By late 1932, producer David O. Selznick was becoming increasingly disenchanted with his situation at RKO Radio — both production unit arrangements and money being issues. Unable to get a satisfactory response from RKO and under stress due to the worsening condition of his sick father, Selznick turned to MGM who had been courting him and agreed to join that company in February 1933. When Selznick departed RKO, he left behind him three unfinished projects, one of which was Little Women — a screen adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel of New England family life during the Civil War.
Gorge Cukor had been assigned to direct Little Women when Selznick was still at RKO, but he followed Selznick to MGM. As he continued to owe RKO a film, however, Cukor returned to RKO briefly to see Little Women through. Cukor’s involvement reunited him with Katharine Hepburn, the two having worked together previously on Hepburn’s debut film A Bill of Divorcement.
Shooting began on Little Women in late June 1933 and was completed on September 2nd. The film opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York in mid-November to record business for the time. At Academy Award time, the film lost out in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, but did win for Best Adaptation. Little Women won first prize at the Austrian/Vienna Film Festival and was on many ten best lists for the year. Hepburn won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her efforts.
Warner Brothers has recently made Little Women its third DVD release from its RKO Radio holdings.
With their father away fighting in the Civil War and their mother, Marmee, holding the home together in his absence, the four March sisters grow up in Concord, Massachusetts. Jo wants to write and finds herself involved with the next-door neighbour, Laurie; Meg helps out at home while her mother works elsewhere in the town; Amy struggles with school; and shy Beth excels at music.
The girls’ close-knit camaraderie is threatened when Meg begins to fall in love with Laurie’s tutor, Brooke, and Beth falls ill with scarlet fever. Beth manages to recover temporarily, but when Meg finally accepts Brooke’s proposal, Jo is disappointed and rejects a proposal from Laurie, choosing instead to go to New York alone to improve her writing. There she meets the kindly Professor Bhaer who tries to help. Meanwhile, Amy finds a surprise love of her own and Beth suffers a relapse that brings Jo back home.
The classic “Little Women” story has been filmed at least a dozen times. Best known are the 1994, 1949 and 1933 versions. The 1994 one starred Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon in a beautifully made and faithful adaptation. MGM’s 1949 effort had the typical MGM glossy production, but seemed a somewhat lifeless film partly due to the poor choice of June Allyson to play Jo. RKO Radio’s 1933 filming of Little Women is still the best version of the story for one simple reason — Katharine Hepburn.
In 1933, Hepburn hadn’t yet worn out her welcome at RKO nor taken on the box office poison that she would suffer through later in the decade. She was riding high with her acclaimed debut in A Bill of Divorcement and Best Actress Academy Award for Morning Glory when Little Women appeared. What Hepburn brings to the role of Jo March is energy, enthusiasm, and quirkiness, exactly what the part calls for. Her Jo is a characterization that further fueled the view of the time that Hepburn was someone unique in acting ranks. She wasn’t afraid to be unorthodox or take on roles that had the potential to make her look un-cool as we might term it now. She lacked the standard Hollywood yardstick of beauty at this point in her career and many would say she never attained it although some of her roles in the early 1940s would belie that point of view. Somehow it was this more plain look, a slight masculine dimension to her actions and reactions, and her willingness to experiment that gained Hepburn her first period of audience acceptance, allowing her to pull off virtually any role she tried. In Little Women, she manages to wear balloon skirts and petticoats, dress up like an idiot in a play her character has written, address her mother as “Marmee,” be courted by the eager young man next door — all without seeming quaint and outdated in the least.
In fact, it’s one of the main qualities of the production as a whole that, given its subject matter and setting, nothing about the film seems quaint or outdated. The screenplay by Sarah Mason and Victor Heerman is an expert evocation of the original story, presenting that story’s wit, wisdom, and courtesy in a manner that respects those elements while conveying tastefully the joy and pleasures of family life of the time that were possible despite the hardships involved.
In addition to Katharine Hepburn, the rest of the cast is uniformly good. Jo’s sisters are all well played by Joan Bennett (Amy), Jean Parker (Beth) and Frances Dee (Meg). Spring Byington is a fine Marmee and Edna May Oliver gives one of her characteristic mock-tyrant performances as Aunt March. The men in the girls’ lives (Douglass Montgomery as Laurie, John Davis Lodge as Brooke, Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer) are all tolerable and Henry Stephenson as old Mr. Laurence gives his normal reliable performance.
Warner Brothers recently released Little Women on DVD at the same time as Now, Voyager. The latter has become a benchmark for DVD transfer excellence for a vintage black and white film. Unfortunately, Little Women (presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1) is not able to match that title’s look of excellence. Make no mistake, however, this is still a fine looking effort. When compared to the previous home video incarnations on both VHS and laserdisc, the new DVD looks wonderful. Much of the time, it’s quite sharp and clear with a wonderful palette of grays. So much of the film’s previous ragged look with the numerous scratches and almost constant speckling has been eliminated, that the result almost seems like a new film in comparison. Yet compared to the pristine nature of Now, Voyager, the new Little Women has some obvious defects. Speckling is still apparent from time to time and some of the darker scenes suffer from excessive noise, almost as if a veil had been drawn over the image. The overall result is, however, still of a high standard and probably represents the best that it was possible to draw from the available source elements.
The monaural sound has also been cleaned up substantially. Dialogue is now clear and fairly free from hiss or crackling. The film’s music by Max Steiner can be enjoyed quite well although it’s a score that’s more in the realm of a pleasing and appropriate accompaniment to the film than one that takes on a life and magic of its own.
Although not a barebones release, Warner’s DVD doesn’t exactly shine in the area of supplements. There are scoring session cues and a beaten-up looking theatrical trailer that are of interest, but the notes on the collaboration between director George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn are a disappointment, being little more than a listing of films. Calling an abbreviated list of the film’s cast and crew a special feature is also a bit of a laugh. On-screen credits on films of the 1930s and 1940s are commonly rather short compared to what we see nowadays, but you’ll learn more from the on-screen credits of Little Women than you will from the listing of cast and crew that WB includes as one of the disc’s special features.
Here we have another disc that gives us renewed hope for the future of classic releases on DVD from WB. The company has taken the time to deliver a high quality transfer that fans of Little Women will be pleased to own. Those who are familiar with this 1933 film will want to replace their existing home video versions, those who are not will not go wrong adding this one to their collections. Recommended.