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Katherine Hepburn vs. Herself

If you have patience for yet one more Cinderella story, I’ve got a 1935 romantic comedy with an interesting behind-the-scenes twist.

This week’s Cinderella is Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle by ex-Laurel & Hardy cameraman George Stevens, adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. It garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actress, and revived the moribund career of Hepburn (or at least until the next time her popularity hit the rocks, or the next time after that) and was a breakthrough career moment for Stevens, who reinvented himself as a serious director of significant Hollywood pictures and not just that guy who used to make “Boy Friends” comedies for Hal Roach (never heard of ‘em? You’re not alone). And yet, both Hepburn and Stevens fought to prevent the film from being as successful as it came to be. And therein lies our story.

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Hepburn is the titular Alice Adams, a poor girl in a nondescript town. The other girls her age cavort at society affairs, showing off their latest tresses and dresses, competing for the attentions of eligible young men. Alice however lives in a shack. Her father is a pharmacy clerk—or he would be, if he wasn’t laid up in perpetual bed rest for some unspecified malady. Her brother is a ne’er-do-well, on the slippery slope from petty mischief and gambling problems towards fraud and larceny.

There are no armies of eligible young men vying for her attentions.

But there is one—Russell, the most eligible bachelor of them all (Fred MacMurray). Alice thinks that keeping him interested means keeping him ignorant of her true background. Cue the mistaken identities and crazy schemes.

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In other words, we have once again found ourselves watching a movie about a down on her luck heroine mistaken for a 1%-er, who successfully penetrates the richy world of society and lands her Prince Charming.

If Hepburn and Stevens had their way, though, that’s not where this would have ended—and it’s fair to assume that the career boosts the two received from working on such a popular film would not have occurred had they succeeded in making the ending difficult and prickly. But to talk about the ending they preferred we need to first talk about a supreme glue formula.

And no, by “glue” I’m not invoking some fancy pants film studies terminology, like when I wrote about “suture.” I just mean glue.

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Alice’s dad (Fred Stone) may presently be an unemployed, sickly former pharmacy clerk, but back in the day he and a colleague at Lamb’s Drug Store invented a super glue formula. Or, so we’re told by Alice’s overbearing mother (Ann Shoemaker), in what feels for all the world like the setup to a punchline that never comes.

As far as Mama Adams is concerned, it’s a profound failure of character on Papa Adams’ part not to to try to monetize that formula, especially if their daughter is suffering romantically on account of the family’s poverty. She basically bullies him off the bed and into a risky glue startup… that same story, now told from the point of view of Lamb’s Drug Store: Mr. Lamb has kept this useless old man on the payroll indefinitely during his infirmity, out of personal loyalty. Other employers would have cut him loose as dead weight. And now, without even a “thank you” the old fella has stolen the intellectual property that really belongs to the pharmacy where it was developed, and created a rival business. This means war.

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From the story’s point of view, the irony here is that the whole glue business is the family’s attempt to legitimize Alice’s deception—instead of pretending to be from a prosperous family, she can actually be from one—but it is this very act that most seriously threatens her relationship with Russell. Word gets around that her family has stolen from Mr. Lamb, and whereas Russell has always been amused by and attracted to Alice’s pretentious attempts to affect a high-society attitude, this shakes him.

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This comes to a head during the film’s key comic set piece—a gloriously misbegotten dinner party involving a poorly chosen menu served incompetently by a maid the family has hired for the day to pretend to be their live-in servant (Hattie McDaniel, in what might be her funniest appearance).

The central joke of Alice Adams is the incongruity of Alice’s haughty affectations and her actual lowly station. And key to making that joke land is the famously haughty affectations of the star herself—a set of characteristics so distinctive that it made Katharine Hepburn an easy target for parody both in her own time and for generations after. If you didn’t know the character was created in a novel, and already filmed as a silent film once before, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was especially tailored to fit Hepburn alone.

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That assumed air of superiority and her singularly independent streak occasionally rubbed audiences the wrong way—she vacillated between a status as the greatest female star in Hollywood history and periodic troughs as box office poison. As a general rule, her best screen roles (Alice Adams, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, or just about any of her pairings with Spencer Tracy) swerved into that prickly persona and leveraged it for humanizing effect. Meanwhile her most problematic films lacked that humanizing edge—and watching a tomboyish feminist play rebellious women on screen while treating the Hollywood press rudely and acting as if communicating with her fan base was beneath her, tended to play into the worst stereotypes of the smallest minded people.

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Let me be clear I’m not trying to criticize Hepburn at all—I am in awe of her devil-may-care independence. She was unfairly pilloried for making the kinds of quips that Groucho Marx and WC Fields were lionized for. It’s simply a fact that she worked in a sexist industry in a sexist age, and the very characteristics that made her cool also made her tricky.

And so the makers of Alice Adams had a choice. Producer Pedro S. Berman and his conference room full of writers had put together a script in which Alice’s various wacky schemes pay off, true to romantic comedy form, and she wins the undying love of rich boy Russell, who truly loves her for the silly, needy girl she is. Her deceptions are forgiven, even rewarded. Happy ending, cue the house lights.

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But Hepburn and director Stevens were having none of that. In Booth Tarkington’s novel the story ends with Alice and Rusell separated—and both director and star preferred the tougher realism of that ending. Together they started rewriting the script, cutting and pasting swaths of the book back into place. In their proposed version, Alice would eventually abandon her desperate social-climbing and get a job as a secretary, to stand on her own two feet without worrying about Prince Charming (a fragment of this idea remains in the film, at more or less the halfway mark as Russell catches Alice on her way to apply for a secretarial job).

Producer Berman almost lost his mind. Hepburn was in a slump, taking humiliating pay cuts to appear in flops, and had no star power to leverage. Stevens was a former cameraman whose limited experience directing feature films included making a series of “The Blonde and the Redhead” vehicles for comediennes June Brewster and Carol Tevis such as The Undie-World (again, if you haven’t heard of this stuff, join the club). And these two were suddenly going to get it into their heads that the public would be expected to pay good money to watch Katharine Hepburn be romantically defeated and then give up on the whole idea?

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Berman called George Cukor in to mediate. Cukor was a man whose box office success gave him a certain undeniable authority, and in fact he’d been the original choice to direct Alice Adams had his schedule permitted. He reinstated the happy ending—and in fact installed a happy ending for everybody. Berman got his hit and returned a happy profit to RKO for their troubles; Stevens proved himself on a major picture and launched himself into a new role as a director of prominence and not just some slapstick has-been hack; Hepburn turned her fortunes around and almost took home an Oscar.

And we can file this away as yet another case study showing that when directors clash with producers over artistic visions, the director isn’t always right.

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3 Responses Katherine Hepburn vs. Herself
Posted By Martha C. : May 30, 2015 3:06 pm

Thanks for another great post! I watched Alice Adams when it was on this week and I always wondered about that ending. Personally if I was the Fred MacMurray character I’d run away from this crazy family. The father in particular was a real piece of work and Alice herself was so socially awkward she made cringe every moment she was on screen. Love this film though and knowing the story behind that happy ending makes it even more enjoyable. Thanks again!

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : May 31, 2015 9:50 pm

I admit I haven’t seen Alice Adams in ages but I remember that I thought Hepburn was really good in it – one of her best performances. Hattie McDaniel is really funny in it, too.

Posted By Ben Martin : June 1, 2015 3:32 pm

Wow. How do you KNOW this stuff. I guess that’s what good historians do – and the rest of us benefit. So thank you.

I agree with Martha C. above. If I were MacMurray, I’d run. And that’s why the movie doesn’t work for me. I’d probably prefer the alternate ending in this case, but you’ve convinced me it simply wouldn’t have been the hit it turned out to be.

SAY isn’t that ex-Boy Friends regular Grady Sutton in the top photo? I forgot that he was in ALICE ADAMS which I haven’t seen in many years. [The Boy Friends comedies are kind of painful to me, especially now since I learned that actor Mickey Daniels died alone and penniless. But I do always enjoy seeing Grady Sutton. What a great frame grab that is.]

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