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 ask 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 date. 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 don’t 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 foolish 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 phoniness 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.