The film is about a young woman in a medium-sized town in the United States in the early 1900s, and her pretentious attempts to appear upper-class and wed a wealthy man while concealing her poverty. Hepburn's popularity had declined after her Oscar-winning performance in 1933's Morning Glory; her performance in Alice Adams made her a public favorite again.
Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn]) is the youngest daughter of the Adams family. Her father (Fred Stone) is an invalid employed as a clerk in a factory owned by Mr. Lamb (Charles Grapewin), who has kept Adams on salary for years despite his lengthy illness. Her mother (Ann Shoemaker) is embittered by her husband's lack of ambition and upset by the snubs her daughter endures because of their poverty. Alice's older brother, Walter (Frank Albertson), is a gambler who cannot hold a job and who associates with African Americans (which, given the time period in which the film is set, is considered a major social embarrassment). As the film begins, Alice attends a dance given by the wealthy Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). She has no date, and is escorted to the occasion by Walter. Alice is a social climber like her mother, and engages in socially inappropriate behavior and conversation in an attempt to impress others. At the dance, Alice meets wealthy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), who is charmed by her despite her poverty.
Alice's mother nags her husband into quitting his job and pouring his life savings into a glue factory. Mr. Lamb ostracizes Mr. Adams from society, believing that Adams stole the glue formula from him. Alice is the subject of cruel town gossip, which Russell ignores.
Alice invites Russell to the Adams home for a fancy meal. She and her mother put on airs, the entire family dresses inappropriately in formal wear despite the hot summer night, and the Adamses pretend that they eat caviar and fancy, rich-tasting food all the time. The dinner is ruined by the slovenly behavior and poor cooking skills of the maid the Adamses have hired for the occasion, Malena (Hattie McDaniel). Mr. Adams unwittingly embarrasses Alice by exposing the many lies she has told Russell. When Walter shows up with bad financial news, Alice gently expels Russell from the house now that everything is "ruined."
Walter reveals that "a friend" has gambling debts, and that he stole $150 from Mr. Lamb to cover them. Mr. Adams decides to take out a loan against his new factory to save Walter from jail. Just then, Mr. Lamb appears at the Adams house. He accuses Adams of stealing the glue formula from him, and declares his intention to ruin Adams by building a glue factory directly across the street from the Adams plant. The men argue violently, but their friendship is saved when Alice confesses that her parents took the glue formula only so she could have a better life and some social status. Lamb and Adams reconcile, and Lamb indicates he will not prosecute Walter.
Alice wanders out onto the porch, where Russell has been waiting for her. He confesses his love for her, despite her poverty and family problems.Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams
Fred MacMurray as Arthur Russell
Fred Stone as Mr. Adams
Evelyn Venable as Mildred Palmer
Frank Albertson as Walter Adams
Ann Shoemaker as Mrs. Adams
Charles Grapewin as Mr. Lamb
Grady Sutton as Frank Dowling
Hedda Hopper as Mrs. Palmer
Hattie McDaniel as Malena
Jonathan Hale as Mr. Palmer
Janet McLeod as Henrietta Lamb
Virginia Howell as Mrs. Dowling
Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Dresser
Ella McKenzie as Ella Dowling
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Hepburn for Best Actress. Although Bette Davis said that Hepburn deserved the award, Hepburn ended up receiving the second most votes, as Davis won it for Dangerous.
The 1935 film of Alice Adams is the second adaptation of the Tarkington novel. A silent film version had been made in 1923, directed by Rowland V. Lee.
Katharine Hepburn wanted George Cukor to direct the film, but Cukor was engaged directing David Copperfield. Cukor advised her to choose either William Wyler or George Stevens to direct. Although Hepburn favored the German-born and Swiss-educated Wyler, producer Pandro S. Berman favored American George Stevens.
The plot of the film differs from the book Alice Adams, in significant ways. Most importantly, the novel depicts Alice estranged from Russell. The original script by Dorothy Yost and Jane Murfin ended with Alice and Russell in love. But Stevens was so unhappy with the script and the ending that he, his friend Mortimer Offner, and Hepburn discarded most of it and rewrote it (using dialogue taken from the novel). Their script ended with Alice's relationship with Russell up in the air, and finished with a scene in which Alice goes to secretarial school. But Berman and RKO executives wanted a happy ending in which Alice gets Russell. Stevens and Hepburn opposed this change. Berman enlisted the aid of Cukor, who agreed that the more realistic ending would be box office poison. So the script was changed to allow Russell to fall in love with Alice and win her over.
After the cinema circuits deducted their exhibition percentage of boxoffice ticket sales the film made a nice profit of $164,000.