Friday, February 28, 2020

Alice Adams Times Two

There’s more than one Alice Adams out there. She’s the heroine of a  1921 novel by Booth Tarkington, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his tale of a young woman determined to climb into the upper ranks of her small town, despite her parents’ low social status. The novel, hugely popular in its day, was adapted into a silent film in 1923. Twelve years later, after the advent of sound, it became a hit romantic drama directed by George Stevens and starring a perfectly-cast Katharine Hepburn. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (but was bested by Bette Davis), and the film was one of twelve (!) nominated for Best Picture.

I’ve not read Tarkington’s novel, but the Hepburn film is, I gather, mostly an accurate rendition, playing up the snobbery of small-town society but also the foolish dreams of a lower-middle-class mother and daughter who can’t be satisfied with the life they lead, instead fantasizing about taking their place among the swells. Hepburn, as a dutiful daughter who loves her parents the way they are but also a dreamer who deeply wants what she can’t afford, has never been fresher and more convincing. The conclusion of the film, though, departs from Tarkington’s original downbeat fadeout to give audiences a fairy-tale finish that’s hard to accept. (Word is that the production team fought for a more realistic end to the story, but was overruled by studio bosses at RKO who understood what would please the public.)

The other Alice Adams (1926-1999), was a celebrated author of novels and short stories. When she began life in Fredericksburg, Virginia, her parents—both of whom had literary connections—were aware of the Tarkington work, but doubtless felt it would soon fade from view.  They christened their daughter Alice Boyd Adams to combine the first name of an elderly cousin with the family name of Alice’s mother. “Thus,” says biographer Carol Sklenicka, “her name offers a microcosm of the complex jostling of tradition and modernity that marked Alice’s entire life and career.”

Carol Sklenicka is my colleague in the Biographers International Organization, and her biography, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer was published late last year by Scribner. It’s a hefty work, full of facts and insights, by a biographer who became so intimately  involved with the world of her subject that—through a bizarre set of circumstances—she helped to inter Alice’s ashes in the family cemetery after they were found on the shelf of a forgetful longtime friend. I admit that before now I was not much aware of Alice Adams’ work. But I’ve since read many of her  precisely-written stories as well as a 1980 novel, Rich Rewards, set in Adams’ adopted home town, San Francisco. This novel, I suspect, is one of the more cheerful in Adams’ canon. Though realistic in its telling, it ends with some of the charm of a fairytale, because the most appealing characters all seem to get what their hearts desire.

Still, I can’t help seeing the novel in contrast to the Hepburn film. Alice, the character created in the 1920s, is obsessed with clothes and parties, but it’s her father’s limited earnings that shape her life. By contrast, Daphne, the lead character in Alice Adams’ novel, has a profession and works hard at it. (The novel’s wealthy idlers, like the vacuous Stacey, don’t come off well.) Then there’s the fact that Hepburn’s dewy-eyed Alice is won with a tender kiss. Daphne, like her creator, is an intensely sexual being, and it takes far more than kissing to secure her love.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Disney Daze

I’m newly back from three wonderful family-filled days at Disneyland, where movie fantasies come to life. The Disney empire (which recently seems to have gobbled up everything in sight, including the late Twentieth Century Fox) was of course founded on movie magic. Young Walt Disney, a cartoonist from the Midwest, found Hollywood success through his creation of a peppy character he called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When he decided to go out on his own, he discovered that he did not own the rights to Oswald. So, with a few tweaks around the ears and tail, Oswald was converted into a plucky mouse. The original Mickey Mouse—small but dauntless—became an inspiration during World War II, and an international symbol of American  grit and chutzpah.

If Disney had stuck with Oswald, today’s millions of theme-park visitors might have been walking around wearing variations on rabbit ears. Instead, the two round circles on top of the head of the cartoon mouse have been re-imagined by the brand-conscious Disney folks as every possible sort of headgear. While at the park, I saw hundreds of people (adults as well as children) sporting head-bands and hats that married the Mickey look with references to Disney films. There was, for instance, the Ariel look (with a nod to The Little Mermaid, the ears are re-imagined as fan shells). And, in celebration of Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise, I spotted an Artoo Detoo mouse-ears look. There are even special ears for newlywed couples, featuring a veil for the bride and a tuxedo-design for the groom. The one kind of Disney headgear I didn’t spot was one that was an essential part of my childhood: the once-ubiquitous Davy Crockett coonskin cap.

Davy Crockett, an actual historic tale-teller who was re-imagined by Disney writers as a red-blooded western hero, was a popular feature on an early TV show that began broadcasting in 1954. Originally a black-and-white anthology series called Disneyland, it had evolved by 1961 into Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By any name, it was designed to create enthusiasm for the Anaheim theme park, which opened to the public in 1955 (and yes, I made my first visit soon thereafter). In the early days, when attractions (though colorful) were pretty tame, you wanted to end up in Fantasyland, where the rides reflected the plots of a whole raft of Disney animated cartoons: Snow White, Peter Pan, Dumbo. Back then, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” was about as exciting as things got. It was not long, though, before Disney imagineers became more ambitious in their designs. Today’s Disneyland features an Indiana Jones adventure that is genuinely scary, and of course there’s now an entire brand-new land reflecting the iconography (and the scares) of the Star Wars universe. Over at the resort’s second theme park, Disney California Adventure, Pixar’s Cars gets a whole cleverly-conceived section of its own. But my heart still belongs to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, which combines some roller-coaster elements with an eerie visit to a town where some funny-creepy pirates hold sway. “Pirates” is the rare top Disney attraction that wasn’t based on a popular movie. But it proved so popular that a film franchise evolved out of the ride. Naturally, the ride itself was then tweaked to make room for an animatronic figure who looks a whole lot like Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by Hollywood’s Johnny Depp

A century ago, people didn’t need theme parks: there were plenty of physical scares in real life. But now we all seem to thrive on make-believe danger. Roller-coasters, anyone?