives to rise above her commonplace existence by putting on the airs of a socialite, hoping to be accepted by her upper-class peers. However, her pitiful attempts at climbing the social ladder only lead to her being sneered at and shunned by her classmates.
Alice is a resourceful girl and, much like another literary character, Anne Shirley, she strives to create a realm of beauty in the most crude setting. At the beginning of the film we see Alice eagerly awaiting the night of the Palmer's ball, the most elite social dance of the year. With her two-year old dress and a corsage of wilted violets, Alice attends the dance with her brother as escort. While there, she puts on a brave face while being ignored by everyone at the party. Never was there a lovelier, more quietly desperate wallflower than Hepburn's Alice.
Upon leaving the dance however, Alice meets her Prince Charming, the handsome and very wealthy Arthur Russell ( Fred MacMurray ). He quickly sees through Alice's facade and, unbeknownst to her, comes to love the sensitive girl hiding within. But Alice, in her eagerness to hide her social status, papers over their growing love with lies. Later, while her family is on the brink of disaster, Alice strives to keep Arthur's interest and keep up the illusion she fancies she created.
Katharine Hepburn gave a marvelous performance of Alice, bringing out all the charm and pathos of the character. Like most people, Alice's personality changes when she in among people outside of her family and it is a testament to Hepburn's skill as an actress to portray two unique sides of one character. When Alice is with Russell she becomes overwrought, expressing her feelings through nervous chatter. At home, especially when she is alone with her father, she displays a beautiful soul and a heart filled with great compassion.
"You know, the other day when you walked home with me, I got to wondering what I wanted you to think of me in case I should ever happen to see you again"
"And what did you decide?"
"I decided I should probably never dare to be just myself with you. Not if I cared to have you want to see my again. And yet here I am, just being myself after all".
- Alice, to Arthur, not truly being "herself" at all
Fred MacMurray is wonderful as the amiable young Russell. Unlike Alice, he cares little about social status. His feelings for Alice are sincere but he worries over the rumors in town being spread about the integrity of Alice's father.
Fred Stone, a very popular musical theatre actor and circus performer, took on his first feature-length talking role as Alice's father, Virgil. He gives a very compassionate performance as an ill man badgered by his family.
Rounding out the fine cast is Ann Shoemaker as Alice's ambitious mother, Frank Albertson as brother Walter, Evelyn Venable as the stately Mildred, Hattie McDaniel as the impertinent maid-for-hire, and Charley Grapewin as Virgil's boss, Mr. Lynn.
Alice Adams is also notable for being the first dramatic film directed by George Stevens. The work he did on this picture propelled him to new heights as a director. Hepburn initially wanted William Wyler to take the helm, but at the insistence of Pandro S. Berman, and on the basis of Steven's knowledge of the book, she was willing to give him a try. As filming progressed, she found Stevens to be "a really brilliant director" and he went on to direct her in two other pictures - Quality Street ( 1937 ) and Woman of the Year ( 1948 ).
Critics praised Alice Adams upon its initial release with the New York Times calling the film "an oddly exciting blend of tenderness, comedy, and realistic despair". Since the picture was released in the midst of the Depression, the ending of Alice Adams was changed from the original Tarkington novel, which was much more downbeat. The optimistic ending altered the tone of the whole film and it became a huge favorite with audiences and helped put Hepburn back on top at the box office. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Katharine Hepburn received her second nomination for Best Actress for her heartfelt portrayal. Bette Davis, who won the Award for her role of Mildred in Of Human Bondage, often claimed that Hepburn was the one who deserved to win that year.