'Little Women' on the big screen

Stefania Ciocia goes on the hunt for the next best thing to reading Alcott’s novel

It had always been something of an embarrassment for me to admit that I had not seen any of the film adaptations of Little Women, considering how passionate and long-standing an admirer of Louisa May Alcotts novel I am. Of course, it is bound to be the case that The Book Was Better a young woman in my yoga class occasionally wears a t-shirt with precisely this motto, the mantra of bibliophiles. Even so, it has been a bit remiss of me not to have checked out how the March sisters story fares on celluloid until now. Two of the classic adaptations predate me by quite some time: with the best will in the world, there is no way I could have caught the original release of George Cukors Little Women in 1933, or Mervyn LeRoys Technicolor remake in 1949, but I am of an age when I ought to have made a beeline for Gillian Armstrongs 1994 film.

While the reasons for this youthful lapse will have to remain a mystery, Celebrate the Sisterhood: 150 Years of Little Women, an event I hosted on 25 November at the Folkestone Book Festival, has given me the nudge to fill in this gap in my cinematic education. The three films each have their own distinctive feel, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their claims to poetic license to capture the essence of the original text. None of their deviations from the letter of the novel have unleashed the purists fury in me (though some have come close). Id happily watch all three of them again. I probably will, too.

If, like me, you cant wait for Greta Gerwigs new take on Alcotts novel starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep as Aunt March – here’s what you can expect from its three predecessors. I hope youll discover the most suitable adaptation for when you next need a quick Little Women fix (no use denying it: weve all been there), though the perfect version has got to be the one unspooling in your minds eye whenever you spend some quality time with Alcotts book.

My journey of exploration of Little Women on the big screen starts on a miserable, wet day at the end of August: I fire up the wood-burning stove (Christmas wont be Christmas without crackling wood!), huddle up on the sofa, and reach for one of the DVDs I have just got through the post. The weather calls for an old movie, but the 1933 black-and-white version feels like a step too far against the unexpected greyness of this English summer afternoon. I plump for the 1949 film instead.
A short way into it, and certain scenes are simply too familiar: it dawns on me that I must have already seen it with my mother, years ago, when I was still living at home in Italy. On lazy weekends, if neither of us had more pressing things to do, we used to hunt for classic films on TV. There was always a good one on, after lunch, back in the day before the explosion of talk shows, quizzes, reality TV and other fillers. Little Women is just the kind of thing that Mamma and I would have had did have enormous fun watching together.[1] In whichever version, this is the most perfect mother-and-daughter(s) story.

LeRoy wastes no time in establishing that Jo (June Allyson) is a tomboy: the initial scene shows her running towards home, vaulting over the fence and falling face down into the snow, while Meg, Beth and Amy look on her from indoors. Undaunted, Jo has another, successful, go at the hurdle, and then hits her sisters window with a snowball. Its quite an entrance. Later we see her catch fire, as we know she does, at times, from the novel. Here, however, the incendiary mishap happens during her first visit to Laurie (Peter Lawford). The poor fellow must therefore put out the flames on Jos dress by that least gentlemanly of actions: smacking a womans derriere. 

Jos independence and lack of concern for propriety are further showcased in a heated exchange with Aunt March (Lucile Watson) whom she is petitioning for money on Marmees (Mary Astor) behalf. Jo cuts short the elderly ladys lecture, tells her to forget she ever asked (I am too proud to beg for anyone) and goes off to sell her hair. Her cropped mane is a sight to behold, but while Laurie tactlessly observes its resemblance to a porcupine, Marmee tells Jo that she will never look more beautiful, and her sisters generously concur. Its a lovely, humorous scene: this Jo doesnt cry over the loss of her hair, though I must say that I have always loved that touching detail. You can be a tomboy and care about your appearance. The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It should be plain by now that I love June Allyson as Jo. The casting of her sisters is very good too: handsome Meg is played by the gorgeous Janet Leigh (eleven years before the shower scene in Hitchcocks Psycho), while a teenage Elizabeth Taylor gives us a doll-like pretty, perfectly petulant and prissy Amy. Margaret OBriens Beth is the youngest of the four which I cant believe I am writing this kind of works for me even if it is woefully unfaithful to the book. OBrien is a child, convincing in her guilelessness and timidity, and in the otherworldly acceptance of her impending fate in her final speech to Jo. But its in watching the scene where she thanks Mr. Laurence (C. Aubrey Smith) for the piano that I find I have something in my eye. If sentimentality is not your thing, maybe this should not be your go-to adaptation. 

Another favourite detail for me is the blossoming of Jos romance with Professor Bhaer (Rossano Brazzi, in his Hollywood debut) over music. Jo is lured into the drawing room, and almost moved to tears, by Bhaers rendition at the piano of Goethes Nur wer die Sensucht kennt (Only those who know longing); its a more overtly romantic choice than the Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land [where the lemon trees grow]) of the original. An invitation to the opera ensues.[2] Jos rapturous response to the experience I dont want to be a writer anymore. I want to be a singer. and Bhaers amused observation that she had made similar remarks after their visits to art galleries and the circus (!) neatly captures the difference in age between the two, and makes Jo all the more charming for her unchecked enthusiasm.[3]

As I have written before, I have no trouble buying into Jos maturation, and reneging of spinsterhood, at the end of the novel. When Allysons Jo confesses to Meg that she might have capitulated to Laurie after all not that I love him any differently, but because it means more to me to be loved now than it used to this admission has the ring of truth, just as it does in the book.[4] As for her relationship with Bhaer, its good to see that Jos tears when he criticizes her sensational stories are put in the context of the tough day shes been having: she has just found out that Laurie snubbed her when he visited New York, and that Amy is accompanying Aunt March to Europe. Wouldnt you cry too?

Without missing a beat, Jo collects herself, at pains to reassure the distraught Professor that she is not weeping over his feedback: she knows she can write better work, but her stories do pay the bills. Alcotts Jo is not so unmoved by Bhaers censure. Regrettably the 1949 film reprises the idea that Jo seeks the Professors approval and takes it one unforgivable step further. It is thanks to his good offices that Jos novel, My Beth, finds a publisher.[5] This is not cool. I can just about handle the romantic metaphor of the couple taking shelter under the shared umbrella Alcott did the original declaration of love in the rain way before Four Weddings and a Funeral but I draw the line at Bhaer being given any credit for Jos literary success. She can do it on her own, you know. I much prefer the ending of the other two films, and mores the pity because I am really quite fond of this version otherwise.

About a month later, for you can have too much of a good thing, and I am ready for Cukors 1933 offering. The fact that it stars a young Katharine Hepburn as Jo is going to be a treat in and of itself. Although the screenplay and the soundtrack for this film will both be revisited in the 1949 adaptation, the two have a different mood, not only because of the black-and-white vs. Technicolor effect. You can tell that the earlier version came out during the Depression: its call for sacrifices and austerity is amplified by the foregrounding of the tragedy of the Civil War. The movie opens with a scene taken, almost verbatim, from Chapter IV in the novel.

At the United States Christian Commission in Concord, amidst the flurry of (mostly female) volunteers activity, we meet Marmee (Spring Byington) in conversation with an old gentleman who has lost three sons in the war; he is about to travel to Washington where his fourth child, also a soldier, is convalescing. Marmee is so touched by this story that she adds a financial donation of her own to the second-hand overcoat that the man has come looking for. The emphasis on communal efforts and the need for hard work continues in our introduction to the girls: Meg (Frances Dee) is with her charges, and Jo reads something suitably edifying to Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). As soon as the formidable lady nods off, Jo tries to sneak away, but is caught Aunt March must be a light sleeper and dispatched to polish the staircase banister before taking her leave.

This odd request Jo is her companion, not a servant is there to provide another clue to the young womans mischievousness as she slides down the staircase in an ingenious approach to dusting. Jos zany, tomboyish manners play to Hepburns strength, and are deliberately theatrical. We get a long scene of the play-within-the-novel, including the comical destruction of the set, for example. And if you think that Hepburn-as-Jo-as-mustachioed-villain-Hugo is great (she is), wait until you see her fencing with Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), with fire irons, in an impromptu re-enactment of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Jo is Hamlet, of course.[6] 
The two younger sisters enter the fray in equally effective, and complementary, sketches: Amy (Joan Bennett) is punished for her caricature of Mr Davis, the caption Young ladies my eyes are upon you providing a nice subversive element. On her part, Beth (Jean Parker) sings at the old piano, surrounded by her kittens and ready to spring into action for her share of the housework. Her eventual demise yields a carefully choreographed deathbed scene even Daisy and Demi are in attendance after which it falls to Jo to mother the inconsolable Marmee.

Hepburns Jo has a steeliness about her, an easy self-confidence mixed with the goofy sensibility typical of screwball comedies. Her stand-out line for me is when she finishes an early manuscript and utters: There. Ive done my best. If that wont do Ill have to wait until I can do better. Amen to that, I feel like shouting, as she climbs out of the garret, through the window, in secret pursuit of literary glory. This woman knows what she wants and how to get it. She is in control. In the final scene, she seals her acceptance of the Professors bumbling proposal not so much by a sentimental pledge (more of that in 1994) but by her pragmatic Welcome home while she leads Bhaer across the threshold of the Marches household. Lucky man. 

And so to 1994, to Gillian Andersons Little Women: with a dream cast headed by Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as Marmee, this is the version targeted at my generation of movie-goers. Its got to be the Little Women for me, right? Ill tell you this much for now: its the one that got me scribbling frantic notes all along. Tune in for Part 2 of this blog next week, when Ill fess up my verdict. 

In loving memory of my own Mami, Marilena De Lorenzo. This little woman could not have wished for more supportive parents than you and Papà.

Stefania has asked us to donate her fee for this blog to The Eve Appeal. To read more about work of The Eve Appeal, visit https://eveappeal.org.uk/

[1] I have spoken to my Dad about this possibility, and he didnt even let me finish the sentence: of course Mamma and I watched this film together! He might have watched bits of it with us too. (Footballs more his thing.) He certainly has very strong opinions about the Italian dubbing of Elizabeth Taylor. (Not a fan.) Im afraid I cant comment on this technical detail, though I do think that Taylor is a perfect Amy in English.

[2] I am very susceptible to the appeal of operatic seduction scenes: the sight of Jo in her finery peering through her glasses from the balcony at the theatre is the 19th-century equivalent of Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, which as everybody knows is the best romantic comedy of all times bar none, except maybe When Harry Met Sally. Passion and glamour (and power struggles) at the Met feature prominently in Edith Whartons masterpiece The Age of Innocence (1920), a very different read from Little Women, but another beloved classic of mine. Martin Scorseses sumptuous 1993 film version is pitch perfect too.

[3] I ought to say that my older self completely identifies with this opera-crazy Jo. I want to be an opera singer too.

[4] Jo shares this candid admission with Marmee in Part 2, Chapter XIX All Alone.

[5] In the novel, Jo writes the poem My Beth before her sisters untimely death.

[6] In Chapter XIV, Alcotts Jo says to Laurie: You can teach me [fencing]; and then when we play Hamlet, you can be Laertes, and well make a fine thing of the fencing scene.

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