It only natural to want nice things, and provided a man comes by them honestly, people will approve of his efforts to obtain them. (I am using the masculine gender here simply for ease of expression). If he works hard to make more money so that he can own his own home, that is just part of the American dream. To that end, he may pursue an education in hopes of finding employment for which he will be well paid. In so doing, his socio-economic status will be enhanced, for that is largely a function of income and education level.
But getting into the upper class is another thing entirely. Whereas income and education depend primarily on one’s own effort, being a member of the upper class depends largely on being accepted into it by those that already belong, something that is not readily forthcoming for someone trying to ascend from the lower ranks, whom the elite are likely to regard as an upstart. Nor will his efforts to rise to the upper echelons of society be met with approval by those in his own class, whom he obviously deems not good enough for his association.
Given this universal disapproval, we might expect one of two outcomes in which the protagonist in a story is a social climber: either he will be punished and come to an unhappy end, or he will learn to accept his place in the world, finding contentment thereby. As often as not, however, this proves not be the case. Or rather, the protagonist is punished in the middle of the movie, but ultimately rewarded, in which case social climbing is not repudiated, but rather is seen to have paid off.
Two movies that exemplify this principle are Alice Adams (1935) and Stella Dallas (1937). These movies have many things in common. For one thing, they were both made around the same time. For another, their titles refer to their respective female protagonists. Both were remakes of silent films, Alice Adams (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925). Both were based on novels written just after World War I, 1921 and 1923 respectively. But most importantly, both are thematically related in the way the women in these movies, both coming from working class families, are motivated by a desire to become upper class by marrying up.
The title character of Alice Adams, played by Katherine Hepburn, is a young woman who lives in a small town named South Renford. At first, it appears to be the strangest small town you ever saw, because everyone seems to be rich except the Adams family. Alice gets invited to dances and parties by rich women, but she cannot afford to dress the way they do. The rich men never ask her out, so she has to coerce her brother Virgil to escort her. At the dance, the rich men prefer to dance with rich women, and as her brother deserts her, she is left alone and comes across as a wallflower. In other words, we never see other young women of working class background for her to be friends with, and we never see working class men asking her out for a date. What an odd town.
Of course, we know that this cannot be. No town is like that. In fact, there are bound to be far more working class families than rich ones: young women of her own class to be friends with; young men of her own class to fall in love with. Moreover, it is clear that her brother does stick to his own class. He even enjoys shooting craps with black servants, and at the dance, he greets the black bandleader, who in turn is happy to see him. They obviously know each other from nightclubs where working class people go to have fun. But not Alice. In fact, she is mortified when her brother says “Hi” to the bandleader.
To put it bluntly, Alice is a big phony. And yet, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her. To a certain extent we do. We all know how young people desperately want things that really do not matter, and it is painful to watch her suffer so from pretending to be something she is not, especially when we also know that she could be happy, if she just let all that go. In fact, that is why we never see young women of her own class inviting her to parties or young men of her own class asking her out. If we did, and she snubbed them, we would despise her. But by making it look as though she lives in a town where everyone is rich but her and her family, absurd as that is, we are more forgiving, because we are led to believe that she has no such opportunities. At the dance, Alice meets Arthur (Fred MacMurray), who seems to be quite taken with her, but she is just as much of a phony with him as with everyone else. It is hard to understand what he sees in her.
But while we are trying to overlook Alice’s affectations as the folly of youth, we discover that her mother, apparently in her fifties, is just as foolish as Alice in such matters. Instead of encouraging Alice to stay within her class, she berates her husband for not making more money so that Alice can continue to socialize with the town’s upper crust. So much for the wisdom that supposedly comes with age.
Alice’s father is recovering from a long illness. His boss, Mr. Lamb, continues to pay him a salary and holds his job open for him, and her father wants to go back to work there when he gets better. But Alice’s mother pushes him to go into business by starting a glue factory, based on a formula that actually seems to belong to his boss, inasmuch as Alice’s father discovered it on company time.
What we are hoping for is that Alice will realize how wrongheaded she has been. Instead, the movie justifies her. Virgil gets into a jam and steals $150 from Mr. Lamb, whom he also works for, probably to pay off a gambling debt. In other words, we can no longer admire Virgil for being content to fraternize with those in his class, thereby making it seem right for Alice to avoid such people as unworthy.
Anyway, with Alice’s father stealing the glue formula and Alice’s brother stealing the money, Mr. Lamb shows up at the Adams house to let them have a piece of his mind. It all looks pretty grim. But Alice tells him that it is all her and her mother’s fault for pushing her father to make more money. Mr. Lamb is magnanimous, willing to let Alice’s father have his job back when he gets well, willing to give them time to pay back the $150, and willing to let Alice’s father share in the profits from the glue formula.
But we should note that while Alice takes responsibility for her and her mother pushing her father to start a glue factory, she gives no indication that her desire to hobnob with rich society was an unworthy goal, only that she and her mother should not have pushed her father to make more money.
Ultimately, she has learned nothing. We had hoped that she would quit being a phony, make friends with women in her own class, and fall in love with a man who is also from a working class background. But no. The movie rewards her vanity by having Arthur fall in love with her and want to marry her. Because he is one of the elite, and presumably has plenty of money, she will get what she always wanted, inclusion in the upper class of South Renford. Now she can be the real thing.
We see two principles at work here that make Alice’s desire to be upper class somewhat palatable: there don’t seem to be any opportunities for her in her own class; and through her brother’s example, her own class is portrayed as something any reasonable person would wish to get away from. Together, they allow Alice’s punishment to be mild and temporary, vouchsafing her love and happiness (and class) in the end.
Stella Dallas is a little more realistic in that we are aware of the fact that there are plenty of working class folks in Stella’s (Barbara Stanwyck) town of Millhampton, Massachusetts, many of whom work in a mill, including Stella’s father and her brother. We see mill hands saying hello to Stella as they walk by, but she is indifferent in her response to them. Like Alice’s brother, Stella’s brother is content to be working class, but Stella has set her sights on Stephen Dallas (John Boles). We learn from a brief glance at a newspaper clipping that Stephen was a man who came from an upper-class family. His once-millionaire father ended up penniless and committed suicide, leaving his son nothing. Stephen had hoped to marry Helen Morrison (Barbara O’Neil), his childhood sweetheart, but given his sudden misfortune, he simply disappeared, leaving a note saying that he was going to try to make a new life, which he apparently succeeded in doing, inasmuch as he has become the advertising manager at the mill. As a result of his disappearance, however, Helen has since married another man.
All of this information is given to us in a matter of seconds, but let’s think about it for a little longer than that. By having Stephen simply disappear, the movie avoids putting Helen in a bad light. We are allowed to think that she would have married Stephen anyway. After all, with his Harvard education, he could have supported her with a decent middle-class job like the one he got at the mill. Through his action, he is basically saying that he regarded himself as being unworthy of her, which is a kind of reverse snobbery. As a result, we are not surprised that when Stella manages to get him to marry her, he will come to think of her as unworthy of him.
But that’s only after they get married. While they are just dating, Stella tells Stephen that she wants to improve herself, to do everything “well-bred and refined.” “And Dull,” Stephen replies. “Stay as you are. Don’t pretend. Anyway, it isn’t really well-bred to act the way you aren’t.” Of course, when people say, “Just be yourself,” they usually have no idea what they are encouraging. They want you to be the person they imagine you to be, not the person you really are, which you have been at great pains to conceal, and rightly so.
Anyway, when they get married, that changes everything. Stella quits trying to improve herself, and Stephen becomes embarrassed by the way her working class background keeps surfacing. She wears costume jewelry, and she uses bad grammar—Stephen pulls a long face when she says “further” when she should have said “farther.” After she has a baby, she is not weak and bedridden the way any decent, upper-class woman would be, but rather her quick recovery is downright shameless and low class. Stephen is appalled.
The night they get back from the hospital, she discovers an invitation to go to a dance at the River Club, a club for the elite that Stella has long wanted to belong to, and she prevails upon Stephen to attend. At the dance, she meets Ed Munn (Alan Hale), a racetrack tout, popular with the upper class on account of the tips he provides them. Ed and Stella really hit it off, because he is the sort of man Stella should have married. He introduces her to some of the richest people in town.
After the dance, Stephen tells her he has been promoted to a position in New York, and that she will have to try extra hard to behave appropriately when they get there. Needless to say, that ticks her off. She tells Stephen that she wants to stay in Millhampton, now that she has finally become a part of that town’s high society. This leads to their separation, during which time she continues her friendship with Ed, which is completely innocent, but which makes Stephen suspicious and scandalizes Millhampton society. As a result, Stella’s daughter Laurel is ostracized, as when the mothers of the children invited to her birthday party suddenly send excuses for being unable to attend. Stephen becomes reacquainted with the now-widowed Helen and starts seeing her regularly, but because they do so with decorum and refinement, no one in New York holds that against them.
Because Laurel’s social opportunities in Millhampton have been foreclosed, Laurel ends up spending a lot of time with her father in New York. In so doing, she acquires the refinement her mother lacks. And she makes a lot of friends. Meanwhile, Stella has become so garish and loud in manner and dress that she is a parody of a floozy, and Ed has become a drunken slob, the result, apparently, of his unrequited love for Stella. In other words, we are presented with a picture of the working class that is so tawdry and repulsive that no one born into it could reasonably be expected to be content to remain there.
Both principles that worked to justify Alice’s desire to be admitted into the upper class are at work here too, only they apply to Stella’s daughter: she no longer has any social opportunities in Millhampton, and being working class is depicted as so awful that we cringe at the idea of Laurel being trapped in it.
Stella finally realizes what upper class people really think of her. She gives Stephen a divorce so he can marry Helen, and so that Laurel can live with them and have all the advantages of an upper-class life. Laurel remains faithful to her mother, but Stella pretends to reject her so that she will live with her father. Eventually, Laurel marries a rich young man, as Stella watches outside in the rain, after which she walks away, knowing that they will live happily ever after, because it is on account of her sacrifice that her daughter will now be upper class. It is this sacrifice on the part of a mother for her daughter that is the central idea of Stella Dallas, but it makes sense only if being a member of the upper class is such a wonderful thing that it justifies such a sacrifice.
The moral of these two movies, then, is that if you try to become a member of the upper class, people will spot you as a phony, and you will be humiliated. But if you manage to pull it off, it will bring love and happiness, as it does to Alice directly, and to Stella through her daughter.