Why LITTLE WOMEN (1933) is a very big deal


sisters

“There’s one thing George and I agree on. Actually, we agree on almost everything. I don’t know anything we don’t agree on. One thing we really agree on is, we love LITTLE WOMEN. We loved doing it. And we love the film we made.” (Katharine Hepburn in Chandler, 83)

LITTLE WOMEN (1933) was nominated for three categories in the 6th annual Academy Awards (1932/33): George Cukor for directing, RKO studios for best production, and Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman for writing (adaptation). Though the film came in third for direction and best production, husband and wife writing team Mason and Heerman walked away with the Oscar. Funnily enough, Katharine Hepburn was nominated, not for her performance as Jo, but for her role as Eva Lovelace in MORNING GLORY (1933), her first of four Oscar wins. Hepburn always insisted she was nominated for the wrong film.

poster“[MORNING GLORY] was very good, but it was tricked up, charming, mugging. [In LITTLE WOMEN] I gave what I call the main-course performance, not a dessert.” (Berg, 99)

Of all Katharine Hepburn most radically feminist films, it could be argued that LITTLE WOMEN is the most radical of them all. In most non-Hepburn films coming out of studio-era Hollywood, female characters were positioned in antagonistic relation to one another. As feminist/Marxist scholar Andrew Britton explains, this was not the case in Hepburn’s movies.

“[In Hepburn films] the bond between female blood relatives creates an oppositional unity in contradiction to that of the patriarchal family which gives it its basis: the Hepburn character is profoundly committed to the ‘other family’ and it is destroyed by the intervention of men.” (Britton, 105)

“Jo can only like [her father] because he isn’t around, and while she vows to ‘be what he likes to call me – a little woman,’ she is able to remain a ‘little man,’ and to retain both her … attachment to her sisters and her aspiration to fulfill herself creatively as a professional writer.” (Britton, 106)

Britton also points out how Alcott‘s writing, and the autobiographical nature of Little Women “confirms our sense of the literary tradition from which the Hepburn persona derives.” (Britton, 107)

One can categorize the films of Hepburn’s career into eight cycles of female characters (professional woman, spinster, democratic couple, mother, daughter, sister, literary/historical figure, communities of women, tomboy), and the Jo character falls into six (professional woman [writer], democratic couple [w/ Prof. Bhaer], sister, literary/historical figure [from Alcott’s novel], communities of women, and tomboy). 

jo and laurie

It is therefore not surprising that Katharine Hepburn identified most with her performance as Jo than any of her other screen characters.

“I would defy anyone to be as good as I was in LITTLE WOMEN. They just couldn’t be, they really couldn’t be, because I came from the same general atmosphere, enjoyed the same things. And I’m sure Louisa May Alcott was writing about herself and that kind of behavior that was encouraged in a New England girl; and I understood those things. I was enough of a tomboy myself; and my personality was like hers. I could say, ‘Christopher Columbus! What richness!’ and believe it totally. I have enough of that old-fashioned personality myself. Coming from a big family, in which I had always been dramatic, this suited my exaggerated sense of things.” (Berg, 97)

“I didn’t have to direct her. She directed herself. She is Jo. Of all those characters she ever played, it is the one who is closest to Kate herself, Kate and Jo really are the same girl. There’s no doubt that this girl put a lot of herself into Jo. Everything. Lines are important, but how they are delivered tells a tale. Expressions on her face, the way she moves…” (Cukor in Chandler, 83)

George Cukor directs Katharine Hepburn (Jo) and Douglass  Montgomery (Laurie).

George Cukor directs Katharine Hepburn (Jo) and Douglass Montgomery (Laurie).

Hepburn also drew parallels between Jo’s life decisions and her own relationships, offering this reading of Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s marriage proposal.

“It was because she loved the career to which she aspired more than she loved him. Though she didn’t completely understand it herself, she really wasn’t looking for marriage. Maybe that’s how I felt about Howard [Hughes].” (Chandler, 85)

Bhaer

Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor had worked together before teaming up on LITTLE WOMEN, but their friendship was solidified during production. There is a bit of friendly controversy about whether or not Cukor actually read Alcott’s novel before, during or after making the movie. He admitted to Charlotte Chandler later in life that he had been too busy at the time to read it (82). But apparently he told Hepburn’s friend and biographer Scott Berg that he had read it, and when Berg told Hepburn, she called him out on it.

“Oh, that’s such bunk! I’m telling you that man never read the book. I’m telling you George Cukor never read that book. But that didn’t matter. We had a wonderful script to work with, one that was really true to the spirit of the novel.” (Berg, 97)

Cukor and Hepburn clowning around on set

Cukor and Hepburn clowning around on set

Producer David O. Selznick and Cukor initially quarreled over the scripts. There was talk at one point of setting the story in contemporary times, but both Cukor and Hepburn vetoed the idea. When Selznick moved from RKO over to MGM immediately before filming, Cukor was able to hire the writers he wanted for the project.

“There were a number of scripts done on this. They were all mediocre. Actually bad. Then Sarah Mason and Victor Heerman were hired. They wrote a brilliant script, in my humble opinion. Simple and true and naïve, but really believable. It was amazing the difference between this script and its predecessors. Mason and Heerman believed the book. So did I. The others didn’t.” (Hepburn, 147)

ham

The filming of LITTLE WOMEN was all but dull. At one point, there was a sound strike across the industry and they were forced to hire inexperienced sound men. (Hepburn, 149)

“Kate had to do take after take after take of a very emotional scene simply because the sound people kept messing it up. After the fifteenth take, or whatever, they got it – and Kate was so exhausted and agonized by all that weeping she threw up. But not until we’d got the take.” (Cukor in Edwards)

Then there was an incident in which Cukor lost his temper at Hepburn and actually slapped her.

“Once, I actually hit Kate (not hard enough, probably). She had to run up a flight of steps carrying some ice cream, and I told her to be very careful because we didn’t have a spare of the dress she was wearing, so she mustn’t spill the ice cream. But she did and ruined the dress, and then she laughed – and I hit her and called her an amateur.” Always the one to have the last word, Hepburn retorted, “You can think what you want.” (Edwards)

Aside from these setbacks, filming was fairly harmonious. The beautiful dress Jo wears to the opera with Prof. Bhaer was actually a copy from an old tintype of Hepburn’s maternal grandmother, Caroline Garlinghouse Houghton. Hepburn plays a slightly melodramatic scene coming home from the opera, so some of the crew lowered a ham on a string from a crane. Everybody, including Hepburn, thoroughly enjoyed the joke.

Joan Bennett, who plays Amy, was quite pregnant at the time so costume designer Walter Plunkett had to arrange her dresses to hide her baby bump, and many of her scenes had to be shot from the chest up. However, her confinement did not hamper her performance as the youngest March sister.

LITTLE WOMEN was a huge financial success for RKO and did very well at the Academy Awards that year. But the success of the movie had negative repercussions for both George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn. Cukor was forever branded a “women’s director” and essentially pigeonholed into a category that was not representative of his vast talents as a director of all actors, male and female alike.


After LITTLE WOMEN Hepburn returned to New York to star in “The Lake,” which proved to be an epic fail, personally and professionally. In her review of the play, Dorothy Parker made her now-famous quip, “Katharine Hepburn runs the ga-MUTT of emotions from A to B.” Upon her return to Hollywood, Hepburn was forced to accept costume drama roles as the studio attempted to perpetuate the glory of LITTLE WOMEN. Unfortunately, the studio failed to realize that it was Hepburn’s likeness to the character Jo, and not the period setting of the story, that captured the essence of her talent and attracted audiences to that performance. Hepburn only had a few more successful films for the remainder of the decade, eventually escaping to the East coast after being branded “box office poison.” Luckily, a little Broadway played called “The Philadelphia Story” quickly got her back on her feet and into the game again. Then she would meet Spencer Tracy and they all live happily ever after!

goodbye marmee

This post is written in conjunction with the 31 Days of Oscars blogathon hosted byOnce Upon a ScreenPaula’s Cinema Club, and Outspoken & Freckled. Week one featured historic Oscar snubs. Week two is devoted to miscellaneous categories (check out my post about writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin). Academy-nominated actors were celebrated week three (of course I wrote about the only time KH went to the Oscars). The directors were the focus for last week (I wrote about the wonderful George Cukor). This week we give a big shout out to all the wonderful Oscar-nominated films!


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