On This Day in 1945: Katharine Hepburn Acts Like It Is Nineteen Thirty-Three

Well, the past three weeks or so have been rather trying. My New York City souvenir proves to be one of the most adhesive colds I’ve ever had the misfortune to catch. I’ve slipped up on several occasions composing my blog entries—and am indebted to those who pointed it out to me. For weeks now I have not been able to enjoy my daily dose of classic Hollywood. You know there’s something amiss when you, an ardent movie buff, find yourself dozing off while watching some of the finest motion pictures of Hollywood’s golden age. Over the past few weeks I’ve been falling asleep during or failing to follow film classics including (in order of their disappearance before my eyes) the exotic Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari; Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People; Garson Kanin’s Bachelor Mother; the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel; and The Milky Way starring my favorite comedian, Harold Lloyd. What will this cold deprive me of next!

Now, tonight I was determined to take in another holiday themed radio play—and, having selected an hourlong recording, I was anxious to put my attention to the test. Instead of nodding off, I found myself laughing and shedding tears as I listened to Erik Barnouw’s adaptation of Little Women, first heard on this day, 23 December, in 1945 on the Theatre Guild program. Barnouw, who later became one of the first historians of American broadcasting (and who recalled one of his experiences adapting plays for the Theatre Guild program in Media Marathon, pictured above), chopped up Louisa May Alcott’s beloved story so expertly that it comes across as whole and rich and unhurried. The success of this production is in large part due to the passionate performance of Katharine Hepburn as Jo, a role she first took on back in 1933, when she appeared in George Cukor’s cinematic rendering of the 1868 original.

Now, Ms. Hepburn’s voice aged rather more rapidly than her exterior; or at least it proved more difficult to cover up the brittleness of her vocal chords than it is to apply fresh paint to pallid or freckled cheeks. Generally, radio served aging actors quite well; but Ms. Hepburn, then merely 38 years old, sounded considerably older, especially when heard among the youthful voices of the three women who played her sisters. Since she also told the story in retrospect, however, this did not create much of a problem; besides, Hepburn’s enthusiasm and vigor readily assist the listener in imagining her as the quick-tempered and sharp-tongued Jo March, whose “ambition was to do something very splendid.”

Hepburn did something splendid that night, as did Oskar Homolka in the role of the Professor who wins Jo’s heart. The wounds of war were still fresh that Christmas—so Professor Bhaer was turned into an Austrian, instead of being Alcott’s idea of a “regular German—rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes [Jo] ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one’s ears good, after our sharp or slipshod American gabble.” With the exception of a line from Goethe, this adaptation cuts most references to and expressions in German, which feature so prominently in Alcott’s novel.

Still, after those two previously discussed holiday plays on Suspense—the second of which I apparently forgot as soon as I had heard it—this intelligible and charming aural production of Little Women was a joy not behold. “‘I wish it was Christmas or New Year’s all the time. Wouldn’t it be fun?’ answered Jo, yawning dismally.” I am yawning, too, now; but I am glad to have stayed awake long enough to see Jo and the Professor happily united.

Now it is time to pack my suitcase once again. I’m off to the south of Wales and to London thereafter. So (as not to be forced into perpetuating the unfortunate “Happy Holidays”/”Merry Christmas” debate), I’ll say in my native German, “Frohe Weihnachten,” one and all!

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