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Literature / Alice Adams

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Arthur is not impressed.

Alice Adams began life as a 1921 novel by Booth Tarkington. It was adapted into a film in 1923, and then adapted again into a better-remembered 1935 film that was directed by George Stevens and starred Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray.

Alice Adams is a young woman living in a small town somewhere in Flyover Country. Her father Virgil is a clerk in a factory owned by Mr. Lamb—or he used to be, but Virgil has been laid up for some time with an unspecified illness. Mr. Lamb has been very understanding to the Adamses and has kept Virgil on salary while he is unable to work, but the Adams are still just scraping by. Alice's brother Walter is a lower-level clerk at the Lamb factory but seems to spend most of his time drinking and gambling. Alice, however, has dreams of joining the fancy set in town, and strives to squeeze her way into their fancy parties and receptions. Her mother resents Virgil for not bettering himself, and cares just as much as Alice does, and maybe more, about Alice rising in society.

A chance at a ticket to the upper class presents itself when rich young local boy Arthur Russell (MacMurray) takes a fancy to Alice. But the Adamses are still broke, and Mrs. Adams puts the screws to her husband even more, essentially forcing him to leave Mr. Lamb's employment and start up a glue factory with a formula he derived while in Mr. Lamb's employ. This leads to disaster.


  • Bittersweet Ending: Tarkington's novel. Any chance at a romance with Arthur is destroyed after the horrible dinner, but Walter and Mr. Lamb reach an understanding in which Lamb will buy Walter out, thus taking care of his debts. Alice casts her dreams of high society aside and resolves to make herself useful by going to business school.
  • Blatant Lies: Alice has a bad habit of lying her ass off when making herself out to be a rich sophisticate, like when she tells Arthur that Virgil has two secretaries, or when they pretend that Malena, actually only hired for the evening, is their live-in maid. All her lies are exposed during the disastrous dinner.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Virgil Adams and Mr. Lamb regarding the glue recipe. On the one hand, Mr. Lamb is rightfully incensed that Virgil took a glue recipe that he himself had paid to create in the first place, quit the firm after getting full salary despite being ill for several weeks, and basically snuck off to make his own fortune with it. On the other hand, Virgil (or rather, Virgil's wife) has a point that Lamb is already filthy stinking rich, he'd had the glue recipe on the back-burner for decades but never had any intention of using it, and his company doesn't stand to lose a single cent while Virgil and his family have everything to gain from using it.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: In the novel it's clear that Alice is a very witty, intelligent, and hard-working when she puts her mind to it, but she wastes it all on shallow vanity and futile social climbing. In the end, she gives up petty social-climbing and goes to business school, where it's implied that she finds real happiness.
  • Character Development: In the novel, Alice learns to give up her vanity, social-climbing, and consummate lying in lieu of being serious, thoughtful, and finding useful employment. She also learns not to care what other people think.
  • Daddy's Girl: Alice is very close with her father.
  • Dances and Balls: The plot opens with Alice being desperate to make a good impression and mix with high society at the Palmer family ball. The Palmers, knowing Alice's ambitious nature and her family's true station, shun her—but Arthur doesn't.
  • Dinner and a Show: A darker than usual example when Arthur comes over to the Adamses for dinner. It's far too hot, especially for the heavy dinner that the Adamses have prepared—the soup makes everyone more sweaty, and the ice cream is melted. Malena's half-assed attitude is expressed in her cap continually falling over her face.
  • Everytown, America: The Adamses live in a perfectly ordinary middle American town with shops on Main Street and old country houses.
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: Alice's initial fib about her family being wealthy soon requires new lies to support it, which requires more lies to support them, which require more lies to support them. Inevitably, all the elaborate lies in the world cannot hide that she's not really part of his world.
  • From Bad to Worse: Russell learns from the Palmers that Alice isn't wealthy like she claimed. That's bad enough. However, any chance she might have had of salvaging the relationship is dashed by the disastrous dinner, where every attempt her family makes to impress him falls flatter than the last. By the end, he can't even look at her, and she knows it's over.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: It's pouring rain when Alice comes home from the Palmer ball, having utterly failed at making an impression in high society, and breaks down weeping.
  • Happy Ending: The film, due to Executive Meddling. The studio insisted on an ending in which Arthur does not dump Alice, but they stay together after all.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mrs. Adams just will not stop browbeating Virgil about making more money and advancing in society.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Mr. Lamb, who has kept Virgil on the payroll throughout his illness, and tells him not to worry about coming back to work before he's ready. And apparently Virgil was pretty much dead weight at the factory even before he got sick, but Mr. Lamb considers Virgil a friend. So he's incensed when Virgil decides to open up a glue factory with the glue formula that he derived while working for Lamb.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Early in the novel, Alice realizes that her father already makes enough for them to live comfortably, and the only reason they're scraping by is to pay her expensive high society-hunting lifestyle. She resolves to quit then and there, but her mother flatters her vanity by assuring her that she has as much right to live nicely as all those other girls. Needless to say, this leads to disaster.
  • Irony: Alice spends most of the book desperate to land a good husband in high society because she's mortally afraid of ending up like those unmarried working girls in the women's typist school. In the novel, once Russell dumps her and she gives up her social climbing, it's implied that that's where she finds true happiness.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Walter may be a complete boor, but most of his criticisms about high society are completely correct—something Alice eventually learns the hard way.
  • Love Cannot Overcome: Novel-only. Alice and her family hope that if they play for time long enough, Russell will love her enough that it'll overcome the inevitable discovery that she isn't wealthy. It doesn't.
  • Loving a Shadow: Alice does worry that lying to Russell about who she is will ensure that he doesn't love the real her, just the illusion she spun for him, but she's so afraid of losing him that she can't help herself. In the novel, she turns out to be right; as soon as he finds out she's not wealthy, his love for her fades. The film changed this.
  • Mammy: Trope Maker Hattie McDaniel plays her usual Mammy role as Malena, the local woman that the Adamses hire for the evening when they want to give Arthur the impression that they're well-to-do. Malena doesn't think very much of the airs that the Adamses are putting on, and definitely doesn't exert herself much when playing the role of their permanent maid. Then Virgil gives away the lie when he forgets her name.
  • Maintain the Lie: Alice's increasingly desperate attempts to convince Russell that her family really is wealthy drives the plot.
  • Morality Pet: Alice is the only person her brother Walter shows an ounce of kindness toward. His one decent act in the whole book is to take her to a ball so she doesn't have to go alone, even though he hates fancy to-dos.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Walter is heavily implied to drink, gamble, hang out at shady pool-bars, associate with low class criminals, ruffians and thugs, casually date (and bang) many sexually loose young women, and hang out with black servants.
  • The New Guy: Russell is new in town and doesn't know anyone there, which is why he takes a shining to Alice; he doesn't know that she's supposed to be a high society pariah.
  • Nice Guy: Russell is honestly this, which is part of why Alice becomes so desperate not to lose him.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Russell and Alice's courtship goes pretty well until her mother invites him to dinner. (Though he finds out about their true status from the Palmer family anyway.)
  • No Name Given: In book or movie, Alice's mother is never named.
  • Nothing Personal: Mr. Lamb claims there's nothing personal in business, after he opens a competing glue factory knowing it'll ruin Mr. Adams. He's lying; the only reason he did it was to show his sons he wasn't weak after they mocked him for being duped by one of his clerks.
  • Not Me This Time: Non-villainous example. Mr. Lamb is definitely responsible for opening a competing factory with a better name brand to drive Mr. Adams out of business, which Adams calls him out on. But when Adams accuses Mr. Lamb of waiting for Walter to mess up so as to use it to further discredit and ruin Adams and his whole family, Mr. Lamb is genuinely stunned; as he barely remembered the boy even worked at his firm.
  • Old Money: The Palmers, who live in a grand house and throw balls, and hold grasping Alice Adams in contempt.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Part of what makes Alice's brother Walter so unpleasant.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In the novel, Virgil Adams lets Mr. Lamb have it after the latter tries to (spitefully) run him out of business just because he can. Virgil points out that he served the company loyally for years but Mr. Lamb kept him in a dead-end clerk job all that time, then when Virgil tried to use an old glue recipe that Lamb didn't even want (and wouldn't cost a cent to lose) so as to provide for his own family, Lamb deliberately opened a competing factory right across the street just to ruin him. Mr. Lamb is so incensed but humbled that he decides to buy Virgil's factory from him and pay off his mortgage to show he's not that heartless after all.
  • Ship Tease/Maybe Ever After: Novel-only. After Mrs. Adams starts leasing rooms to bring in income, a very handsome and good-natured young man (who is also in the same class as the Adams) moves into one of the rooms. Mrs. Adams naturally wants to introduce him to Alice, who is too busy to say hello. It's left open-ended as to whether they might get together.
  • Simple, yet Opulent: Alice convinces Russell that her seemingly middle class house is this on the inside, insisting that they only live there because her very wealthy father is too attached to the old place. This bites her in the butt when her mother invites him to dinner.
  • Sleeping Single: In the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Adams sleep in separate rooms, but given how much Mrs. Adams seems to despise her husband, that's appropriate.
  • Snowball Lie: Eventually Alice's entire family has to pull together to keep up the illusion that they're wealthy to Russell.
  • Social Climber: Alice is absolutely desperate to be this, putting on airs, lying through her teeth when telling Arthur about her family, even assuming a different tone of voice when trying to come off as rich and sophisticated. Meanwhile, her mother is just as concerned with Alice about her family's social standing, relentlessly browbeating Virgil about making more money.
  • Spoiled Brat: It's implied that Mrs. Adams' excessive doting and excuses for Walter is why he's such a moody, selfish boor.
  • Stealing from the Till: The last disaster that torpedoes Alice's hopes is Walter deciding to steal $150 from the till at the Lamb factory to cover his gambling debts.
    • In the book, it's worse. Walter steals $350 so he can run away from home.
  • Stepford Smiler: Alice keeps a smile fixed on her face even when everything is going wrong, like when she's shunned at the Palmer ball, or when the dinner with Arthur unravels.