“If wearing hair up means becoming a lady, I’ll wear it down until I’m 100 years old.”
There are some actors who were seemingly never young. You find the oldest Sean Connery movie you can, I guarantee he’s at least middle aged in it. I know Clint Eastwood was on telly as a younger man, but you find his earliest work on the big screen, he’s already gravelly and craggy. Katherine Hepburn is an actress who I always imagine as having a kind of confidence that only comes with a certain maturity. Even when she’s the young love interest in something like Bringing Up Baby, she still feels old enough to be kind of worldly. But today I found a movie where she is out and out young, and it was kind of jarring to see that, in Little Women.
It’s the American Civil War, and while their father is off fighting for the North, the four March girls and their mother (Spring Byington) try to maintain the family’s Massachusetts home. Eldest daughter Meg (Frances Dee) runs the home and strives to be appositive influence on her younger sisters. Second eldest is Jo (Hepburn), the headstrong tomboy who bucks every traditional expectation. Daughter three is Beth (Jean Parker), the quiet sensitive one. While youngest March girl, Amy (Joan Bennett) is the bratty school girl.
Fending for themselves in a man’s world, the March women are surprisingly independent for a story written in the 19th century, and set even earlier than that. Without a man to take care of them, they all take on various jobs and responsibilities beyond their age to make ends meet. And even when male characters do become important to the story, they’re never knights in shining armor who come to save the day. It’s still the women who drive this story.
When things begin, the daughters range from 12 to 16 years old, and the story will follow them into adulthood when some even start their own families. But the majority of the story takes place with at the above ages, where things like school, boys and impending adulthood occupy each of their thoughts in different ways, giving those issues differing perspectives from each.
I’ve seen plenty of Katherine Hepburn performances before, but her work in Little Women really surprised me. She’s so young, so girl like. Her take no shit vibe that is so integral to so many of her more famous performances isn’t quite there yet, but you can see the seeds of it. And it’s just the perfect mixture of take no shit attitude, with genuine vulnerability, that make Jo by far the most interesting character.
And it’s lucky that Hepburn gives such a watchable performance. Because while the strong female characters was a nice surprise for a movie of this vintage, the story of Little Women, or at least, this adaptation of Little Woman, never really did much with them. So while I think it’s definitely worth watching just to see one of Hollywood’s most ionic stars in an early role, it’s not really worth watching for all the other stuff going on around her.