Little Women and, Well, Little Women
By Kristin Battestella
Last December, I took in a critical of analysis of Gillian Armstrong’s very fine 1994 adaptation of Little Women. But just when you thought I couldn’t whip up any more traditional Christmas sentimentality, this December I’m taking a chilly winter’s night in with not just one Little Women, but both the 1933 and 1949 film versions. Hold on to your hoop skirts!
Although family audiences and even confident men can enjoy Little Women, women young and old especially adore this 19th century coming of age tearjerker. For every girl’s fancy, there’s a March sister playing and growing up through the seasons in
. Looking for Love Meg, tomboy writer Josephine, shy piano player Beth, and materialistic Amy cherish their Marmee while they befriend wealthy next-door neighbor Theodore Laurence and wait for their Father’s return from the Civil War. What’s not to love? Concord
The 1933 first talkie edition from director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, A Star is Born, Gaslight) adapts Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 by adding several expository scenes and transitions at the opening of the film. Of course, there’s also plenty of Christmas enchantment to be had in this heartwarming tale of family loves and loss during the Civil War. The music and old-fashioned December traditions scattered throughout the film will remind the young at heart and sentimental how things used to be. There’s seriously cold weather, the joy of sausage for Christmas Day dinner, and plenty of wartime generosity to warm any grinch.
Naturally, the black and white cinematography doesn’t allow for the bright styles of other Little Women pictures, but the snowy locations and onscreen holiday music make up for the monochromatic silver screen. The costumes by Academy Award winner Walter Plunkett (An American in
, How the West Was Won) are the poor man’s hoops skirts we expect, and the Victorian set decoration looks wonderfully authentic. Ironically, Plunkett would also have costuming credit on the 1949 version, along with more credit to screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (Magnificent Obsession). The couple won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar here, and this 1933 version also saw nominations for Best Picture and Director. Paris
Why is it that in Little Women films, the stars always end up being the ladies who play Jo and Amy? An older Katharine Hepburn made to look younger and a blonde Joan Bennett (We’re No Angels, Dark Shadows) too old to play the littlest March sister battle it out in proper over the top thirties fashion. Hepburn is clearly having a good time with this much beloved character. She gives all of herself in the outspoken, yet classy tomboy fashion old school fans have come to expect from the future star of classics such as The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby. Of course, the budding icon would win her first of four Best Actress Oscars for the more mature Morning Glory, also released in 1933. It’s not so much the peculiar ages and casting of Hepburn, but that she has the wonderful range for the part.
Bennett, of course, was pregnant and in her early twenties while playing the school aged Amy. Her acting family pedigree, however, strengthens her high-class portrayal of the youngest, most uppity March girl who covets the finest things and wishes her family returned to wealth and good standing. Spring Byington (December Bride, You Can’t Take it With You) is ever charming as the good hearted Marmee, and Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk) is delightfully crotchety as Old Aunt March. Jean Parker (The Gunfighter) and Frances Dee (Of Human Bondage- but perhaps better known as Mrs. Joel McCrea) are also wonderfully marshmallow as Meg and Beth, respectively; but the first and third girls are always overshadowed by their star sisters.
The 1949 color extravaganza is no different in its star treatment of Jo and Amy, casting the 32 year old June Allyson (The Glenn Miller Story, Executive Suite) and a be-blonded Elizabeth Taylor (A Place in the Sun, Cleopatra, Butterfield 8)-who’s now the number three March sister instead of the youngest. Wouldn’t you change your literary classic to make room for Elizabeth Taylor?
Traditionally a blonde herself, Allyson dons Jo’s dark hair and spunky style. Despite her being way too old for the part, we can’t help but like feisty little June and her button nose-especially in the famous scene were Jo has sold her hair. Her spontaneity is a treat, too. Unlike other Amys past and future, Elizabeth Taylor is also charming. She’s prim and uppity yes, but somehow likeable in her expressions. Like the rest of the cast, she’s enjoying herself. A very young Janet Leigh (Psycho, Touch of Evil) also looks delightful as Meg, and Margaret O’Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis) is adorable as the now youngest, but still tragic Beth.
Where Douglass Montgomery is a little bland in our 1933 edition, Peter Lawford (It Happened in
Brooklyn, Easter Parade) makes his presence known here as Laurie. Well and sure, he’s a fine actor and all of that, but it’s a little more of his Kennedy and Rat Pack connections that have us noting each of his scenes with ‘It’s Peter Lawford!’ Oscar Winner Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon, The Great Lie) is also perfect as Marmee.
Charming as our prior adaptation is, there’s a little more Christmas here in all its Technicolor glory. The poor, homemade but splendid
décor, the joy of a dollar to spend on presents-and all they could get for their dollars! The onscreen caroling is also delightful, along with snowy escapades, good deeds, and bundles of petticoats. Little Women looks heartwarming despite the March family’s seeming depravity, and this 1949 take won the Color Art and Set Decoration Oscar. In sharing an almost identical script and screenplay, there shouldn’t be that many differences amid these two Little Women takes-but oh, there are. Some of the scenes are in a different order, and there’s no European travels here. Yet, somehow, the 1949 version is longer. Nevertheless, it’s also great fun to hear some of the exact same lines delivered by a different cast. Teachers of the novel or literary fans might enjoy a back-to-back viewing for classroom study or comparison. I don’t know that I could choose between these two versions of Little Women. Some of the 1933 tale is a little more over the top, but it has Katharine Hepburn! Then, again 1949 looks so good. Both features are certainly family friendly to young audiences and classic film fans. Victoria
I may still have my old VHS, but DVD editions and video on demand options are available for both Little Women and, hee, Little Women. The sets are a little slim on features, but a digitally restored and preserved film copy is plenty enough. Now, I certainly don’t consider myself the sentimental and super girlie type, but one knows a fine character drama when one sees it. Alcott’s true to her time story of sisters growing to womanhood is still a dang fine tale. Naturally, it makes not one, but three exceptional holiday films. Fans of the novel can certainly enjoy the old school films here, and families can enjoy Little Women at Christmas or throughout the year.