‘LITTLE Women’ by Louisa May Alcott is a well-loved slice of American history focusing on the March family, set during the Civil War in the 1860s. We remember making a book report of it in high school. It has had two silent film versions, but the first movie version we saw was the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder and directed by Gillian Armstrong, the Australian director best known for “Mrs. Soffel” and “My Brilliant Career”.
Since then, we’ve also seen on video the 1933 black and white version made during the Great Depression, starring Katharine Hepburn and directed by George Cukor (whose “My Fair Lady” we truly enjoyed) and the 1949 version with June Allyson, directed by Mervyn Leroy.
Each movie has its own variations, but the basic story of the four teenaged March sisters remains: the tomboyish Josephine or Jo who wants to be a writer, the eldest Meg who becomes a wife and mother, the artistic Amy who aspires to be a painter, and the musical but sickly Beth who plays the piano well.
They live a life of genteel poverty with their Marmee (pronounced Mahmee in New England) in Massachusetts while their father is away fighting in the Civil War. It’s Christmastime and it’s their first Christmas without him. Meg and Jo help support their family. Meg teaches the kids of a nearby family while Jo serves as an assistant to their old Aunt March, a rich widow who looks down on their dad and believes that they can improve their stations in life only by marrying someone rich.
Amy wants a rich life and goes to school, while the frail Beth just stays home. Jo turns down the proposal of their friend and neighbor, Laurie, and chooses to go to New York where she later meets a German scholar, Prof. Bhaer who criticizes her writing. Meg marries John the tutor of Laurie, Amy goes to Paris with Aunt March to study art and becomes engaged to Laurie, Beth contracts scarlet fever. That’s the main narrative of the book that is retained in all the movie versions, plus the use of the expletive: “Christopher Columbus!”
Of all the actresses who played Jo, we like Katharine Hepburn the most. The other actresses who played Jo also give spirited performances but they just don’t have the sheer force of strong personality and adorable playfulness that Ms. Hepburn has, along with her wonderfully high cheek bones that makes her look so exceedingly lovely in extreme closeups.
Kate plays Jo as a feisty, tomboyish girl and she towers over the rest of the cast that featured the affectations in the acting style of that era. There seems to be some mistake in casting as the actress chosen to play Beth looks older than her sisters when she’s meant to be the third sister. This version was a big hit in its time and got an Oscar nomination for best picture. Kate was nominated as best actress but for another movie, “Morning Glory”, for which she won the first of her four best actress Oscars.
The 1949 version, even if it’s made by MGM in Technicolor and uses the superb musical score from the first one, is not as big a hit as the 1933 version. June Allyson as Jo was somehow eclipsed by the luminous presence of the very beautiful and young Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, who’s complimented by the dashing Peter Lawford as the best looking Laurie ever. Playing Meg then was Janet Leigh, who’d be the mom of Jamie Lee Curtis, while Beth was played by child actress Margaret O’Brien, making her the youngest and not the third sister.
The next version, made 45 years later in 1994, is star-studded. Aside from Winona as Jo, it stars Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Christian Bale as Laurie, Gabriel Byrne as Prof. Bhaer, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, Claire Danes as Beth and Kirsten Dunst as the young Amy. It was loved by critics and also got Oscar nominations for best picture and best actress for Winona, among others.
The newest adaptation of “Little Women” is also directed (and written) by a woman, Greta Gerwig, who got much acclaim for “Lady Bird”. Playing Jo here is Saoirse Ronan, who was also the lead star in “Lady Bird”, so she really forms a good tag team with Greta. It also has Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Meryl Streep no less as Aunt March.
Gerwig refashions the iconic story to fit in modern ideas about the role of women that was not seen in the past versions. It’s a time when women are just supposed to get married, have children and stay home, which is very Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice”. But Jo rejects the traditional idea of her life centering on a man.
Gerwig also deconstructs the narrative and chooses to tell the story not in the usual chronological manner but with a non-linear structure. When her movie starts, Jo is already in New York and the story is then told through flashbacks. She also changes the usual romantic happy ending with her in the arms of Prof. Bhaer. This movie is also loved by American critics and it’s currently doing well at the U.S. box office. It has so far grossed over $105 million, showing that a timeless story can still succeed no matter how many times it’s been told.
(To be continued)