LITTLE WOMEN (1949)
It's a curious thing that the 1949 remake of Little Women is scarcely remembered, especially compared to the 1933 original or the 1994 adaptation. Sandwiched between those two more popular versions, the 1949 Little Women suffers from a lack of notoriety. That's a shame because while this Little Women is not without some flaws, it is an equally charming film.
While their father fights in the Civil War, the four March sisters live life as well as they can. There's Meg (Janet Leigh), the oldest, more mature and ladylike. There's boisterous tomboy Jo (June Allyson), the snobbish Amy (Elizabeth Taylor) and gentle Beth (Margaret O'Brien), the youngest. Watched over by their mother, lovingly called Marmee (Mary Astor), the March sisters do their best under financially strained circumstances.
They're well-off enough to live next door to the wealthy Laurence family, and Jo catches the eye of young Laurie (Peter Lawford), the lonely grandson of the gruff but lovable Mr. Laurence (Sir C. Aubrey Smith). Jo yearns to be a writer, Amy wishes for a return to wealth and prestige, Meg to perhaps marry (and more perhaps marry well) while shy Beth loves playing the piano. There's joy and heartache, love and loss in the March home.
Finally, after Meg's marriage to Laurie's tutor Mr. Brooke (Richard Stapley) over the objections of the fierce and wealthy Aunt March (Lucille Watson) and Beth's bout with scarlet fever, Jo feels a bit adrift. Having turned down Laurie's marriage proposal, she opts to be a governess in New York City. There, Jo finds herself working alongside Professor Bhaer (Rossano Brazzi), who loves the arts and culture as she does.
More joys and sorrows await the March sisters, until with one gone and two married, Jo finds that perhaps she too will find love and contentment among an intellectual equal.
It's a curious thing that Little Women has excellent performances from everyone save the central character. This is not to say that June Allyson gave a bad performance, though to be fair I have never been an Allyson fan apart from her Depend Undergarment ads. My view is that Allyson was trying too hard to be a spitfire but was a bit forced in her manner. It's as if she was told by director Mervin LeRoy to be a bit restrained while being feisty. She gave it a good go but Allyson never struck me as a tough but loving Jo.
It might be that she was 33 when attempting to play this teenage fireball, and in some scenes she ended up looking even older. When she returns from having cut her hair to earn extra money, I gasped and thought Allyson looked 300! She was twenty years older than O'Brien, fifteen years older than Taylor and ten years older than Leigh, who supposedly is her older sister. Again, Allyson gave it a good try but she was far too old for the part. The only March relations she was younger than was Astor as her mother, and that was only by eleven years!
Again, Allyson was either too forced or restrained as Jo, but to her credit she did have some wonderful moments such as when she and Laurie end any possibility of romance.
Another odd choice was in Brazzi making his American debut. Whatever possessed MGM to try and pass off this rather handsome Italian complete with Italian accent as a middle-aged, somewhat serious German? He did his best also, even if he was more Mediterranean charming than Teutonic austerity.
O'Brien simply out-acts everyone else as this delightful, adorable, cute and ultimately doomed Beth. No one could cry on camera like Margaret O'Brien, and her final scene with Allyson where she openly accepts her impending death just about breaks your heart.
Janet Leigh too does well as Meg, longing for respectability and conflicted about her feelings for Mr. Brooke. Mary Astor, while having a smaller role, was gentleness and warmth itself as the wise and understanding Marmee. You wish all mothers were like that.
Lawford at first struck me as too big physically for Laurie, as if he'd have a hard time thinking he was unappealing to women. However, as Little Women went on he won me over, not completely but enough. Watson struck me as slightly more comical than I imagine Aunt March to be, but again not a bad performance.
Little Women is on the whole lovely, nostalgic and sweet. June Allyson may not make the best Jo March, but almost the rest of the cast elevates this tale of sibling love that should prove quite enchanting.
Little Women Retrospective: An Introduction
Little Women: 1933
Little Women: 1978
Little Women: 1994
Little Women: 2019
Little Women Retrospective: The Conclusions