Cinderella and the glue factory. George Stevens’ introduction of the provincial main street reflected on storefront windows is a Hal Roach gag that goes into The Magnificent Ambersons: The camera pans right over boutique marquees, tilts down just in time to catch Alice (Katharine Hepburn) leaving a thrift store, then pans left to follow her as she slips into a corsage shop too pricey for her. (Dissolve to Alice furtively picking a bouquet of violets at the park.) Money is family, an ailing father (Fred Stone) and a needling mother (Ann Shoemaker) embody the middle-class household the social-climbing heroine seeks to shed; her brother (Frank Albertson), "no society snake," accompanies her to the upper-crust ball in a wheezing jalopy. The party sequence, with Alice getting her feet crushed on the dance floor by a wistful momma’s boy (Grady Sutton), suggests Jane Austen’s "rotary motion attributed to giddiness and false steps" (Sanditon), or at the very least Visconti by way of Charley Chase. It builds to a sweltering family dinner with the town’s most well-heeled bachelor (Fred MacMurray), a sustained bit of harrowing comic embarrassment. (Look at Hattie McDaniel’s eyes and find not shuffling servility, but undisguised scorn for the characters’ many pretenses.) All women are aspiring actresses, says the father, though Stevens’ deadpan-humane approach dilutes the acid of Booth Tarkington’s social critique: The camera scarcely softens the mortified smiles and anxious guffaws of the bourgeois-wannabe protagonist, yet in close-ups the tremulous creature’s vulnerability and intelligence glow. A film about Hepburn, then, a fable of the sublime and ludicrous swan seeking emotional acceptance while remaining true to her disruptive contradictions of class and gender. "What kind of woman are you?" "I’m just me." Cinematography by Robert De Grasse. With Evelyn Venable, Charley Grapewin, Hedda Hopper, and Jonathan Hale. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce