Little Women (1933, George Cukor)
Full disclosure: it’s been almost twenty years since I read Louisa May Alcott’s novel on which this celebrated MGM production was based, and so it slips my mind how strictly it adheres to its source material. Jo wants to be a writer, Beth contracts fever from a baby, Meg would really like to hook up with John, and Marmee’s altruism is rewarded by a wounded husband and a dying daughter — but all of the grimness is offset by an indomitable spirit, and the camaraderie and love of the sisters rules over all. That qualifies as a successful transporting of the central emotion of the book, at least, but George Cukor’s film nevertheless bears all the hallmarks of a staid, overly literal adaptation.
Director Cukor, so frequently cited as Hollywood’s great director of “women’s pictures,” can’t really be faulted; his intimacy with and attachment to these characters is obvious. Equally strong is the MGM team’s wonderful production design. It may not be a realistic evocation of a Civil War-era neighborhood, but it feels sufficiently believable that its interpretation of this world and these people have passed into the culture and now seem like a moving, trustworthy portrait of a bygone era. It’s one of the most handsome productions of the period, and is one of the best applications of the studio’s trademark slickness.
But in Alcott’s novel, there is a consistency to that world and those characters that simply isn’t possible cinematically — not with a tolerable running time, at least. Film and novel both span a considerable length of time and a myriad of situations that are presented in a vignette-like format. In prose, this has the effect of gradually cultivating a sense of familiarity and gravity. You come to know these people. In film, it just comes across as a series of sort-of-connected sequences and one only feels any closeness or meaningful relationship with the characters if they already have and are simply seeing their favorite parts of the book dramatized. Alcott did all the heavy lifting, and for the general film audience, it’s hard to really feel the required affection.
There is some comic energy stemming from things like Jo’s plays and her general irreverent attitude, the exhausting pickiness of Aunt March, the grouchiness of Mr. Laurence and the lovable squareness of Professor Bhaer (an oddly casted Paul Lukas), who somewhat improbably becomes the paternal contributor of a marriage proposal. (Is this any more believable in the novel? I can’t remember.) There’s even earned pathos, much of it thanks to Spring Byington’s sensitive portrayal of Marmee. But by the end the pairing off and endless talking have become nothing but tiresome.
On the other hand, Jo provides an opportunity for one of Katharine Hepburn’s strongest early performances. Purists may grouse at Hepburn’s age (26) relative to that of her teenage character, but Hepburn has sufficient spark about her to make this work, and to embody Jo as a three-dimensional creation who visibly means something to both director and star. Were the film slightly less clumsily scripted, Hepburn could have been the shining light in making this a landmark film. As it is, she’s the primary reason to see it — which is achievement enough. Cavorting around in snow, making jokes at boys’ expense, or selling her own ascendance to scholarship and a writing career, Hepburn is this character, divorced from any movie-star pretensions with which someone else might curse it. She’s a sufficient hook to the haphazard, almost disconnected early scenes — enough so that the film might be better if it stuck to the tone of the first act before the “plot” kicks in. But you could do worse than to spend time in Concord with these women; it will, however, leave you mostly with a desire to revisit the undoubtedly richer source text.