Sunday, February 23, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Little Women (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre

This afternoon I attended a wonderful 35mm screening of LITTLE WOMEN (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

I have particularly special memories of a past viewing of this film. The first time I saw it I was a teenager; it was Christmas week of 1976 at the Vagabond Theater, on a double bill with SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). That evening spent with two of my all-time favorite films remains a glowing movie memory decades later.

In the years since I've seen three other versions theatrically; I also saw MGM's 1949 version at the Vagabond, and then of course there were the more recent 1994 and 2019 adaptations. I'm also fond of the 1978 TV-movie. The 2017 BBC version is on my DVD shelf, but I've not yet seen it.

I've always loved the colorful MGM '49 version, with its splendid cast, and when I saw the 1994 version a little over a year ago, I was profoundly moved; I'd forgotten just how good it was. The 2019 version was an entertaining curiosity but relatively unsuccessful in my eyes, with poor character development.

As is often the case with my most favorite films, I almost find it difficult to put into words just what makes the movie so special. I can begin by saying that when I returned to the '33 version today, it cemented my belief that of the many adaptations of LITTLE WOMEN, 1933 is my favorite; if I could have only one film version of the story, this would be it.

This version is perfect from start to finish; it captures the book just as I imagined it when I first read (and re-read!) it, and it also feels the most like I felt when I visited the Alcotts' home in Concord, Orchard House.

It's probably superfluous to say much about the familiar story, which concerns Meg (Frances Dee), Jo (Katharine Hepburn), Beth (Jean Parker), and Amy (Joan Bennett) growing up during and after the U.S. Civil War.

This script for this version, by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (and a host of uncredited names) flows perfectly. It doesn't attempt to cover every moment seen in the later films (Meg's hair burning before the party, Amy burning Jo's manuscript, Amy and Laurie falling in love), yet, especially compared to the jumbled storytelling of the most recent version, it feels complete. Everything feels organic, flowing seamlessly from one moment to the next, with the right amount of foreshadowing; for instance, we see moments such as Jo and Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) bickering early on which causes Jo's later romantic rejection of Laurie to make total sense.

And frankly, the movie is such an emotional experience to me as it is that I'm not entirely sorry some of the more difficult moments were excised from this telling, particularly Amy burning Jo's story and her subsequent fall through the ice.

Each performance feels to me as if the character has jumped off the pages of my well-worn copy of the novel. Hepburn's hoydenish, passionate Jo is truly the essence of the character, but the other actors deserve kudos as well. I love Dee's demure, thoughtful Meg and Bennett's spoiled Amy, and Parker is without a doubt my favorite Beth. Her final scenes with Hepburn are exquisitely played.

I used to find Montgomery's Laurie the weak link in the cast, but he's honestly grown on me over time, and I had no issues with his portrayal today; after having seen Timothee Chalamet's oddly childlike performance recently, Montgomery's take on the part looked all the better.

This is one of those movies where I was so completely immersed that when it ended I realized my brain hadn't drifted anywhere outside the screen and the story. And how many times today did I think "Oh, this is one of my favorite parts"?

I tend to cry when I'm moved by beautiful things, so I was definitely teary watching the film today; indeed, I found myself tearing up in anticipation of favorite scenes. The one which always especially reduces me to puddles is when Beth goes to thank Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson) for the piano.

I also love looking around the screen at things like Walter Plunkett's costumes and the set decorations; for instance, I noticed a detail for the first time today that I think is a bit harder to take in on a small TV screen. A sketch of the family which is first seen just before the telegram arrives about Reverend March being hospitalized later appears on the wall in Jo's room in New York. Then when Jo returns home, the sketch is hanging under the window in Beth's room during her final days.

Something else which made this viewing a little different is that in the years since I last saw it, we've been privileged to become friendly with Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of Frances Dee and Joel McCrea. I've seen other films with his grandparents in recent years -- such as McCrea's THE OUTRIDERS (1950) just a couple weeks ago -- but this one is such a favorite, it was a bit amazing to watch it and think "That's Wyatt's grandmother!" How incredibly special to have been part of this, close to nine decades ago; everyone on screen is gone now, yet as the years tick by, their work continues to touch hearts.

A fun side note: My friend Jane recently reminded me of an interview with Frances Dee in an old Films of the Golden Age magazine. Frances recounted calling up Katharine Hepburn in their later years to say hello and the name "Frances McCrea" didn't immediately click in Hepburn's mind, so Frances said "Kate, it's Meg!" and that clicked with Hepburn immediately.

LITTLE WOMEN runs 115 minutes. It was directed by George Cukor. It was filmed by Henry Gerrard, who was only 35 when he died the following year.

Those who've seen the 1949 version will find that it closely follows this earlier version, using the same script, with additions by Andrew Solt, plus the same musical score by Max Steiner. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for both films.

LITTLE WOMEN is available on DVD. It also had a release on VHS, and it turns up periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

Most highly recommended.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I understand what you mean about the specialness making it difficult to find the words but you found them. This version of Little Women means as much to me as the book and I get choked up even thinking about it.

The other versions have their strong points yet can never replace 1933 in my heart. (Here I will admit to an obsession with the 1970s mini-series in my youth.)

10:09 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad to know you understand what I mean about being hard to put into words, Caftan Woman. :) The book and this film are both so important to me.

Like you, I enjoy all the other versions (including, yes, the 1978!) but this is THE one for me.

Believe it or not I purchased some stills from the 1978 version way back fact I would have to dig through my memorabilia, but I believe I may have a script from the short-lived TV series which followed the movie. Remember how Eve Plumb returned as a cousin?

Best wishes,

11:53 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Lovely, personal review. I too love this film. Perfect cast. Hepburn is always ‘Jo’ for me.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Vienna! So glad to know you love it too. I hope that those who haven't yet seen the '33 version will watch it when they can.

Best wishes,

11:42 AM  

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