Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, a lower middle-class family tries to help Alice win a gentleman.
Flowers are too expensive for Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) to buy; so she picks violets from the park. After Ma (Ann Shoemaker) criticizes her ill husband Virgil Adams (Fred Stone), he feels like a failure. Ma makes her son Walter Adams (Frank Albertson) take Alice to the dance. For a long time only stumbling Frank dances with Alice. She throws her wilted violets on the floor; but Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) picks them up for her and dances with her. She sends him to find Walter, who is throwing dice with his colored friends. Alice goes home and cries.
J. A. Lamb (Charley Grapewin) brings Virgil a cigar and assures his job. Ma tells Alice that her father invented a formula for glue. Alice meets Arthur on the street; they talk as they walk to her house. Walter tells Alice that Arthur is going to marry wealthy Mildred Palmer. Alice hopes for three days before Arthur calls on her. He invites her to Henrietta's dance; but Alice says she must stay home with her father. Ma overhears and complains to Virgil, because Henrietta didn't invite Alice. Alice hears them arguing about the formula.
Virgil shows his wife his glue works being built, but he is worried Lamb didn't respond to his letter. Alice is going out with Arthur and feels "sadly happy" because she sees their summer evenings being over. Walter tells his father he must have $150, but Virgil doesn't have it. Walter is working for Lamb. Ma asks Alice to invite Arthur to dinner. Arthur dines with the Palmers. Mildred wonders whether to invite Alice to her dance, and Mr. Palmer says Virgil Adams stole a glue formula from Lamb. Ma and Alice fret over the dinner and instruct the hired maid (Hattie McDaniel). The dinner is poignant as Virgil has his shirt open, his soup taken away by Alice, spills a brussel sprout, and spoons melted ice cream. Alice makes conversation; but afterwards she asks Arthur what is wrong. He says nothing upset him. Alice says he is deceiving her, feels she won't see him again, and says good-bye.
Walter took $150 from Lamb, and Virgil goes to get a loan on his factory; but Lamb arrives and tells him he is opening a glue factory too. Virgil says Lamb is ruining him and his family. Alice tells Lamb it is her fault and explains that her father really admires Lamb. She promises to work and pay the money. Lamb tells Virgil they can work it out together. Virgil tells Alice she is the smartest girl and that Arthur likes her for herself. Alice goes out on the porch and finds Arthur, who tells her he loves her and kisses her.
This story of a fairly typical family in the early 1920s explores the social challenges that are often influenced by economic struggles. Hepburn is brilliant as the bright and nervous Alice, who almost talks herself out of a fine relationship; but Arthur is patient and smart enough to value her.