Little Women: Life with the Marches

A NEW SENSATION OF SHEER LOVELINESS GLORIFIES THE SCREEN!

The most famous of the many adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, semi-autobiographical Civil War-era novel wasn’t the first. The story had already been filmed as two silent dramas, in 1917 and 1918. There has always been something appealing about the novel for each new generation. When George Cukor took the challenge it became his first truly successful year as a film director in Hollywood, delivering this box-office hit and the excellent Dinner at Eight.

During the Civil War, a family in Concord, Massachusetts have to do without a man in the house, as Colonel March is fighting in the Union Army. Mrs. March, known as Marmee (Spring Byington), is raising four headstrong girls on her own, including the tomboyish Jo (Katharine Hepburn) who dreams of becoming an author, writing plays for her sisters to perform. The girls are charmed by a newcomer, Theodore ”Laurie” Laurence (Douglass Montgomer), a young man who’s come to stay with his grandfather, the Marches’ neighbor. He is particularly enchanted by Jo, but she shows more interest in trying to get one of her ghoulish stories published.

When Marmee leaves for Washington D.C after learning that her husband is recovering in a hospital, one of the ”little women”, Beth (Jean Parker), contracts scarlet fever…

Cementing Hepburn’s star status
This was Cukor’s second collaboration with Hepburn, whom he had directed in her first film and breakthrough, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). This film cemented her star status and she’s the best thing in it, carrying it through less remarkable moments. She takes Jo’s noisy tomboy persona seriously, stubbornly resisting a delicate touch at every opportunity, which makes her performance appealing and often hilarious. Cukor and the screenwriters deftly balance Jo against the other sisters who are quite different, and that’s where the drama and emotions lie. The Marches go through love and heartache as they, especially Jo, learn how to stand on their own two feet. The relationship between her and Laurie is warm and tender but the boy can never give her what she needs – maturity and an intellectual challenge. That comes in the form of a trip to New York where she gets to know the considerably older German professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), who learns that she has real talent, if only she can find greater depth behind her horror stories. Lukas also delivers one of the most entertaining performances of the film, as the somewhat absent-minded, timid yet passionate man who falls for Jo.

It’s a fine cast and Cukor has a nice touch when it comes to romance, holding the film’s episodes together as we move through several years without making us feel that it’s all too drawn-out, or rushed. The technical details are carefully researched, with one of Hepburn’s dresses modeled after that of her grandmother, and the Marches’ home based on Hillside, Alcott’s house in Concord.

Max Steiner’s music score is memorable, even if the drama is a bit uneven. The feminist core of the story still speaks to filmmakers and audiences; it’s as if 150 years haven’t passed. Next year, Greta Gerwig will explore another way to connect with a woman of the 1860s. I can’t wait to see what she’ll pick up. 

Little Women 1933-U.S. 115 min. B/W. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman. Novel: Louisa May Alcott. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Josephine ”Jo” March), Joan Bennett (Amy March), Paul Lukas (Professor Bhaer), Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Edna May Oliver.

Trivia: Remade in 1949, 1994 and 2019; also as a TV movie in 1978 and a miniseries in 2017. The novel has been turned into a Broadway musical and an opera.

Oscar: Best Adaptation. Venice: Best Actress (Hepburn).

Last word: “When I went to Hollywood in 1929, they used to judge your talent by your personality. If you walked into the front office with a long face, they gave you straight drama; if you cracked jokes, they gave you comedy. I cracked jokes. For a long time after that whenever any one mentioned my name for a serious picture they’d shake their heads and say, ‘No heart!’ Then came ‘Little Women’ and they were surprised!” (Cukor, The New York Times)

 

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