Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Little Women (1933)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture of 1932/1933
- Type: Pre-Code, Drama
- Other AA Nominations: Best Director (George Cukor)
- Other AA Wins: Best Writing, Adaptation (Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heering)
- Director: George Cukor
- Studio/Producer: RKO Radio Pictures / Merian C. Cooper
- Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas, Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Spring Byington, Edna May Oliver, Douglass Montgomery, Henry Stephenson, John Davis Lodge
- Production Notes: Music by Max Steiner, based on the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott and adapted for the screen by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heering, Cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard, Costumes by Walter Plunkett
- Viewing Order: 27 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
The four March sisters, domestic sweetheart Meg (Frances Dee), literary tomboy Jo (Katharine Hepburn), sickly and softhearted Beth (Jean Parker), and beauty obsessed Amy (Joan Bennett), are coming of age in Concord, Massachusetts. While their father fights in the Civil War, the sisters and their mother Marmee (Spring Byington), fight their own struggles at home against poverty and the trials that come with being female (and a teenager, in the sisters’ case).
They make friends with the neighbors next door: gruff but kind Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), who takes a shine to soft-spoken and musical Beth, his grandson Theodore Laurence or “Laurie” (Douglass Montgomery), who quickly becomes good friends with Jo, and Laurie’s tutor John Brooke (John Davis Lodge), who begins courting Meg.
As they age, life becomes more complicated. Laurie’s love for Jo develops into a romantic one, which she can’t bring herself to reciprocate. Instead, she flees to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming an author and meets the intelligent and kindhearted German professor Friedrich Bhaer (Paul Lukas), who she develops a deep admiration and affection for. Meanwhile, Laurie does the same to forget Jo and heads for Europe, crossing paths with Amy who has taken the trip with their stern great Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). While they are away, sickly Beth becomes ill once again…
Romance, tragedy, and triumph all take turns in this family friendly coming of age tear jerker.
Many of the works of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women included, lean towards saccharine idealism; the true evils of the world remain buried and all quarrels come out right in the end. I sort of love this about her and devoured her books as a child, even though once I grew up I discovered how much more harsh and crass the world really is. Yet, the film took it a step further and almost completely omitted Jo and Amy’s sibling rivalry as well as the social pressures and taunts the March girls faced for their class standing and lack of wealth. This was a misstep on the part of the film as the result flattened the characters greatly. Meg and Beth are sugary afterthoughts. Although Joan Bennett portrays her as best she could and with humor, Amy is written in the script as mostly vapid and bland aside from her artistic ability. When Laurie does fall for her in the end, it’s genuinely hard to know why. Only Jo was portrayed as a full and moderately fleshed out character to the point where one wonders if the Women of the title was a typo for Woman. For a nearly two hour film, one would think the other three March girls would have received a bit more time and care.
After only 3 films, Katharine Hepburn had already made a mixed bag impression on Hollywood when was set to star in Little Women. She was described as aloof and the press found her standoffish. She was angular, athletic, and not the typical beauty Hollywood was accustomed to. She could swing back and forth between intense, powerful acting and nauseatingly melodramatic. In short, she was confusing. This would be typical for much of her career. People today are accustomed to the intense scrutiny and dislike strong women with take-charge, non-fuzzy demeanors elicit, while their male counterparts are unjustly not held up to the same level of scrutiny for those same characteristics. With that in mind, it’s easier to see why this was also the case for Hepburn, a strong minded, brusque, not overly feminine, pants wearing personality who defied traditional female stereotypes in form and function. By the time Little Women rolled around, her worst critics were reluctantly calling her an acquired taste. What choice did they have? No matter what kind of taste it leaves in your mouth, it’s hard to deny raw talent.
One of the things I love about Katharine Hepburn is the fascinating combination of her snort laughing, stuttering, interrupting herself form of naturalness paired with an upper class, overly theatrical bent. In this part as Jo she skews towards the latter and it’s ever apparent that her background was in the stage. Still, it’s a refreshingly unique performance. Watching her, one is struck by how completely special Katharine Hepburn was as an actress. Before this film or since, I have never seen a performance that so clearly personifies the word tomboy.
Joan Bennett as Amy shines in some comedic bits at the beginning, but the script really doesn’t afford her many opportunities to show depth of any real kind. Frances Dee as Meg and Jean Parker as Beth are both unnaturally cloying when they are not completely fading into the recesses of the film.
Behind the Scenes:
Just as she modeled Jo upon herself and Meg, Beth, and Amy on her own sisters, author Louisa May Alcott’s home was the inspiration for the March’s home in the film.
The costumes were crafted to be authentic to not only the time period, but the situation the March girls were in financially. One of Beth’s dresses was made with alpaca and striped silk sewn together disproportionately to give the impression that it was hand stitched by the girls themselves. As the family was not wealthy, many items were either simple and plain or scuffed up to make them look worn. The costume department even went so far as to commission several elderly ladies to stitch together some of the cloth dresses worn in the film from multiple fabrics, to emulate how the girls would have made their clothes. 
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
The combination of a much loved book, excellent box office numbers, and the material completely capturing and shadowing the zeitgeist of the time, albeit in different eras, made for a powerful combination. With the country only about 15 years out from World War I and only 6 years away from World War II, 1930s America could relate to the struggles of the March family with their patriarch at war and the women at home, even if Little Women took place during the Civil War. Another main theme of the novel and film was poverty, something Americans currently in the midst of the Great Depression could relate to all too well.
How does it hold up today?
So-so. With arguably much better versions gracing the screen since (my personal favorite being the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, as well as the critically acclaimed 2019 version starring Saoirse Ronan), this one sort of fades into the background in a puff of sugary smoke. Still, Katharine Hepburn’s performance is a huge selling point, the film did itself a favor by sticking closely to solid source material, and it holds up as a feel-good family flick for those with young kids who have no aversion to black and white movies.
- IMDb rating= 7.2 out of 10 (with 6,095 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 94% fresh by critics (15 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 78% fresh user ratings (out of 9.768 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1932/1933’s Best Picture?
Though I think this was a decent and mostly well done adaptation, it didn’t blow me away. If anything it was a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn to shine (and she did!) rather than the story or source material.
- Plunkett, Walter. “’Little Women’ Attired After Careful Research.” Oakland Tribune, 10 Dec. 1933, p. 39.