25 Days of Christmas: Little Women (1933)
The last in my series of reviews on the three adaptations of Little Women is the 1933 George Cukor version. This one is widely considered the de facto interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and watching it after seeing the ’49 version I realized that the latter is simply a remake of this one! With that being said, I found the 1949 version better overall; maybe because I enjoyed the cast more. Here, everyone seems to be stilted and stretching the line between overwrought melodrama and true emotion. As much as I love Katharine Hepburn, I don’t believe this is her best role. She seems too interested in using a deep voice and making strange facial expressions. This version is good, as all the adaptations are, but I think the 1949 version comes out as my personal favorite.
The March sisters struggle to make ends meet as their father fights in the Civil War. As trials and tribulations come into their lives they’re able to overcome due to their familial bonds.
If I watched this in chronological order the 1949 version would be judged differently since it’s film a remake of this one. Scenes from Cukor’s version are recreated almost verbatim in LeRoy’s film, like Amy (Joan Bennett) recounting her telling off of a teacher to her classmates, and Jo’s (Katharine Hepburn) maid reading her stories. Isn’t it funny, Joan Bennett played Amy in this, as did Elizabeth Taylor in the 1949 version, and both played mother/daughter in the Father of the Bride series? I digress. In watching the later version first and then watching this, I lost interest at several points because several of these scenes repeated. (Overall, I found watching three versions of the same story pressing on the endurance level which aided in the feeling of repetition.) The changes I noted between the ’49 and ’94 versions are still here. Gone is the animosity between Amy and Jo; in fact Amy comes off more pious than Taylor did. I’d also say this version changes the girls into three-dimensional beings and not pious saints as they come off in other versions. An alteration I noticed immediately is it’s Marmee (Spring Byington) who asks the girls to give up their breakfast to the Hummels. In the later versions it’s Beth’s goodness which causes the girls to take their food over. Marmee’s declaration turns it into an organic decision, as opposed to a shameful one; the girls love their mother and do it out of the goodness in their hearts as opposed to their saintly sister guilt tripping them.
The acting is fine, but I had a hard time believing any of the March sisters were young girls. Katharine Hepburn was 26, Joan Bennett 23, Frances Dee was 24, and Jean Parker was 18. It could be the way they’re made up in quasi-silent film makeup, but everyone looked far too old, especially Bennett and Parker. It could also be how overwrought the acting is, from Parker especially. I’ve never seen Jean Parker in any other films, but she is just dull as Beth (no one has touched Margaret O’Brien’s portrayal in my opinion). She seems stuck in a silent film with her dramatic swooning and “woe is me” attitude which comes with the character but comes off as overkill. Where the other actresses’ acting is modern for the time period, Parker is mired in an earlier era. Bennett is adorable as Amy, and it’s funny to watch her dresses balloon due to her pregnancy at the time. Frances Dee is sweet but ultimately forgettable as Meg.
That leaves the incomparable Katharine Hepburn in the role of Jo. She’s far better than June Allyson from the ’49 version, mostly because Allyson is simply playing Hepburn. The problem is Hepburn becomes too campy in the middle of the film. Sure she’s wily, sly and fun in the beginning; she is the embodiment of Jo March, there’s no doubt. She also plays the stereotypical version of Katharine Hepburn, too. Towards the middle of the film, her deep voice that she takes on becomes irksome, and combined with her jutting teeth and other expressions she makes, it appears like she’s playing a vaudeville character and not Jo March. She abruptly drops these elements when she’s talking, which makes the whole thing even more of an acting tic than a character trait. She’s paired with the blandest Laurie I’ve ever seen, played by Douglass Montgomery. Montgomery has been compared to Leslie Howard which is sensible since both are pure white bread. He also evokes acting from the silent era, especially with his constant looking up at the sky. He lacks chemistry with Hepburn, and it’s bizarre how they make Hepburn masculine when placed against him. Dare I say it’s a bit of homoeroticism?
The chemistry between the girls is good which is always a must when telling this tale. The best scene is the sequence involving the March sisters putting on a play, a scene that plays longer in this interpretation than it did in the 1949 version. The girls all act over the top, again hearkening back to the silent era. The backstage business of the group is hilarious with Jo throwing Amy backstage and complaining about Amy’s faint feeling fake, from there a wall falls down as Jo tries to scale it. It encapsulates the changing feel of movies to me, going from painted backdrops to more lush sets which is ironic considering this film is predominately filmed in interior spaces.
As I previously mentioned, the best version of Little Women would contain pieces from all three versions. I like Hepburn in this as well as Cukor’s desire to push the girls away from acting saint-like. I love the acting from the 1949 version, particularly Margaret O’Brien and Liz Taylor and it’s theatrical whimsy And the 1994 version introduces a feminist slant as well as a modern filmmaking aesthetic like on-site locations. All three would make the ultimate Little Women. In regards to this one specifically, I liked it but didn’t love it. The acting walks the line between the genuine acting of the later period, and the overwrought drama of the silents. Hepburn is good, but has a tendency to become overblown.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
You spelled Miss Hepburn’s name incorrectly twice in this post.
Fixed it! I was afraid due to the lateness of the hour I’d misspell her name at least twice, glad to know I was right on target lol.
Jean Parker plays a modern gal in the Christmas movie Beyond Tomorrow, made in 1940, starring Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith, and Maria Ouspenskaya. Its a charming holiday movie that is overlooked by the Christmas movies that are more well-known.
Oooh, I haven’t heard of that one but with me slowly running low on classic Christmas films I might need to add it into next year’s rotation. Thanks for the recommend!
I completely agree; I find this version — and the 1994 version — quite overrated. And almost all of the acting is better in the 1949 version, especially, as you say, Margaret O’Brien, who is fantastic — it’s hard to remember she was actually 11 years old. i also found June Allyson more convincingly boyish than Katharine Hepburn. None of them has a really good Laurie; i don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who would make good Laurie! The one thing that has always annoyed me about the 49 version is the extremely elegant furnishings of the March home — they’re supposed to be poor. On the other hand Rossano Brazzi is an excellent Prof. Bhaer. (So was Gabriel Byrne.)
I enjoyed all of the “Little Women” versions, but my favorite is the 1933 release. I love Hepburn in it (and I’m not a fan). I think the role of Jo fit her like a glove. I enjoyed the 1949 version as well, but felt it was confined to the MGM sound stages where the ’33 RKO version used outdoor locations and seemed more naturalistic. I also liked the 1994 version, which I just watched this year. The production was beautiful and the acting was uniformly good, I thought. All versions have something to enjoy, I think.
Yes! They’re all good, even if we all have our individual preferences. I do enjoy Hepburn in the ’33 version and the complaints about the ’49 version (it looks like a set, mainly) I love no matter what the movie is. (I give the same leeway for Brigadoon). I’m positive I’ll love Greta Gerwig’s upcoming version too.
The 49 version is not a remake of the 33 version — the scenes you find repetitive are from Alcott’s original novel, which has an excellent dramatic structure and many memorable scenes, including the final one, which no one would dare alter! Alcott was a brilliant writer and her story is not particularly Victorian in attitude or sentiment.This is one reason I vastly prefer Margaret O’Brian’s Beth to Jean Parker; Beth in the novel is not a sentimentalized figure, but a thoughtul, intelligent child who has come to terms with her early death, though her family can’t. It’s miles away from Dickens golden haired Little Nell (though Alcott loved Dickens). But I digress. .
Thanks for letting me know, Linda. I’ll confess, I haven’t read the book in decades so I wasn’t aware of how closely it was hewing to Alcott’s work. Thanks for pointing it out!