Sunday, December 19, 2021

Stubs - Little Women (1933)


Little Women (1933) Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas, Edna May Oliver, Jean Parker, Frances Dee, Henry Stephenson, Douglass Montgomery, John Davis Lodge, Spring Byington Directed by George Cukor Screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman Based on the novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Boston, 1868). Produced by Merian C. Cooper (Executive Producer). Black and White Run time: 117 minutes USA Drama, Christmas

Christmas is a time for snuggling up to a classic, whether it is a film or a book. In the case of Little Women, it’s a mixture of both. Like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, every few years it seems there is a new version of Little Women. The first one was a 1917 British version starring G. B. Samuelson, with Alexander Butler directing. The first American adaptation was made in 1918 by William A. Brady, who had also produced a stage version of the novel in 1912. Shot in and around the Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts, the film also opened in New York on November 10, 1918 and played for several weeks until Famous Players-Lasky Corp. purchased it and released it as a Paramount-Artcraft Special on January 5, 1919.

The first sound version was made by RKO studios in 1933, and we’ll get back to this one later. After this, MGM made their own version in 1949 starring June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Margaret O'Brien and Elizabeth Taylor directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It would be another 45 years before Denise Di Novi produced a version for Columbia Pictures, starring Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Trini Alvarado directed by Gillian Armstrong.

In 2017, the BBC created a mini-series starring Emily Watson, Maya Hawke, Willa Fitzgerald, Kathryn Newton and Annes Elwy, directed by Vanessa Caswill. And if that wasn’t enough, and it never is, there is yet another new movie version coming out on Christmas Day, 2019 starring  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, and Timothée Chalamet, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, released by Sony Pictures. Studios love classic literary works in the public domain.

We’re turning our attention to the 1933 version. RKO’s production started back in 1932, when then head of production, David O. Selznick assigned John S. Robertson to direct this picture. But Selznick left for MGM before the film went into production. George Cukor, an RKO director had also left the studio for MGM but was still obligated to making one more film for the studio and returned to helm this feature.

There were the usual jockeying around of actors, with Billie Burke, Phoebe Foster and Ann Shoemaker testing for the role of Mrs. March; Florine McKinney, Connie Jones, Helen Mack, Jennie Dark and Adelyne Doyle tested for Beth; Howard Wilson and Richard Houghton were tested for Laurie which went to Eric Linden who was replaced by Douglass Montgomery; and Leonard Mudie was tested for Mr. March. Dorothy Wilson, Anita Louise, Phyllis Fraser, Florence Enright and Dorothy Jordan were also considered for parts in the film, though only Enright appears in the film. The role of Aunt March was first performed by Louise Closser Hale, but after her death on 26 Jul 1933, Edna May Oliver took over the role.

The film's budget was $1,000,000 and that 4,000 people were employed over a one-year production schedule. Several months were spent duplicating the book's "locales and incidents," and 3,000 separate items, such as "costumes, furniture and household appliances," were "authenticated" by research. Exterior scenes were shot at the Warner Bros. Ranch, in Pasadena, CA, and at Lancaster's Lake in Sunland, CA. In addition, the exterior of the March home was shot at the Providencia Ranch, Universal City, CA. Production lasted from June 28 to September2, 1933 and although temperatures during production exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, real snow was used for the winter scenes.

Amy (Joan Bennett) is held back when she draws this unflattering drawing of her teacher.

Little Women is set In Concord, Massachusetts, at the height of the Civil War. Marmee March (Spring Byington), helping out.  Meanwhiles, we see Jo (Katharine Hepburn) panders to the whims of her gruff but well-to-do Aunt March (Edna May Oliver); Amy (Joan Bennett) is a young girl being held back after the class has been dismissed from school. She has apparently let her artistic-side show through in a less than flattering drawing of her teacher. Beth (Jean Parker) practices on a broken-down clavichord and Meg (Frances Dee) works as a seamstress. The family managed to keep their spirits high in spite of their poverty and the absence of their father, who is fighting with the Union Army. It is he, who in a letter, refers to the girls as his “Little Women.”

Jo (Katharine Hepburn) panders to the whims of her gruff but well-to-do Aunt March (Edna May Oliver).

Each daughter has her own characteristics and dreams. Amy is pretty but selfish, Beth is sensitive and withdrawn, Meg is envious, and Jo is spirited, tomboyish and dreams of becoming a famous author.

As a Christmas present, Aunt March gives each of the girls one dollar, which they then decide to spend on presents for their mother, whom they call Marmee. Even Amy, who had considered using the dollar for art supplies gives in.

On Christmas morning, Marmee is pleasantly surprised by her daughters' impetuous generosity, particularly that of Amy, She has returned from the Hummels, an impoverished family that lives nearby, She asks her daughters to donate their holiday breakfast prepared by their housekeeper Hannah (Mabel Colcord) to the Hummels and they do gladly, even accompanying in taking the food to the family. 

The sisters perform one of Jo's original "dramas".

Later, the sisters perform one of Jo's original "dramas" before a crowd of appreciative children. The performance goes pretty well until the scenery comes down.

Later, Jo boldly introduces herself to Laurie Laurence (Douglass Montgomery) her wealthy next-door neighbor whose grandfather (Henry Stephenson) has terrified her for years. Jo immediately ingratiates herself to Laurie, and even impresses the inscrutable Mr. Laurence, who turns out not to be as mean as she feared.

To cement their new friendship, the Laurences invite the March girls to a lavish party, at which Meg meets Laurie's tutor, John Brooke (John Davis Lodge).

Over the next few months, while Meg is being romanced by John, Jo has her first short story published and Beth overcomes some of her shyness so that she can practice on Mr. Laurence's fine piano.

Later, Marmee is alerted that Mr. March has been wounded and is convalescing in a Washington, D.C. hospital. She leaves her daughters to go to her husband's side. While she is away, Beth contracts scarlet fever from one of Mrs. Hummel's babies. As Beth's fever worsens, Jo prays that Marmee will return before she dies and tearfully reveals her deepest fears to Laurie, who is her closest confidante.

Beth, however, survives and is reunited with Marmee, whom Laurie has summoned, and her father (Samuel S. Hinds) who has returned from the war.

Jo rejects Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) as a suitor.

Jo wants the family to stay together forever, but Meg marries John. After the wedding and Inspired by the occasion, Laurie confesses his love to Jo, but she rejects him as a suitor. Laurie subsequently snubs her.  Jo decides to move to New York and her mother arranges for her to work at a boardinghouse and be in charge of the children. There she meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), a well-educated but poor German teacher for the children.

Jo meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), a well-educated but poor German teacher. 

Her Aunt and sister Amy stop by for a brief visit with Jo on their way to Europe. She learns from them that Laurie and his grandfather had been through New York as well. Jo is confused and hurt by Laurie not coming to visit her as well.

Jo and Professor Bhaer spend a lot of time together.

Jo and Professor Bhaer spend a lot of time together, even attending the opera, before she learns that Beth is once again ill and hurries back home to be with her.

Beth (Jean Parker) surrounded by family before she dies.

Beth has apparently never fully recovered is near death when Jo arrives. Beth is surrounded by family just before she is alone with Jo. Seemingly happy and content, Beth dies.

In Europe, word reaches Amy and her Aunt about Beth’s death. They are joined by Laurie and his grandfather. The Aunt wants Beth to remain and asks Mr. Laurence to help convince to stay. But it is actually Laurie that does it.

Meanwhile, Jo learns from Meg that Amy has fallen in love with Laurie and she is fine with that.

The two families return from Europe.

Eventually, the two families return from Europe, Laurie and Amy now married. While the family is celebrating the union, Professor Bhaer stops by with a book for Jo, which turns out to be one of hers. Jo is out milking the cow and when Bhaer sees that she has company over, he declines Hannah’s invitation to wait.

But on his way out, he runs into Jo returning from the barn. He struggles with the wording but he eventually manages to ask her to marry him and she accepts, inviting him into his new home.

The film tells the story from the book in a series of vignettes and while we realize time is moving on, the girls don’t seem to really age and it is never made clear how much time has passed between vignettes. There is very little time to develop relationships, as the film in under two hours tries to tell a story that took a book 759 pages to tell.  As an example of the passage of time, Amy starts out as a 12-year-old schoolgirl but is clearly old enough to get married before it’s over.

The March sisters from Little Women (1933)

The clear star of the film is Katharine Hepburn, who shows her versatility as an actress.  One of her better scenes is during the March family theater when she acts two roles, first as the mustachioed villain, and right afterward, sans mustache and with a blonde wig, she is the spirit of chivalry, the handsome hero. My only knock against her performance and I don’t know if it’s the dialogue which seems taken from the book or her performance but at times, she seems to be acting in a stage play rather than a film.

A theater actress prior to coming to film, she became the lead in a play only four weeks into her theatrical career. Though she was fired after her first performance, she was undeterred and made her debut on Broadway in 1928. Spotted by a scout for the Hollywood agent Leland Hayward during her performance in The Warrior’s Husband in 1932, she was hired by RKO at the insistence of George Cukor, who called her an “… odd creature", But he also said, "she was unlike anybody I'd ever heard." Cukor would become a lifelong friend and colleague. Together they would make 10 films.

The success of her first film lead in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) led RKO to sign her to a long-term contract. She would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in her third film, Morning Glory (1933). She would be nominated 12 times and win the award four times over her career.

Joan Bennett, who played Amy would go on to appear in 70 films starting from silent films. She is said to have had three distinct phases of her career: first as a winsome blonde ingenue, then as a sensuous brunette femme fatale, and finally as a warmhearted wife-and-mother figure. She was definitely in her winsome blonde ingenue phase when she made Little Women.  This was an important film for her career, having left Fox where she had been under contract to play the role of Amy. Her performance in the film would lead to her being signed by Walter Wagner, an independent producer who started to manage her career and would eventually become her husband.

Edna May Oliver also does a nice job as the crabby old Aunt March. As with any good character, there is more to her than what we first see and at the end of the film, she may still be bitching but she’s sort of loveable at the same time. During the 1930s Oliver appeared in a number of films, often playing tart-tongued spinsters, so Aunt March was well within her wheelhouse. She would also be the original star of a series of mystery films as spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers from the popular Stuart Palmer novels. The series ended with her when she left RKO for MGM in 1935. The part was later played by Helen Broderick and then ZaSu Pitts as Withers. Her career was cut short when she died at the age of 59 in 1942.

Paul Lukas who played Professor Bhaer was another busy actor during the 1930s appearing in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), Dodsworth (1936), and  Confessions of aNazi Spy (1939). Here his Hungarian background gives his performance a certain authenticity. Though his part is somewhat small, he is a pivotal character in the film and it wouldn’t have been the same Professor Bhaer played by another actor. He would later receive a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943).

George Cukor who was known as a “woman’s director”, was a good choice for the film. He had already directed many of RKO’s major releases, including What Price Hollywood? (1932), A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and Our Betters (1933). After moving to MGM, he would direct such films as Dinner at Eight (1933) and David Copperfield (1935) for Selznick and Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Camille (1936) for Irving Thalberg.  Even though he was replaced as the director of Gone with the Wind (1939), he went on to direct The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), Adam's Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), A Star Is Born (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), and My Fair Lady (1964) for which he would win the Academy Award as Best Director.

Sometimes I have mixed feelings about watching a classic for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations and reputation? I had that concern before finally watching Little Women recently but I can say that my apprehension was misplaced. The film may seem a little staging from time to time but it manages to capture the spirit of the story with actors giving memorable performances.

While the film is oftentimes shown at Christmas, it is a film that can be enjoyed at any time during the year. I would highly recommend the film.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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