Monday, October 08, 2018

In The Thick Of The Great Depression-Daydreams Of Social Mobility-The Film Adaptation Of Booth Tarkington’s “Alice Adams” (1935)- A Review

In The Thick Of The Great Depression-Daydreams Of Social Mobility-The Film Adaptation Of Booth Tarkington’s “Alice Adams” (1935)- A Review    

DVD Review

Si Lannon

Alice Adams, starring Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, from a novel by Booth Tarkington, 1935   

Growing up poor is a tough dollar no doubt about it. Maybe that is why I was assigned this film Alice Adams (based on the Booth Tarkington novel) by site manager Greg Green although a number of other writers here have also grown up under those conditions. Perhaps Greg chose me because my family circumstances kind of mirror those of the main character Alice, played by Katharine Hepburn. I grew up in the working-class poor Acre neighborhood in North Adamsville south of Boston where we were kind of the “middle class” meaning nothing other than we had our own house, small and dingy but our own as my mother was always fond of saying until her dying breathe (to distinguish us from those who rented apartments in the array of triple-decker buildings that were peppered around the neighborhood). Which also meant that my father, Norman, always had steady if not well-paid work at the North Adamsville Gear Works which was a sub-contracting outfit for the shipbuilding operations which dominated the town’s economy and kept us going until that shipbuilding pulled out to off-shore locations well after I came of age in the 1950s. That steady work was an important difference in the area since many, mainly men in those days of male breadwinners and female housewives, like Peter Paul Markin’s father for one, were always last hired, first fired in the up and down shipbuilding economy. There was always a tension between those who looked like they had made and those who were going to be left behind-always left behind.

That though is where the similarities between Alice, once again played by severely beautiful Katharine Hepburn, in the film and I differ significantly. Alice was always “putting on airs,” always lying to herself and others about her class situation. Always doe-eyed daydreaming that she was someplace above her station only to be crushed more times than not-for a while. I, on the other hand unknowingly accepted that we were working poor and that I should stay with guys like Markin and some of the guys who work here who grew up in the same town or small circumstances. Maybe it was because the rich and poor classes in my town never mixed much, except maybe a little in school and that only in passing.  (The very rich or the strivers sent their kids to private schools to “escape” having to deal with the raucous public schoolers and gain some resume credentials-some sent their kids to Catholic parochial schools but they were poor as church mice too and just wanted their kids away from the heathens like me and my crowd.)      

It was almost painful to see Alice and her upward social mobility strivings at the cost of her dignity and her intelligence kowtowing to others in town who flouted their good fortune fortunes. Of course some of this is just the myth of the American dream come to small-town America via a small town American girl who maybe read too many romantic novels, Cinderella stuff, when young. Abetted by a social striving mother who harpooned her father into giving a up a steady if underpaid and underutilized his skills job in order to rise economically for Alice’s benefit. Jesus, no wonder Alice was ready to debase herself at every moment in her quest for a rich man who would carry her off.  

Maybe I better set the story and you can figure out whether she was a holy goof or had more sense than I did in trying to get out from under that small- town girl rock. Alice, via her father, lives in an old-fashioned working- class house which befitted an employee, a clerk working for somebody else. Alice though had dreams and maybe some small connections to the upper classes via a tenuous friendship with one of the town debutantes. In order to “fit in” or believe she did she developed a whole persona who denied reality and lived in cloud cuckoo land. Except at one key dance she “met” Arthur, a rich young man played by Fred MacMurray last seen in this space bleeding like a sieve after Barbara Stanwyck threw a few off-hand slugs into him after the pair plotted the murder of her husband for dough and freedom in Double Indemnity, who somehow despite her wanderlust was attracted to her. Attracted despite being in some kind of relationship with that debutante who threw the party where they met.

Despite Alice’s antics, despite her slavish devotion to her dreams of upward mobility and her willfully false consciousness about her family’s financial condition Arthur stays the course. Stays the course even when she invites him to what turns out to be a disastrous dinner. Stays the course despite her brother’s getting into legal trouble and her father too in attempting to move up in class for her sake. Ms. Hepburn in the early days had a certain refreshing rose-cheeked charm and beauty but I will be damned unless Arthur was an airhead how she snagged that guy. But she did.

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