Saturday, March 8, 2014

Little Women (1933)

Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve made it a habit in general lately to stick all or most of the “very long wait” films on my NetFlix queue at the top of the list in the hopes of getting a film I might otherwise wait for months to get. It’s been working out in general, in no small part because I have so many of them that one of them is bound to be available. My luck continued, but also ran out this time, with the arrival of Little Women from 1933. I knew within the first 10 minutes of this that it was going to be a rough couple of hours.

I’ll put it this way—I thought upon watching Cavalcade that I wouldn’t come across another film of the same Oscar year that I found more tedious. Well, that ended tonight, because Little Women plays like a grade school stage play. This is acting broader than a typical silent film. I realize that the family in the film has fallen on hard times, but when they get sausages for Christmas breakfast, you’d think they’d all just won the lottery. And then, of course, they donate their breakfast to a poorer family who are starving and freezing cold and have a new baby, and oh! but it’s all so sappy and irritating.

Anyway, this is a story that takes place during and after the American Civil War. It focuses on the March family. The father is away fighting in the war (for the Union, as this takes place in Massachusetts). Left at home is the matriarch, called Marmee (Spring Byington) and her four daughters. These are (in order) 16-year-old Meg (played by 23-year-old Frances Dee), 15-year-old Jo (played by 26-year-old Katherine Hepburn), 14-year-old Beth (played by 18-year-old jean Parker), and 12-year-old Amy (played by 23-year-old Joan Bennett). So immediately everyone looks like an adult and is acting like a child. I genuinely didn’t know what their ages were supposed to be until I looked this up on Wikipedia.

Anyway, a young man named Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) has moved in next door with his grandfather, and he immediately becomes the object of obsession for Jo, who is quite the tomboy. When the Marches are invited next door to a party, Meg meets John Brooke (John Lodge), Laurie’s tutor. The two quickly become an item. Eventually, it is learned that Mr. March has been wounded in the war, so Marmee runs off to tend to him in Washington. Beth, who is in all ways the best of the March girls, contracts scarlet fever. Jo spurns Laurie and runs off to New York to be a writer. It is here that she meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), which leaves her conflicted about her unresolved feelings for Laurie. And in the meantime, young Amy is making her own play for Laurie.

Look, I know that this is a beloved book and a true slice of Americana, but this version of it is purely wretched. I similarly know that this film is more than 80 years old and certain allowances need to be made, but even with that, I’ve got very little positive to say about it. I’ll give it credit for sumptuous sets and costumes, but beyond this, there’s not much here that I appreciated. It’s so melodramatic and plays its emotional hand so hard and thick that I actually have trouble taking it seriously.

And this really pains me to say, but it’s Katharine Hepburn who annoys more than anyone here with the overacting and the random shouts of “Christopher Columbus!” when she’s surprised by anything. Everything is so overly emotional all the time—everything is of the greatest joy or the deepest sorrow. I may well now be diabetic from how sugary everything is.

I tried. I really, really tried to give this every fair shake, and I’m done with it. Sadly, there’s another version of this story on the Oscars list, which means I guess I’m not as done with it as I thought.

Why to watch Little Women: I’m struggling here.
Why not to watch: It’s annoying beyond all measure.


  1. I watched this recently myself. I'm smiling because I had a similar reaction to this. I haven't read the book, but my reaction to the movie was "THIS is a beloved story?"

    The remake (where at least they had a 12 year old Kirsten Dunst playing the younger version of Amy and an early 20s Samantha Mathis as the older version) was supposed to be good, but I've never seen it. Now, I don't know that I ever will.

    1. I will eventually. It can't be worse than this one, can it?

  2. I've never seen a version of this on film before, but I have read the book. I do like parts of the story. It's easy to go down and a bit cozy in a Little House on the Prairie way. There are some parts of it (it's a pretty long book) that really should have been cut out completely. There are some people, including a friend of mine, who would rate this as their absolute favorite book. But as far as seeing a film version?...none of the above comments lead me in that direction.

    1. I've been led to believe that the 1994 version is quite a bit better and a lot less over-the-top in terms of both acting and melodrama. I'll get there eventually.