Little Women (1933): Cukor on the Moment Katharine Hepburn Became a Star

After seeing a preview of Bill of Divorcement, Selznick thought that Little Women would be a perfect vehicle for the young and talented Katharine Hepburn. When he approached Cukor about the project, the director confessed that he had not read the book. “It was always considered a little’s girl story,” Cukor later recalled, “it seemed awfully syrupy.”

However, once he read the novel, Cukor found it strong-minded, full of solid virtues, and ripe for a new screen adaptation, especially with Hepburn in the lead. Hepburn was delighted at the prospect of working with Cukor again, though accused him of never having finished the book. Despite his vehement denials, this became a running joke between them.

Set during the Civil War in Concord, Massachusetts, the film is dominated by women. Mr. March, off fighting the war, leaves his wife Marmee (Spring Byington), to take care of their four daughters. Jo (Hepburn) is an ardent tomboy; Beth (Jean Parker), gentle and sweet; Meg (Frances Dee), tender and romantic; and Amy (Joan Bennett) dainty and sly. With the exception of Jo, the sisters try to live up to their father’s expectations to be responsible “little women,” to fit into the traditional mold of femininity.

Cukor refused to tamper with Jo’s love interest which develops awkwardly and rather late in the narrative. He also insisted that a version of the script, in which Jo’s novel becomes a smash success, be modified to present a less idealized view. Cukor wanted to depict a family that accepts hardship and sacrifice as a matter of course–without nobility.

Jo, the most eccentric of the sisters, is the center of the movie, and Hepburn’s superlative performance, singled out at the l934 Cannes Festival, makes her all the more prominent. Hepburn was born to play the part: her Jo is fiercely proud, but also funny and foolish. There were similarities between Hepburn’s life and her character, which gave greater depth to her portrayal. Like Jo, Hepburn was a New England girl, enormously devoted to her parents, particularly to her mother, a Fabian Socialist and active in women’s rights.

By this film, with an Oscar to her credit, Hepburn had become an accomplished actress. She gave such an inspired performance that the viewers went with whatever she did. Exuding charm and vitality, Hepburn brought out the elements that would make the film alive and contemporary for years–family love, unselfishness, truthfulness to one’s self.
Cukor also had emotional affinity with Jo, who like him was not only an outsider, but also an artist. His direction conveys effectively the process by which Jo’s restlessness and frustration are actively channeled into her creative career. Jo’s determination to make her own way as a writer, leads her to decline marriage. “Look at me world, I’m Jo March, and I’m so Happy!” says Jo in a moment of exhilaration.

When Hepburn said love is “sickly and sentimental,” and “why is it that things always have to change just when they’re perfect,” audiences believed her. Like Jo, Cukor was more interested in pursuing his career than having a rich love life.

Working together for the second time, Cukor and Hepburn were developing an intense relationship imbued with forthright honesty and humor. There was a sound strike, while they were filming the scene in which Beth was dying for the nth time, with Hepburn weeping at her bedside. Cukor did at least 20 takes of the weeping scene, with Hepburn weeping day after day, but the amateur replacement soundman couldn’t get it right. Cukor was growing increasingly impatient–he could see Hepburn’s hard work, but didn’t like the results. One day, after crying so much, Hepburn was so tired and frustrated she threw up. Unsympathetic, Cukor said, “Well, that’s what I think of the scene too.”

At one point during the shoot, Cukor became so enraged that he actually struck Hepburn across the face. Hepburn was to run upstairs with a plate of food. Beforehand, Cukor warned her, “be careful, don’t laugh, because I’ll kill you if you do.” But in making her way up the stairs, she slipped and spilled the ice-cream on her one and only dress. Furious, Cukor hit her while screaming, “You, amateur.” Hepburn was taken aback, but did not to show it. “I probably didn’t hit her hard enough,” Cukor later mused.

But Cukor’s directorial touch was usually more light-hearted. In the scene where Jo goes to NY and sees opera for the first time, she is transfixed, suddenly wanting to be an opera singer. Cukor noticed that Hepburn was twirling around with great exuberance and verve, in an exquisite dress that had been copied from one of her grandmother’s. He thought that she was too high-minded, fancying herself a bit too much. After a long take, as Hepburn sank to the ground in a curtsy, Cukor had a large ham tied to a rope lowered into view! He made his point.

A humorous incident, which occurred during Little Women, taught Cukor the need to be discriminating in his choice of consultants. Hepburn insisted that “In New England, there is always poinsettia on the breakfast table, it’s an absolute law.” Cukor dutifully obliged, and had a plant brought in. But when they shot the scene, a crew member said, “What is that doing on the table” “Well,” Cukor said, “you should know, you’re from New England.” “I never saw one before,” the man said. Cukor learned a lesson–“Be careful of what advice you take and from whom.”

Selznick produced Little Women again in 1948 at MGM, but early on he realized something basic was missing. He called Cukor and asked for his honest opinion. “It’s perfectly all right,” Cukor said after looking at the rushes, “but it hasn’t got magic.” Cukor felt that the l948 version made the mistake of slicking the novel up, and the acting did not measure up to his version. June Allyson, who played Jo in the MGM movie, was no Hepburn. Cukor knew that it was Hepburn’s great performance that cast magic over his film.