While Kay Francis' Jo is really a great effort on her part, she's about the only one in the film that is attractive. Professor Bhaer is a complete moron. The film wants us to believe he is an innocent, but he is, in fact, a complete doofus. Imagine giving your life savings to a complete stranger because you like his face! And this, when Professor Bhaer is already in debt because he is unable to approach the parents of the boarding students to collect the monies owed to him and his wife. Because of Bhaer's stupidity, his home and his school are endangered (in the book, Jo and Bhaer own Plumfield outright - it was left to Jo by Aunt March). Charles Esmond tries to make Bhaer appealing, but he doesn't have a whole lot to work with. Bhaer is beyond naive, and it is very difficult to get past his disregard for the safety of his family and students.
I suspect none of us would claim to be fans of Jack Oakie, but he is truly out-of-place in this story. His "comic relief" is not really funny, and his inclusion in the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Without giving away the ending, his position as a deus-ex-machina is really silly. Our other lead, played by George Bancroft, is a con man and thief. The only appealing aspect of his character is his love for his adopted son. What Bancroft brings to the role is an obvious affection for the young man, and a desire that Dan have a better life than what Major Burdle can provide for him.
We are so used to seeing Kay Francis in prestige pictures that this RKO film seems like a very low budget film. Francis, who was highly paid in the 1930s, was beginning to feel Warner Brothers disinterest in her, as the groomed younger (and lower paid) actresses like Bette Davis to replace her. This TCM article goes into more detail about the persecution Francis faced: the studio even loaded her scripts with "r" words, so her lisp was emphasized. Despite that, her Jo is a good, strong character. It's obvious though, that she is not the star - as you can see by the ad below, even a cow gets the same billing as Ms. Francis.
We'll be back next week with a 1940s mystery film.