Alice Adams (1935)

This adaption from Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel contains one of Katharine Hepburn’s best performances IMHO, and the direction by George Stevens to the supporting cast shines. The plot follows the attempts of Alice’s (Hepburn) to break into small-town society, and falling in love with rich girl Mildred Palmer’s (Evelyn Venable) intended Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).

While many critics say Kate only played herself, this role proves them wrong, at least to some extent–the trademark dry wit and intelligence are absent, replaced by a simple, almost wistful outlook and awkward chatter in her character’s attempt to impress the “upscale” class. In another actress’s hands Alice could be maddening, but Hepburn pulls it off genuinely, her youthful radiance improving things, too.

George Steven’s direction balances heartbreaking moments with comedy; the two can often be found not too far from each other: a prime example being the well-known dinner scene–despite Hattie McDaniel’s (billed here with an “s” at the end of her name) disturbingly stereotyped maid, it’s still very funny and quietly sad at the same time.

MacMurray’s part is skimpy and doesn’t give him an opportunity to do anything remotely interesting–he doesn’t give any indication of what made him a star here. Fred Stone, the vaudevillian, plays Alice’s father, hounded by Alice and her mother (Ann Shoemaker) into setting up a factory with his and his boss’ formula for glue–without asking his boss first, a decision that costs something in the end. Frank Albertson plays Alice’s brother, whose presence seems to have been invented simply to provide another hindrance to the Adams’. Hedda Hopper, who at the end of the thirties was to become one of Hollywood’s leading gossip columnists plays a small role as Mrs. Palmer.

Even though a more realistic (and IMO, probably better) ending that Stevens and Hepburn wanted wasn’t used, it’s still worth checking out for the direction and performances, which elevate the dated material into the realm of Hepburn’s best.

Twelve O’ Clock High (1949)

This 1949 film was one of the first to attempt a realistic look at WWII, and it focuses on just how much “maximum effort” men can take. After Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) cracks under the strain of managing a low-morale Air Force squadron, General Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over, whipping the group into shape, but running himself and those around him into the ground as well with his brusque, disciplinarian tactics. While there isn’t much action, the nuanced, taut acting and direction of the psychological drama makes for a compelling watch. Definitely recommended!