Little Women (1933) – Katharine Hepburn Project #1

Little Women 1933

Yes indeed, today marks the first official installment of my Katharine Hepburn project. I’ve started with the earliest of her films available on iTunes, Little Women from 1933. According to IMDb, this is her fourth film and only her second year of film-making. I find it fascinating that she’s already so very “Katharine Hepburn”. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. She’d been acting on Broadway for some time before this, and she won an Academy Award for her previous film, Morning Glory. I suppose it should be no surprise she’d already settled into her personal style.

I reluctantly admit, this fact makes me a bit nervous for the rest of this project. I was emphatically not a fan of her work in Little Women. Her performance as Jo, the tomboy of the March family, is so over-the-top and in-your-face* it kept dragging me out of the movie. In an era of movie-making not known for naturalistic performances, this was even more non-naturalistic than the rest of the cast. I suppose on the bright side, that made Meg, Amy, and Beth seem more realistic in contrast, but it’s a small consolation.

I guess I expected to see something unexpected from her here. I’d only seen her later work, and I assumed in an earlier film she’d be a little more toned town or something. If anything, the opposite is the case. In the films I’ve seen (this one included), her characterization is quite similar. Is this typecasting? Or a lack of range? I hope to come across some performances that break the mold, though I suspect once her style was identified, she was cast to be that character.  But hey, I’m really early in this process, and who knows what I’ll come across as I progress? (Okay, some of you probably know exactly what I’ll come across. But I don’t yet!)

As for the film itself, I don’t think it did her any favors. It was a rather insipid adaptation of a slice-of-life novel. There’s no villain, there’s no conflict, there’s just life happening for a while. Some good things happen. Some not-so-good things happen. I didn’t find myself caring terribly much about any of it. And that’s odd because I can be perfectly happy with that kind of a film (see The Best Years of Our Lives), but this one just didn’t do it for me. That came as a bit of a surprise, as I read an abridged-for-children version of the book Little Women when I was quite young. I was engrossed. It was the first time I’d read anything where a beloved main character died, and it blew my little mind (in a good way). I always meant to read the grown-up version, but somehow I never got around to it. Maybe that’s for the best, as my tastes have clearly changed.

I think perhaps the film focused on the wrong things for my taste. The play Jo performs in the living room is silly (in a mildly-annoying way) and goes on far too long. That screen time could have been better spent developing the characters, who all felt like archetypes more than people.** I didn’t get a good idea how Jo felt about Laurie (or Professor Bhaer or anything else for that matter). All I knew was she chafed at her sedate life and wanted to see the world. There was no more depth than that. Amy was supposed to mature before our eyes, but that didn’t come across as clearly as I’d’ve liked. Meg seemed fairly wooden throughout. (Okay so Beth was wonderful. Any character who carries around a basket full of kittens and offers them to sick friends is alright by me. And Jean Parker’s performance was perfect. I just wanted to give her hugs All The Time.)

I hate that this first post has been so negative, so I’m going to end by focusing on the positive. Beth wasn’t the only thing that made me happy about this film. In fact, the very first moments filled me with warm joy. Technically, that wasn’t the movie itself–it was the RKO logo and its familiar “beep beep beep”. It never fails to make me smile. I think the fact that it’s long gone and such a part of movie history adds to that feeling of weird nostalgia. (Weird because RKO Pictures went under almost two decades before I was born. But I’ve always been particularly susceptible to secondhand nostalgia.)

I also loved the costumes and set design. The sets were both beautiful and authentic. They were based on the real-life home of Louisa May Alcott, the author of the book on which the film is based. The period dresses were lovely. Apparently, Katharine had the costume designers create a dress for her that was similar to one her own grandmother wore in an old tintype. That’s all kinds of sweet. And watching Katharine Hepburn climb out a window (or slide down a banister or sword-fight with fireplace utensils) in a big hoop-skirt was delightful.

Speaking of delightful, while I may not be the biggest fan of Kate’s style, I freely admit there is something about her. The one scene that almost made up for the rest of the film was right after Jo sold her hair. Her response to the family’s reaction was played beautifully. If the rest of the film had had this kind of restraint, I’d’ve had a much different experience watching it. And to be fair, even if she’s over-doing it, when she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s a natural star, and she sparkles like one.

Despite my feelings about Little Women, I look forward to continuing this project. I want to see more of that sparkle.

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A Note on Availability

As I’ve said, I’ll be renting all the Kate flicks available on iTunes (Canada). Here’s the list of what’s currently available there. This is subject to change if iTunes adds/removes any of these titles:

1933 Little Women
1935 Alice Adams
1938 Bringing Up Baby
1938 Holiday
1940 The Philadelphia Story
1942 Woman of the Year
1948 State of the Union
1949 Adam’s Rib
1951 The African Queen
1952 Pat and Mike
1955 Summertime
1956 The Rainmaker
1957 Desk Set
1959 Suddenly, Last Summer
1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
1968 The Lion in Winter
1969 The Madwoman of Chaillot
1974 That’s Entertainment***
1975 Rooster Cogburn
1981 On Golden Pond
1986 Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry
1988 Laura Lansing Slept Here
1994 Love Affair

If your favorite Kate film is not in this list, and you really want me to cover it, check out my Amazon.ca Wish List. I’ve added as many of the remaining Katharine Hepburn films as I could find on DVD. They weren’t all there, and some that were are out of print, so they’re stupidly expensive or imports that might be a bit dodgy. But if you’re burning for me to write about One Christmas, her last film (a TV-movie from 1994) then by all means, send it my way. Though remember, I’m going in chronological order, so I won’t be getting to her later films for Quite Some Time.

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*And possibly several other hyphenated phrases.

**And that’s extra-sad, given they’re all based on real people.

***I can find no record of Katharine Hepburn being in That’s Entertainment, so I suspect iTunes is mistaken. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before, and I don’t remember her appearing in it either. I may watch it anyway, just for fun, but I probably won’t write about it unless Kate suddenly appears.

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One thought on “Little Women (1933) – Katharine Hepburn Project #1

  1. […] lesser actor’s hands, those traits may not have shined enough to smooth out my annoyance. I think I mentioned Katharine Hepburn “glowing” as Jo in Little Women. Here, she’s positively effulgent. It’s not just the cheesecloth-close-ups that make her seem […]

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