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Monologue: Kate Hepburn Jabbers Away in "Alice Adams"

It's actually difficult to find speeches for our monologue series which accounts for its haphazard appearance at The Film Experience. With Anne Marie's brilliant chronological "A Year With Kate" hitting the Oscar nominated Alice Adams (1935) in two days time, I thought it was time to revive an old episode of this series.

Screenwriters generally favor single sentence utterances and the ole trusty shot / reverse shot conversation, leaving the bulk of monologue-writing to playwrights. But watching Alice Adams (1935), it's easy to think of virtually every scene as a Katharine Hepburn monologue. Occasionally her co-stars will start a sentence in response but Kate as Alice rarely lets them finish a thought. She spends the whole movie jabbering away as if she's the only character...

Hepburn's second Oscar nomination Alice Adams (1935) with Fred MacMurray

In her defence, this is generally because she's nervous, not from lack of interest in her partners. This is never more true than in her romantic scenes with Fred MacMurray. He's Arthur Russell, a young man of some bank whom Alice is desperate to win. (In the emotional logic of the movies, this is not heartless social climbing or gold digging so much as a girl who just wants to be happy. And therefore deserves the man above her social station.) One of the peculiar charms of the movie and of Kate & Fred's scenes together is that Alice is so busy trying to impress him that she never notices her own success; He's besotted from the start.

In their first lengthy scene together, he walks her home and she lies embellishes all of her truths to prove her social worth. She assumes he's already spoken for... but she can't help but try. It eventually becomes clear, even to Alice, that this eligible bachelor is interested. Her parents finally talk her into having the prime catch over for dinner in a lengthy sequence that basically functions as the third act of the movie. I'm only excerpting a small piece of it here. Alice Adams was a big break for the young George Stevens in the director's chair and though the movie is uneven this particular scene is a true gem. Stevens is performing a difficult juggling act keeping socioeconomic satire, character arc drama, plot convergences and physical comedy all in the air simultaneously.


The unfortunate dinner is the sort where virtually everything goes wrong. The Adams have planned an elaborate meal made to impress but it's all wrong for the stifling heat, most of them don't understand what they're eating, everyone is sweating and the father can't remember the cook's name though they're pretending that she's their regular help. Alice even blames her in pretentious French though this isn't lost on the cook (Hattie McDaniel in fine comic form) who is struggling through the multi-course dinner herself.

While Hepburn sells nervous and rude chatter about the working classes (to which her character and family belongs) Stevens camera drifts away from her slyly following McDaniel around the table as she loses control of the service (the heat is getting to her, too).

Alice: Father simply has to have a heavy meal at the end of the day. He works so hard in his terrible old factory -- terrible new factory I should say -- that he simply must have lots of food to keep his strength up. I don't see why most businessmen can't leave most of their details to their employees. But then I suppose some of them are like that. They just allow the help to sit around idle while they do all the work. Then of course there's the other type of businessman who simply drives his employees all the time and invents things for them to do if there's nothing else because he hates to see people idle.

Which category do you fall into Arthur? [She doesn't let him answer] I'm sure not the last. You're probably the idol of your office boys and secretaries.

The screenplay's use of homonyms there is delightful since any linguistic play delivered with Hepburn's vocals is welcome and it's also such a terrific point about the unspoken Alice Adams predicament; the Adams family is quite idle, really, and they spend the movie's entire running time idolizing the wealthy.

Alice's father interjects and then Walter, the brother, enters and exits with some urgency (things are going very wrong offscreen as well) and takes the father with him. At this point Hepburn lays on the charm offensive. Alice is flailing, searching for a way to salvage the already ruined evening, knowing that the ruse is broken.

Walter's such a funny boy -- so abrupt and unexpected. He-- oh, but then of course you know that about him. I guess all talented people are a bit peculiar. It's part of their charm, really. What are your talents Arthur?

[She doesn't let him answer] 

Can you play any instrument or sing or paint? Or perhaps you have some secret hobby that derives its chief charm by just being secret, something you keep all to yourself and don't like to talk about.

Russell must know what Alice doesn't like to talk about by now, what she's kept all to herself in their conversations. More interruptions and the mother also leaves. We hear the family arguing from another room. It's now just the young would be lovers at the table. Alice eyes the man she loves and believes lost, tears welling in her eyes.

Penny for your thoughts? No, I'll bid more. A rose... a poor little dead rose for your thoughts, Russell.

Will you ever forgive us for making you eat such a heavy dinner? I mean look at such a heavy dinner because you certainly couldn't have more than looked at it on a night like this.

Adams rises to escort her sweating suitor out. Hepburn in an inspired decision, drops the fawning for something like subtextual anger at her own inferior standing that's gotten them both into this mess. There's something about the body language and the line readings that momentarily turns a little condescending... even through the heartbroken defeat. It'll shift to self pity in the next scene.

Cheer up. Your fearful duty is almost done and you can run on home as soon as you like. That's what you're dying to do isn't it?

Though it's never quite clear what this young heir believes or doesn't believe about the delusional information that's been constantly flowing from this eager girl's lips, it's always clear that he'd like to kiss them. Running on home is not what he's dying to do at all. But Alice is always charging through these onesided conversations in unreality like an incongruously delicate bull in her own china shop.

How to stop her from breaking her own heart?

Anne Marie will be back on Wednesday for her own take on Alice Adams (1935) but until then catch up on her fab series "A Year With Kate" with the first six films: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, and Break of Hearts


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Reader Comments (4)

This is probably my favourite movie performance of the 30s by any actor. Kate is so glorious, here.

Not so random aside, this morning I was listening to Babs sing "I'm the greatest star" and was thinking what a great song that would make for an ALICE ADAMS musical which then made me think if we stopped FUNNY GIRL at the intermission it would be an interesting companion to talkative, self-deprecating poor girl charms and then wins over suave rich guy. Because, goodness, does Alice love to yammer away nervously.

(Who knows, maybe Alice and Russell's romance would be as doomed as Nick and Fanny's.)

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

I can't wait till the next entry to talk about one of Hepburn's all-time greatest moments (and thus, one of the greatest moments in cinema acting): when she realizes that Fred MacMurray is about to very gently let her down, and she still keeps smiling too-brightly as her eyes fill with tears, and she says, so heartbreakingly, something to the effect of, "It's funny...but I have the strangest feeling that I'm only going to see you for about five more minutes for the rest of my life."

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

God she was great in this!

Not flawless but great.

Same goes for the film itself. Scenes like the one where she's pretending to be with someone at the party capture something so rarely found in movies.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Hattie McDaniel is just wonderful in her small, comic role. It is frustrating to think of what might have been if she had ever been given the chance to star in a movie...
And where is Mo'Nique's biopic of her? I so want it to happen! (Just as much as I'd like to see Greta Gerwig play Greta Garbo in a biopic, and not just because of the similar-sounding names.)

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

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