Deeply Uncomfortable, As It Should Be
In many ways, Alice may well be the most pathetic character Katharine Hepburn ever played. This is, however, not entirely surprising. Hepburn made a career of playing strong, forceful women, and Alice isn't either. She's pushy, but that's not quite the same. For one thing, Alice isn't driven by self-assurance. Alice is driven by the exact opposite. She moves too much and speaks too loudly, and it's hard to tell if she knows it or not. Everyone else does, but she's so caught up in who she is, who she wants to be, and who people think she is that she doesn't really have time to focus on any of them. What she is doing is attempting to project who she thinks people want her to be, and there's something pretty desperate and sad about that. Especially because she doesn't entirely know what the people she emulates want her to be like.
Alice lives in stereotypical Small Town America from about a hundred years ago. She is middle class with aspirations. Her father, Virgil (Fred Stone), is a clerk and has been for twenty years. Her mother (Ann Shoemaker), who never gets a first name, is a horrible, horrible snob, and she wants Virgil to leave his good-paying job, where he's being paid even though he's out on ill-defined sick leave, and get a better job doing no one seems to be sure what. Meanwhile, Alice is fluttering away at a high-class party where no one will talk to her and none of the men are interested in her. She does, however, catch the eye of Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), who shows interest in finding out what's under the birdlike exterior. She knows that he's rich, and she knows that he's high-class, and she fears that he won't like her if he doesn't think she is, too. So she puts on a ludicrous false face in order to win his affections, which she already has anyway.
It is not at all difficult to see where Alice gets her attitude. Much of what her mother says in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie is heart-stoppingly snobbish. She is about the most horrible woman to her husband, whether he realizes it or not. She blames him for all of the family's problems. It's his fault Alice can't have nice dresses and be like the Rich Girls. She has to wear a dress from two years ago! And okay, Walter (Frank Albertson), their son, isn't the best. When Alice is at her fancy party, to which she's dragged him, he's in a closet, playing craps. He knows he isn't happy there, which is good, but he doesn't even have his father's standards. He's not really interested in hard work. On the other hand, Alice has basically been programmed to belief that life is going to work out better for her and she'll be a part of that upper class someday, and they'll have to take her seriously then!
And meanwhile, all through this, Fred MacMurray is kind of being genial and dreamy. It is, as I think I've mentioned before, kind of hard for me to take him seriously as a romantic lead, as I was well into adulthood before I saw him in anything not actually from the fine people at Walt Disney Studios. As in, I saw [i]Double Indemnity[/i] for the first time a few years ago. (There may have been something before then, but if there is, I couldn't tell you what.) Of course, Alice wouldn't have the Absent-Minded Professor on a dare, and Lem Siddons would be too busy with his Boy Scouts to haul any girls around to dances. It's also interesting to note how different that disastrous dinner party would have been in a Disney movie. While it would be played for laughs either way, here, you are mostly watching the death of Alice's pretensions, and whether that's good or bad is almost a matter of debate. It isn't wacky. It just kind of hurts.
In a way, that's a good summary of the movie as a whole. Alice, after all, is not from a poor family. She's not from a vulgar family. In fact, it's only when she tries too hard that the vulgarity arises. She tries to put together a fancy dinner party, but they aren't equipped for it or used to the food. Her mother makes "caviar sandwiches" to surprise her. They've hired Malena Burns (poor Hattie McDaniel), a woman who hires out for a night or two, but they've never had a servant before and don't know how you deal with having one. One rather feels that, had Alice been more natural, the dinner would have gone better. After all, she made her poor father wear full evening clothes, and Arthur is wearing just an ordinary suit. Really, being herself would have been the way to go. However, her mother pressed into her for years that who they were wasn't good enough for the people they knew. Therefore, if she wanted to have a Worthy Man, he must be a rich man, and if she wanted to be herself worthy of a Worthy Man, she must seem higher class than she is. She is never comfortable in her own home and her own skin, and it is her tragedy.