Monday, August 23, 2010

Monologue: Kate's Heavy Dinner

It's actually difficult to find items for the monologue series. Screenwriters generally favor single sentence utterances and the ole trusty shot / reverse shot conversations, leaving the bulk of monologue-writing to the playwrights. But watching Alice Adams (1935), now celebrating its 75th birthday, 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 and MacMurray in Best Picture nominee Alice Adams (1935)

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 and central star turn are uneven this particular scene is truly a 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 Adams: 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 running time idolizing the wealthy.

Alice's father interjects, clearly excited about the notion of even having a secretary at all. 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. There are 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 (the movie is always lacking for clarity when it comes to the idol classes) 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?


ZACHJ said...

How interesting that this article and IFC's podcast both mention/involve Alice Adams - though, both are about different aspects of the film.

I like little things like that.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm sorry - did you say something about Hepburn being uneven in this movie? Or did you mean flawless, and I misread? I'm always reading wrong, this late in the evening...

NicksFlickPicks said...

(I actually loved this piece - what a great surprise!)


Zachj -- oh, i guess i should listen to that podcast. i don't listen to any podcasts anymore. sigh. how to make the time.

Nicks -- i couldn't find a way to work it into this article but my principle feeling when it comes to "uneven" is in her scene with her parents. In the scenes with her parents (excluding this super long dinner act) i could never quite believe she was their daughter and Kate's own blueblood behavior felt in competition with her character who is trying to behave as if she's blueblood.

i hope that makes sense.

Benji said...

Great piece!
I actually agree with Nick, I think this is one of Hepburn's best performances. She doesn't try very often to stray from her upper class New England roles and succeeds very well here, with a nervousness she never displayed afterwards. In Alice Adams she pretends to be upper class, in her other films she usually IS upper class. Kind of ironic.
I actually wrote an essay once about this film and 'It Happened One Night', the Depression era Hollywood ideal of the converging of the classes.
My favourite scene is the ball scene, when Alice tries to hide her wilted violets, having failed again at impressing the rich set.


i should amend that i did like the performance a lot. I just felt a weird friction between the character and herself in the parent/child scenes. didn't quite buy it.

but that long walk home with MacMurray? Beautifully played. And all the vocal tics just had me thinking that this was the film Cate Blanchett must have watched relentlessly before shooting AVIATOR (course I am not a Hepburn aficionado so I still have a lot left to see. have yet to see her starmaking MORNING GLORY thingy)


Hmmm. apparently not a lot of people have seen this movie.

But I do hope to have conveyed that i think she's really tremendous in the best moments. That "Penny for your thoughts" moment is just killer. She's just so pitiable (but not in a totally pathetic way)

James T said...

Indeed, I haven't seen it but please don't stop writing about classics! I can always see them and then go back to read your post. Of course that's not really fun for you so I'm being selfish asking you this.

RJ said...

You really should listen to that podcast. Best on the web .. cept yours of course.

Adrian said...

I mean "idle" where you have written "idyll".


Adrian -- and so I did.

RJ -- what's it about? I mean in general?

Anonymous said...

I did see this movie and I loved Hepburn in it. I think I liked the movie too. Your point is very interesting, Benji.

These Anniversary posts are a great idea Nat, I'm loving them.


Benji -- the wilted flower bit is great. and what an interesting double feature that would make. American ideals have changed so much. It's really sad. The Great Depression -- at least in the movies -- seems to have made something of a heroic ideal out of lifting other people up and this convergence you're tlaking about. Now it's every man for himself, make sure the rich are never inconvenienced by the poor. etcetera...

humanity is less humane.