Little Women (1933)

Why do I feel like there was too much shouting? (Also, too much crying? Sheesh, Kathy, calm the heck down.)

The 1933 Katharine Hepburn film is an unsubtle adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel Little Women. Then again, the book at times is less than subtle in its advocacy of Christian selflessness. Moreover, I get the sense that compared to the films of the day, Little Women represented a victory for realism: it was a departure from overblown, melodramatic, stereotyped adventures.

I decided to watch Little Women (1933) after the Hungry Hundred Book Club meetup, when I saw three classic film adaptations—Little Women 1933, Little Women 1949, and Little Women 1994—listed in a friend’s copy of the book. Many critics seem to consider the 1933 adaptation the best of the bunch.

See below for more of what I thought of it, as well as a plot summary in the form of a list of incidents included in the movie.

What stood out when I watched Little Women (1933)

Old Tech

The movie posters are in color, but the film is in black and white. (The history of color motion pictures is complicated, but the first big successes in color film-making were The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, both released in 1939.)

Inevitable Pogo-sticking

Every time a book gets adapted for film, lots of stuff gets cut for length. Sometimes quite a lot gets added, which doesn’t seem like it should be necessary, and often the added material doesn’t fit logically or thematically with the source material. Little or nothing was added in this case, but in any case, the question is whether what appears in the film constitutes a coherent story.

I can’t say for sure whether the story in this film makes sense on its own because the story in the novel is still fresh in my mind. My guess is that people who have not read the book recently will more strongly feel the loss of key material.

I imagine that Aunt March’s decision to take Amy and not Jo with her to Europe will seem almost completely unmotivated, as will Professor Bhaer’s appearance at the family gathering at the end of the film. All the romantic pairings will seem the result of whirlwind courtships.

A friend who particularly admired Amy as a character who underwent significant change over the course of the book would be disappointed at the limited portrayal afforded to the character in the 1933 film. We get glimpses of Amy as a vain and somewhat selfish “child”, and then we get glimpses of her as the elegant pet of the wealthy Aunt March, and that’s it. We see few of her experiences and none of her inner struggle to change.

As someone who has recently read the book, I can confirm that some of the dialog was written to substitute for pages of missing events and narration, but that some comes straight off the page.

Age-blind Casting

Although the period of time traversed in the film is several years, the same actresses play the sisters as both their younger and older selves. In the beginning of the book, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are 16, 15, 13, and 12 respectively. By the end of the book, Amy is a married adult. The girls’ transformations are signaled by clothes, makeup and accessories, but the actress who plays Amy, 23-year-old Joan Bennet, definitely does not look 12 at the beginning of the film. Katharine Hepburn (Jo) was 26 and Francess Dee (Meg) was 23, while Jean Parker (Beth) was 18.

Aunt March

Aunt March is a relatively minor character, but she is fearsome! The screenwriters and the actress (Edna May Oliver) did a fantastic job making her seem  unpleasant. The story of Little Women doesn’t really have an antagonist, but Aunt March behaves like a villain; in every scene she’s in, she makes loud critical comments. She’s mean even when she’s being generous, and exclusive even when she’s participating in family celebrations. I guess it wouldn’t be right to have two rich old people who only seem gruff, and Mr. Laurence is the more obviously softhearted one.

Jo’s Transformation

Readers have mixed feelings about Professor Bhaer. Whatever your feelings on Jo’s friend from her time in the New York boarding house, though, you have to admit that during her stay there she becomes much more fashionable, elegant, sophisticated, and beautiful than she was while living at home with her parents and sisters. Are the changes in her wardrobe and makeup due to the passage of time and the increase in her maturity? Are they a requirement of her employer and landlady? We aren’t told. To me, the changes seemed sudden and out of character. Given that Jo loses some of her elegance when she returns home to care for her sister, the most likely answer in the context of the film is that Jo’s more feminine trappings are somehow a social necessity in the more urban environment.

Incidents Included in Little Women (1933)

  • Mrs. March hands out supplies, comforting a father who has lost four sons to the Civil War.
  • Jo reads to and gets scolded by her wealthy Aunt March, who gives her four dollars for herself and her sisters for Christmas.
  • Margaret bids goodbye to the children with whom she works as governess.
  • Amy gets punished and then forgiven at school for drawing a caricature of her teacher.
  • Beth plays on a worn-out piano-like instrument.
  • The girls rehearse together for a play written by Jo.
  • Mrs. March arrives home with a letter from Father, which reminds the girls to be kind and good.
  • On Christmas morning, the girls are excited about the gifts they bought for their mother with their four dollars.
  • The girls decide to give their unusually extravagant breakfast to the Hummels, a poor family that their mother takes care of.
  • The girls put on Jo’s play for the amusement of some friends.
  • Jo befriends and fences with Laurie, the boy who lives next door with his rich grandfather, Mr. Laurence.
  • The sisters go to a dance part at Mr. Laurence’s house, where Meg converses with Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brook and Mr. Laurence invites Beth to visit and play his piano.
  • Jo confesses to Laurie that she has sold a story to a newspaper but is horrified to learn that Meg is thinking of marrying Mr. Brook.
  • Mr. Laurence gives Beth a new piano, and she bravely goes in person to thank him.
  • Mrs. March learns that her husband is sick and decides to leave Concord to visit him in Washington, whereupon Jo sells her hair for money to send with her mother.
  • Beth catches scarlet fever from the Hummels’ baby, who dies in her arms, and Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March so she won’t fall sick.
  • Beth recovers somewhat, and Mrs. March arrives home. After some time, Mr. March, recovered from his illness, returns home to Concord.
  • In a scene that reminds me of the Lady Catherine one in Pride and Prejudice, Meg declares to Aunt March that she loves Mr. Brook even though he has no money, effectively accepting his proposal.
  • Meg gets married and Laurie declares his love for Jo.
  • Jo, having refused to marry Laurie, decides to leave and spend some time in New York to work on her writing.
  • Jo starts to fall for her neighbor, Professor Bhaer from Germany.
  • Aunt March visits Jo and announces that she is taking Amy to Europe with her and that Jo’s dear but rejected friend Laurie seems to be angry with her.
  • Professor Bhaer criticizes Jo for writing trashy stories, but comforts her by offering to take her places in New York.
  • Jo learns that Beth’s condition is worsening and returns home to Concord, nursing her until her death.
  • Jo learns that Laurie is set to marry Amy, which he then does with Jo’s blessing.
  • Professor Bhaer arrives at the Marches’ house just after Laurie and Amy return from Europe. He proposes to Jo on the doorstep and she accepts, welcoming him into the house and the family.

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