I had never read Little Women, nor seen any of the film versions. I have this self-imposed dictum that I should not watch a film version of a novel before I read it. This applies only to what would be considered classic novels. I doubt I would feel compelled to read the novel of The Hangover, assuming one existed, before I saw that film, assuming I would see it.
Little Women would require reading. I had never really been interested before. I thought it would be a dull read and a duller movie watch. However, when I heard that Greta Gerwig was going to direct a version with more great actors than you could shake a stick at, I decided it was time.
As luck would have it, TCM had a series a few months ago, during which they showed back to back versions of the same movies: two Maltese Falcons, two Ben-Hurs, two Christmas Carols, etc. They showed the 1933 George Cukor and the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy versions of Little Women. I diligently taped them and held them in reserve as I read the novel for the first time, all in anticipation of when the Gerwig version would hit the theaters. I am a little obsessive.
The novel was a wonderful read. It struck me as a quite modern story of strong women wrapped in the garb of Victorian sentimentality. The Victorian sentimentality fades away pretty quickly as we get involved in these richly drawn characters. It was a treat for me since most 19th Century novels I have read have been English and it was great to see the themes and concerns of a very American novel. The Civil War looms huge in the background without actually appearing in the book. Women’s roles in society are starting to be figured out. In many ways, it seemed to parallel the frustration women felt after WWII where they were thanked heartily for their contribution to the war effort, but then told to go home and be good homemakers for the returning boys.
After finishing reading the book, I watched the 1933 version in horror. Katharine Hepburn, looking way older and weirder than Jo should look, sucks up the oxygen with her over-the-top caricature of what a strong, independent, smart women should be. She mugs shamelessly. She gallops coltishly. It is awful. I think the sound of her braying ‘Christopher Columbus’ will haunt my nightmares forever. Douglass Montgomery, a forgotten and oddly handsome actor plays a very appealing Laurie, but he is too old.
Anyone who has read the book will agree that the center of gravity is not Jo, but Marmee. In her quiet wisdom she holds the entire world of the book together. In the Cukor version Spring Byington, whom those of us of a certain age will remember as December Bride, is given very odd direction as Marmee. She is very vulnerable and not the tower of saneness and strength that she is in the book. And Edna May Oliver is on hand to do her schtick as Aunt March. She is just Aunt Betsy Trotwood all over again without the heart.
I suspect that this 1933 version is the version of the book that most people think of when they think of Little Women. I think it even supersedes the novel itself for most people.
Well, that was no fun at all, I thought.
Onto the 1949 version.
This version, like the 1933 version, was an MGM productions The 1949 version is in color. What struck me even in the credits was that both of these versions were very much alike. Sure enough, I found out that they were shot from the identical script!. So, all the limitations of characterization that we found in the 1933 version would be found in this version.
Luckily, we have June Allyson on hand to be a much more appealing Jo. Her ‘Christopher Columbus’ does not make the skin crawl. Janet Leigh is a lovely, gracious Meg. Elizabeth Taylor is a well-played but shallow Amy. Margaret O’Brien is predictably precocious and tragic as Beth. For my money she is still the best child actor ever.
I was happy to see that Marmee was to played by Mary Astor, not many years after the legendary mother turn in Meet Me In St. Louis. Here, disappointingly, she is kind of comatose and not the pillar of strength we need. Peter Lawford attempts callowness as Laurie, but he is too old. He and Allyson play well off each other, though.
Hmmm, I thought. Is it really impossible to have a version that captures the nuance of this book? Will I never see a great Marmee? Will I always want to strangle Jo?
I haven’t see the 1994 Gillian Armstrong version, but the prospect of a Susan Sarandon Marmee and a Christian Bale Laurie hold out great promise. Plus Armstrong’s history of great female characters bodes well.
I finally got to see the Gerwig version a few weeks ago. This was the point of this whole Marmee research project.
It blew me away. Gerwig’s script is brilliant. She fractures the story so that we shuttle between the end of the story and the beginning. The Princh refers to it as a ‘March Salad’.
More than a gimmick, this allows her to make resonances between foreshadowing and resolutions in the book.
Also, much more is included that MGM might have found off-putting. These elements give extraordinary depth and allows the movie to be a compliment to and not a caricature of the book.
The character of Amy in particular is given great depth. We see her burning Jo’s book. We see her falling through the ice. We see her as an artist of some talent who is able to give a dry-eyed assessment of her future as an artist. We see her as an ideal companion for Laurie. We get the feeling that he will always be the hobbledehoy and that she will be the adult. Florence Pugh steals the picture as far as I am concerned. Timothee Chalamet is physically ideal as Laurie. Meryl Streep is funny but also terrifying as Aunt March. She reminds us that this rich women is often very destructive in the lives of the March family, and she doesn’t do any real good until she dies.
Saoirse Ronan is poised to be the Meryl Streep of her generation. I am amazed at the way she disappears into every role I have seen her in. Finally, we have a vindication of Jo. She is complex, excruciating, sad, heroic. In short, she is a full person, which is something that neither of the other versions allowed.
In Laura Dern, we also get a vindication of Marmee. She is a beautiful and in many ways a sexual women. I imagine that Marmee is not much over 40 at the beginning of the novel, and the casting of Dern is brilliant. She is more overtly sexual as the predatory divorce lawyer in Marriage Story but here she is more completely sexual while also being motherly.
What makes the Gerwig version so on-the-mark is what she restores to the work. Much has been written about the famous quote that Marmee says, apparently for the first time in any film. When Jo tells Marmee that she wants to be more like her and be forgiving and never angry, Marmee replies “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” This is a critical trait of the character that has been missing since it does not fit the MGM ideal of Motherhood, I suppose.
So, praise is due to Gerwig for her restoration of a remarkable novel. Just think what she could do with Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch or Cold Comfort Farm! There has been a lot of talk about how she was robbed by not being nominated for Best Director. This is true. However, I will be satisfied if she wins the Oscar for Best Screenplay, because that is where her real genius and gift to us lie.
But, never forget: the Oscars are stupid. If you need a reminder, read this.