LITTLE WOMEN (1933)
The first sound version of Louis May Alcott's seminal work is a charming, sweet and beautiful portrait of a family that loves each other through the peaks and valleys of life. With exceptional performances all-around, Little Women delights and enchants the viewer.
As the Civil War continues, the March family carries on while their patriarch is fighting for the Union. The four March daughters dearly miss their beloved Papa, but also continue living out a life of joy and sibling rivalry. There's the gentle Beth (Jean Parker), the youngest whose great love is playing the family's rickety old piano. There's Amy (Frances Dee), pretty but given to airs of grandness. The more sensible Meg (Joan Bennett) works as a governess, while spirited tomboy Josephine or Jo (Katharine Hepburn) serves as companion to their haughty Aunt March (Edna May Oliver) while working to become a famous and successful authoress.
The March girls do love each other, especially given the example of their mother, lovingly called Marmee (Spring Byington). They slowly know their much wealthier neighbors, Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson) and his grandson Theodore, nicknamed Laurie (Douglass Montgomery). Over time there are plays to perform, music and dancing to make, and romance.
There is also the specter of death from both the war and scarlet fever. Jo declines Laurie's marriage proposal while Meg accepts that of his tutor, Mr. Brooke (John Davis Lodge). Jo opts to do some good both financially and artistically by going to New York to be a governess herself. There, she meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), an impoverished German teacher to the children in her care. More losses and gains for the March family until the surviving 'little women' each finds love and contentment.
Little Women is a very jolly, charming film, but one with a gentle and loving heart. Director George Cukor was adept at drawing great performances from his cast, particularly women, and Little Women shows him at his most gentle and heartfelt. There is not one bad performance or one wasted moment.
At the heart of Little Women is our Jo: independent, strong-willed, somewhat bossy but also loving. It seems all but tailor-made for Katharine Hepburn, and Little Women is one of her great early film roles. Hepburn is an ideal, if perhaps slightly old Jo, a rambunctious figure cocksure of her abilities but also fiercely loyal to her siblings. Whether it's in directing her own play, which ends humorously in disaster, being displeased at others attempting to woo her sisters, or mourning, she does not hit a false note.
Little Women's other women also bring an excellent mix of performances. Jean Parker's Beth was gentle and sweet without being sickening or schmaltzy. Frances Dee was equal to the task of making Meg haughty but also humorous in her malapropisms and airs of grandness. Joan Bennett played both intelligence and romance with equal ease. Byington's Marmee got a bit lost in the shuffle, but in her scenes she expressed gentleness and warmth, the qualities of an excellent mother.
The men too were strong. Of particular note is Lukas as the slightly befuddled but pleasant Professor Bhaer. It does at first appear odd that Jo would end up falling in love with someone who looks considerably older, but Lukas plays up how he is Jo's intellectual equal, admiring and encouraging her literary gifts. Montgomery's Laurie was a little on the dull side, but it was pleasant enough.
There is an unabashed nostalgia running through Little Women, an unapologetic one too. Little Women is a very moving film that touches your heart with its mix of warmth and sincerity.
Little Women Retrospective: An Introduction
Little Women: 1949
Little Women: 1978
Little Women: 1994
Little Women: 2019
Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions