I confess – I’ve never been a huge fan of either Katharine Hepburn (her earlier work, at least) or June Allyson. But Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a classic and it’s hard to resist watching classic films based on a classic. Of course, both the 1933 and the 1949 film versions have been shown on TV many times so it’s hard to miss them. I saw the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn as Jo March before I saw the 1949 color version with June Allyson as Jo. Although I usually prefer black-and-white versions (especially when they are from the Pre-code era), I actually found I loved Allyson’s version of Jo more than Hepburn’s. This isn’t the popular choice. Most people seem to agree with the Banana Oil blogger that “Hepburn is utterly perfect in the role of Jo. She was just made for it” (par. 3). But I felt Allyson’s performance took into consideration the context and intent of Alcott’s Jo March and the book in general when it debuted in 1868.
For me, Hepburn’s acting style, especially in the earlier years of her career, tended to be very up-front and and even a little aggressive at times. While this accentuated some of her bolder roles in the 1930’s such as Christopher Strong (made the same year as Little Women) and Mary of Scotland (1936), I think it works to her disadvantage in Little Women. Her rendition of Jo is more masculine (in a macho way) than tomboyish and, as Ginny at the Old Movie Nostalgia blog points out, “overwrought or over the top…” (par. 6). Indeed, her overblown exclamations of “Christopher Columbus!” did get on my nerves after a while. Hepburn’s own view of her performance in the film was that “‘[Director George Cukor] really caught… me [in] my youth!’” (as quoted in Old Movie Nostalgia, par. 6).
And for me, herein lies the problem. I can imagine Jo March of the 1933 film resembles Hepburn in her youth but Hepburn’s youth occurred in the 1920’s, not the 1860’s. It’s also well-known her mother was an early feminist who fought for women’s rights and birth control. Hepburn’s forceful and sometimes brassy Jo, while perfect for a teenager of that era (and certainly perfect for Hepburn’s personality) isn’t quite right for a mid-Victorian tomboy. I recently reread Little Women and one thing that stuck out to me is how Alcott clearly did not set out to create a teenage suffragist in the character of Jo March. Her book, in fact, reads more like an instruction guide for young women flowering into womanhood in 1860’s America. Alcott’s message in Jo is essentially that her tomboy ways and hot tempter might be passable and even cute in a girl child but moving into womanhood requires that she be tamed and “feminized” as only the Victorian era could have conceived of the word in all of its restrictive stereotypes. So Jo, along with her sisters, must take her place in society and understand the limitations of the Victorian separate spheres. In this context, Hepburn’s Jo, to me, just doesn’t fit.
In contrast, Allyson’s Jo walks the fine line between plucky and lady-like that seems to fulfill Alcott’s intentions. In her review of the film, Kristin Battestella says “[Allyson] gives all of herself in the outspoken, yet classy tomboy fashion…” (par. 5). Allyson’s Jo is charming, peppy and hot-tempered, but also sweet and funny. She is the epitome of what we might imagine a 1860’s young woman who is also a tomboy would be, which is amazing, considering Allyson was twice the age of Alcott’s Jo. I agree with Battestella that “[d]espite her being way too old for the part, we can’t help but like feisty little June and her button nose…” (par. 8). Allyson makes Jo dip into both spheres, balancing between them with ease. On the one hand, Jo is dedicated to her writing and refuses to marry Laurie (Peter Lawford) and in fact declares she won’t marry at all to dedicate herself to her career. On the other, she makes use of the feminine training nineteenth century young women of her class would have received and been expected to embrace. She is nurturing towards the physically delicate Beth (Margaret O’Brien) and ready to sacrifice one of her most precious possessions, her hair, to help pay for Marmie’s (Mary Astor) trip to Washington on an emergency. Even with her writing aspirations, she still cultivates some of the few occupations open to Victorian women at the time, like being a companion to fussy and opinionated Aunt March (Lucile Watson) and a nanny to two little girls when she goes to New York City to experience the world outside the isolated March household when she is older.
As most of my blog readers know, I am a huge believer in contextualizing. I think we can enjoy any work of art (whether a book, film, painting, or musical piece) on its own but to really understand it, we must look at it in the context of the historical backdrop, social world,and psychological beliefs of its time. Alcott’s book was written during a very specific time period with a very specific purpose, as the long lectures given by Marmie to her girls about feminine behavior and etiquette in the book attest. I feel Allyson captured the two sides of the rigid gender identities that had to be reconciled (that is, the tomboy had to give up her freedom and her temper to be more “ladylike” when she grew up) with age and maturity.
Battestella, Kristin. “Little Women (1933) and Little Women (1949).” Web blog post. I Think Therefore, I Review. Blogger. 15 December 2009. Web. 4 October 2017.
“Comparison Shopping: Little Women.” Web blog post. Banana Oil. WordPress. 29 December 2011. Web. 4 October 2017.
Ginny, “Little Women 1933 vs. 1949… and Dumb & Dumber (1994)?” Old Movie Nostalgia. Old Movie Nostalgia, 2017. 29 January 2015. Web. 4 October 2017.