Little Women (1933)
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I hate to make a snap judgement, having not seen any more versions of Little Women than the 1994 one, but I believe that this version, made by RKO studios and starring a delightful Katharine Hepburn as Jo March, has every right to be considered the definitive film version of the Alcott novel. The writing, for one thing, is exceptional. Although never quite the novel's substitute, it condenses the book marvellously, sketching the characters and relationships of the girls quickly and efficiently, and never skipping over the best parts of the book (for example, Laurie's profession of love for Jo). Of course the screenplay will never measure up to the book--it is rare that a film could surpass the wealth of detail and beauty of description available from the written word. But nothing's perfect, and this screenplay, by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, is as close as an adaptation can get while retaining its own distinct flavour as a film.
As for the casting, I have very few complaints about it, since Hepburn--all angles and attitude, all loud-voiced and tomboyish--is perfect as Jo and is ably supported by Frances Dee as Meg, Henry Stephenson as the sweetly paternal Mr. Laurence and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie (though he plays the role a tad too fey for my liking). Special praise must be reserved for both Jean Parker (Beth March) and Paul Lukas (Professor Fritz Bhaer): Parker for bringing an impossibly sweet and lovely character to life, and making the audience genuinely grieve for Beth when she takes her leave of her family; Lukas for managing to avoid making Professor Bhaer a hard, frightening man with whom the audience simply cannot imagine Jo being in love (as is *my* impression from the book). I was rather disappointed with Joan Bennett as Amy, and that is of course partly attributable to the fact that the character isn't particularly sympathetic in the novel either, so it isn't really fair to expect a miracle from Bennett. Still, Bennett seemed to me to be the most lifeless of the sisters--one might think this an unfair judgement, since anyone acting opposite the powder keg that is Katharine Hepburn could easily be deemed lifeless if he or she weren't able to hold his/her own against her. Still, the arguably less well-known Frances Dee and Jean Parker had no problem with it.
In the final analysis though, there is no doubt that this film, however 'ensemble' the cast, belongs only to Hepburn. Her performance, although somewhat mannered and brassy at times (not necessarily simultaneously, thank goodness!), is nothing short of brilliant. She's sad, she's funny, she's touching, and as she does in her best roles, she transcends her own (pretty formidable!) character to breathe life into Jo as only she can. Witness the simple scene in which Jo breaks down, alone, at night, after having sold her hair for her mother's travel expenses... or the scene when Jo truly believes that scarlet fever is going to take Beth from her, and she trudges up into her own attic, the weight of the world on her shoulders, and collapses into tears. There is also nothing more charming than Hepburn as she gallops down the stairs in a frock which she burnt by leaning against the fireplace, or when she runs like a free, untamed spirit through the woods when chased by Laurie. Strange, sweet, funny Jo--this complex combination of jealous child and strong woman, stubbornly refusing to relinquish the familiar while adamantly placing her family above her own interests always... it really is a role that seems to have been written for Hepburn, just as she seems to have been born to play it. It is perhaps for LITTLE WOMEN as much as for MORNING GLORY (released in the same year) that Hepburn won her first Oscar in 1933. Nobody photographs Hepburn as flatteringly as her good friend and director George Cukor either, so some of the close-up shots of her in LITTLE WOMEN are simply breathtaking in having managed to capture her beauty, her youth and her personality all at once.
Nothing about this film is perfect; after all, perfection is too high a standard to be applied to adaptations (and most other films!). But LITTLE WOMEN really does have a little something to offer everybody--a sweet, timeless story about love and growing up and family. It's something that everyone can relate to, and that's probably more than enough.
Katherine Hepburn heads the cast, and gives plenty of life to Jo. Naturally she gets the main focus, but the other sisters and the secondary characters also get some good moments, and most of them get a chance to steal a scene or two. Henry Stephenson and Douglas Montgomery get a number of good scenes as the March family's neighbors. Edna May Oliver is well cast, and it's only too bad that she did not get a couple more scenes. Paul Lukas makes Professor Baer come alive. By no means least are Jean Parker, Frances Dee, and Joan Bennett as Beth, Meg, and Amy.
It is often easy to tell when the movie was made, most especially because of the sound. But actually the production is better technically and artistically than are most movies of the early 1930s. Several of the sets are particularly well done, creating just the right atmosphere for their scenes. Director George Cukor puts it all together nicely.
This is the kind of movie that is generally out of style at present, because it lacks the kind of self-indulgent material and the self-absorbed style that so unduly impress many of today's movie fans. But the only genuine weakness is that it has a few technical limitations, most of which are common to many films of its era.
What this adaptation does offer is a sympathetic and sometimes insightful look at the lives of some ordinary but strong persons, who are brought to life by a good cast and a director who seemed himself to care about the characters.
Spring Byington is a sugary, unpersuasive Marmee -- how did Jo inherit all that backbone, anyway, with such a wispy parent? -- and Jean Parker is both too old and too passive to convince as Beth. (She was good years later, in "The Gunfighter," in about as different a role as can be imagined.) But it's a measure of this film's overwhelming rightness that, over 70 years later, it can still move grown men to tears. It's dated in some of its particulars -- a stilted line here, a clumsy transition there -- but not in its generosity of spirit or depth of feeling. Few movies from 1933, in fact, still play as well.
I would like to have seen more development of the sisters than this film has. The later remake – 1949's MGM production, does flesh out all the characters more. The problem with the overly heavy emphasis on the one character in this first movie is that the audience doesn't get much of a sense of who are the rest of the members of the family. So we can't so readily experience the ups and downs, the emotions, the tragedy and love felt between the sisters and their mother.
Hepburn does a very good Jo, but not great. I think her efforts to be the tomboy were overdone in a few instances, which only drew my attention to this aspect of her role. She didn't seem to come by it naturally. One example was when she spoke a couple of times, acting and deliberately mimicking a deep-throated guttural voice for a man. At other times, she seemed to push it a bit and overact in flamboyance of tom-boyish behavior.
There were no other notable performances by other cast members. Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer and Douglas Montgomery as Laurie were good. Most of the rest were just OK or non-descript. One member was just not right for the role of Marmee. Spring Byington brought no depth or real feel to the role that the viewer could sense. But, then, the film just seemed to glide over the lesser roles.
"Little Women" is a good story in the American library, and this film is enjoyable to watch. But, for a much more involving and endearing film, be sure to see the 1949 rendition by MGM.
I don't care if others find the MGM version too "glossy" - THAT film is perfectly cast. June Allyson is a much more lovable Jo (and a more natural actress than Hepburn who can be very over-the-top and grating). Janet Leigh as sweet-but-prim Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as spoiled, vain Amy, and Margaret O'Brien as fragile Beth...why, they BECAME those characters - or perhaps their personalities were already suited to the roles! And who could be a better Marmee than Mary Astor, I ask you? She perfectly embodied maternal warmth and wisdom (Spring Byington isn't exactly known for playing women of intelligence!)
None of the other actresses in this 1933 version made an impression on me. I realize that Jo is the most beloved character, but the other March sisters deserve a little more screen time. I dislike the fact that "Little Women" was turned into a star vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, and unfortunately, she dominates the proceedings. If you want a more balanced telling of the story, where all the characters get a chance to shine, I'd recommend the MGM version. I can't gush enough about how ideal June Allyson was as Jo - there's a reason she got more fan-mail over that performance than any other! I'd even recommend the Winona Ryder version of "Little Women" over Hepburn's (although Ryder is too pretty for the role)
Ms. Bennett steals the actual acting honors with a performance that is natural and consistent; her voice and mannerisms are appropriately girlish, young womanish and, selfish. Ms. Hepburn plays girlish like she's had too many cups of coffee; additionally, she never looks even remotely "tomboyish"; looking, instead, like a ravishingly made-up MGM movie star. Ms. Parker rises out of her sick bed like a zombie, but is okay in other scenes.
Watching Hepburn being romanced by Mr. Montgomery and Paul Lukas is unnerving. The story does have some reasons to watch, however. The production is obviously top-of-the-line. Hepburn may not be in her best role, but it's not awful; she slows down and gets better after her character grows older. The script has well-written characters - Jo, Amy, and Laurie - who illustrate a sweet story of family, love, and friendship.
******* Little Women (11/16/33) George Cukor ~ Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Douglass Montgomery, Paul Lukas
Faithful to the book, beautifully mounted and directed by George Cukor (who was always good with large female casts) and a mostly great cast. Hepburn is exceptional (no surprise there), Bennett and Dee are good but Parker isn't that good. She's not terrible--it's just she's not as good as the other three. The men are all OK but the movie isn't about them--it's about the women.
I'm giving it a 9. I can't give it a 10 because there are a few scenes that are just horrible (especially one where Parker sees her father returning from the war) and it goes on a bit longer than needed. Also the sound was hard to hear at times (but this WAS done over 70 years ago). Well worth seeing.
When I first heard Frances Dee was playing Meg I thought, 'What?? She's more of a Beth!' but nevertheless she surprised me and was absolutely wonderful in her role. The actress who played Beth was astounding, her scenes were so well done, she was such a dear and you really care for her while you're watching. I loved Douglass Montgomery as Laurie he played Laurie very well and very true to the character. Not the most perfect adaption a lot has been changed and left out, but one of the best, most beautiful films you'll ever see in your life time. Heart warming and lovable, a real classic.
I can't see George Cukor doing this with anyone else. In a sense Kate isn't acting, she really is a 20th century version of Jo March. Like Louisa May Alcott and her family, Kate comes from that Puritan New England background and in the 19th century she could have been Jo March. It would not surprise me in the slightest if back in the day Kate's grandparents from either or both sides hobnobbed with the Alcott clan.
Little Women is set during the Civil War and it was a time for sacrifice on the battlefield as well as the home front. The March family patriarch Samuel S. Hinds is now engaged in the 'irrepressible conflict' answering to a higher law than the Constitution. That was a day when people put themselves on the line for their country and what they believed in.
Spring Byington made her screen debut as the mother of four girls who in real life were not too much younger than the woman they called Marmee in this film. Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker bring to life the distinct personalities of all the March girls under the careful guidance of George Cukor.
Like Louisa May Alcott in life, Jo March loves her dad, not just as her father, but also for what he stands for. Alcott's father Bronson Alcott was a noted abolitionist and so was Louisa May. She leaves no room for doubt that the Union and the abolition of slavery is a righteous cause in Little Women. Alcott was a feminist and a suffragette as well, she wanted to do more for what she believed than provide warm home and hearth for some man who happened to believe as she did.
Hepburn as Jo is developing as a human being and she realizes she wants the same thing and she also knows there's more out there than New England and its mores. Small wonder that visiting scholar Paul Lukas is who eventually wins her affections.
By the way, one ought to either read the further Alcott novels on these characters and/or see the film Little Men with Kay Francis and Francis Lederer as older versions of these same characters to see how they've developed.
Besides Lukas and Hinds the three other prominent male characters are Douglass Montgomery as the dashing young neighbor next door who first sparks Hepburn's attention and later Bennett's, John Davis Lodge who pairs off with Frances Dee and Henry Stephenson, Montgomery's stern father with a broad eye twinkle.
And of course we can't forget the ever imperious Edna May Oliver as Aunt March who rules the roost whenever she makes one of her visits to the household. Oliver like Hepburn also had a New England background, she's as New England as Paul Revere and the Boston Red Sox.
With an excellent recreation of New England both in look and style George Cukor created an enduring masterpiece in Little Women. And probably even more than Morning Glory, it's the film that young Katharine Hepburn is most identified with.
Clearly with the goal of generating star interest in Kate Hepburn, director, George Cukor uses up the bulk of his running time to extol the idiosyncratic quirks that make Jo March tick. He delights, for example, showing us Jo sliding down the banister at her Aunt March's home, or throwing snowballs at the young master of the adjoining maison, Theodore Lawrence (Douglas Montgomery). Cukor, known throughout the industry as a woman's director, side steps Alcott's novel on more than one occasion to satisfy his own artistic vision. That said, overall then, the film is faithful to Alcott and a veritable lush and lovely cinematic experience in the vein of golden Hollywood film making.
The transfer from Warner Bros. has been considerably cleaned up for this DVD presentation. The B&W picture elements from RKO were in very poor shape. While certain scenes continue to attest to this lack of initial preservation, most look quite marvelous and will surely please. There is a bit of digital edge enhancement that crops up now and then and distracts one from the otherwise sterling picture, but these are fleeting moments of distraction at best. Blacks are generally solid. Whites are generally clean. Contrast and fine details are as they should be and film grain, with minor exceptions, is kept in check. Extras include a music only selection of score that has been nicely remastered, as well as extensive notes on both Hepburn and Cukor; good stuff for both the heart and the mind. Bottom line: this is a great golden oldie that will surely warm the heart. But it's not definitive Alcott. For that one has to jump seventy years into the future for Gillian Armstrong's masterful remake, starring Winona Ryder.
A fairly lavish affair, with one of my favorite directors, George Cukor, making the most of his growing fame as a "woman's director." Of course, the leads here are four girls and their mother, among the children the rising star, Katherine Hepburn, in her second film (after Bill of Divorcement, also by Cukor, and a better film in many ways).
The standards here are high, the acting solid, the sets uncompromised. The plot is very goody-goody, for lack of a better word. There is a lot of family sweetness, growing young love affairs, charity to the poor, and a feeling of life being simply terrific, whatever its worries (worries like the Civil War, raging quietly in the background, never seen and rarely felt).
Cukor makes the most of Alcott's novel, I think, and Hepburn is wonderful, with all the hints of her real greatness on screen to come. The basic structure of the plot (or plots) is how each girl matures, overcoming personality flaws to become truly admirable people. It might be frustrating that human flaws are simply to be overcome, but we shouldn't resent a little optimism, and reaching higher goals, now and then. A heartfelt and really well made American drama. And I admit freely, I cried several times. That's better than any words.
Our Katherine had already been a success in one prior film, and only 5 years into the era of talkies, they retooled Alcott's story to suit her personality. It worked, but was her last success until the intense re-engineering of the Philadelphia story.
That re-engineering was a massive change: Hepburn recast as richly eccentric rather than charmingly brash. For her entire life, she was amazingly incomplete as an actress but knew how to play the personality game she overtly derided. But this was all before that.
Here, she moves with exaggerated movements and a severe phrasing of her lines. That specific style was consciously adopted from Shirley Temple and (long after Hepburn had abandoned it) popularized by Judy Garland. It features short phrases, with a rising lilt but short of the questioning tone that submissive girls use today.
Cukor stages this much like a play, with some extraordinarily long takes. The stagey nature of the production is as far from life and realistic movies as Jo's parlor play was from the world of the story. The sound is murky and the lighting muddy.
The film was popular because it sweetens the book in absurd ways. Louisa May was an important writer, one that really did change the world in a way. Her tone was one of disciplined self-reinvention orthogonal to all the false romanticism of the age. The notable feature of `Little Women' was that Jo unexpectedly escaped the form of the Austen novel, and thereby the strictures of society that Austen emphasized. This was not a matter of brattish tomboy energy as Hepburn would have it, but a matter of a woman transcending the narrow channels available to her sisters.
Just as Hepburn gets this exactly the opposite of what Jo is about, so does the whole film spit in Alcott's eye. The very essence of the book is to escape the formula of syrupy romanticism. The target of this film is to be thoroughly syrupy, all the way to the repellent sweetness of the score.
Winona's `Women' was flawed in different ways, but more true to Bronson Alcott's vision.
Ted's Evaluation -- 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.
Set during the Civil War years, the story revolves around the March family of Concord, Massachusetts. The plot development starts with the introduction of its individual members: Marmee (Spring Byington), a loving wife and mother who does all she can to keep her family together while her husband (Samuel S. Hinds) is off to war; Josephine, better known as Jo (Katharine Hepburn), a long haired, outspoken tomboy with a catch phrase, "Christopher Columbus!," whose ambition is to become famous novelist; Amy (Joan Bennett), a student in a school for girls, is cute, selfish, and a sketching artist; Margaret, or "Meg" (Frances Dee), a refined but envious girl working as a nursery governess; Beth (Jean Parker), the youngest of the sisters, is sweet, shy and a musically inclined piano player of classical pieces; and Aunt March (Edna May Oliver), an rich old spinster who's just as headstrong as her niece, Jo. The March family live next door to Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), a gruff but kindly old gentleman, whose grandson, Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), becomes Jo's first love. Over the years the girls mature, finding new interests and beaus. Laurie returns home from college finding Jo's feelings towards him have changed; Meg finds love and marries John Brooke (John Lodge), a sophisticated gentleman; Amy matures and falls in love with Laurie; while Beth becomes the center of a crisis when falling ill with scarlet fever. As for Jo, she moves to a boarding house in New York City where she encounters Fritz Bhaer (Paul Lukas), a kindly professor who encourages her writing ability.
While it's impossible to recapture every page of "Little Women" to the screen, screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman successfully abridged many of the key elements taken from various chapters, with a few alterations, into playable length of 116 minutes. Previously filmed during the silent era (1918) and remade several times thereafter (1949 for MGM; 1978 television movie; and 1994 Columbia theatrical adaptation), this 1933 carnation remains one of the perennial favorites of all time, and it's easy to see why. Full of nostalgic touches, from its opening credits with a silent movie feel, authentic costumes and hair styles that capture the era, George Cukor's masterful direction with taste and skill brings forth winning performances by entire cast, especially Katharine Hepburn, in a role she was born to play.
Although Hepburn's Jo is tough as well as confident, her biggest fear is letting go of her childhood, wanting things to remain as they are, continuing to have those carefree happy times with her sisters. She realizes how impossible it is after Meg, the eldest, marries to have a family of her own. ("We can't be children forever.") Joan Bennett also does a commendable job transforming from child-like schoolgirl to mature young lady; and Spring Byington, best known for her lovable comedic characters in latter years, in her movie debut and one of her few opportunities on screen as a serious actress. Last but not least is the memorable Max Steiner underscore.
When presented to commercial television during the Christmas season from the 1960s to 70s, all copies in circulation were shorter 107 minute prints. Aside from the Selznick International trademark in place of the original RKO Radio logo, the opening ten minute segment was missing, starting the story with Beth greeting her three sisters at the front door as they come in from the cold. This missing sequence was later restored in the 1980s when distributed to video cassette. The introductory RKO Radio logo was finally restored and presented for the first time in decades on Turner Classic Movies in 2006.
Little known facts: LITTLE WOMEN brought forth a sequel, LITTLE MEN (Mascot, 1935) with Erin O'Brien Moore as Jo. In TCM's December 2006 presentation of LITTLE WOMEN on "The Essentials," in an after film discussion, movie critic Molly Haskell talks with host Bob Osborne making an interesting point about Jo's character from the book marrying and giving up her writing career as compared to Hepburn's more liberated Jo on screen.
While LITTLE WOMEN is categorized a Christmas movie, for which it opens and ends years later during that joyful holiday season, it's one of those heartfelt family films that can be seen and appreciated at any given time of the year. (****)
There is certainly plenty to recommend about this film. The look of the film, costumes, sets and overall "feel" of the film is quite genuine and fine. The acting is terrific from all involved. From Katharine Hepburn to Joan Bennett, Spring Byington and Paul Lukas.
The problem is that, in my humble opinion, it is an incredibly hard film to watch, due to the extreme sweetness and, at times, corny dialog that is spoken. Now I know that being the early '30's, this is what many, during the depression era needed to make them feel warm and secure. But this is laid on way to thick. As I said, it was very hard to get thru this film. I'm glad I've seen it, but I would not watch it again.