In George Cukor's Little Women, the March girls bring family values to life
Our family is usually the place where we learn how to love, and it's not always easy. Few family units are like Ozzie and Harriet. Jealousy, competition, cruelty, and neglect often rear their ugly heads and put us to the test. Yet our moral values are forged in this crucible, and families are the basic building blocks of any decent society.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, has been a popular novel for more than a century. Several generations have identified with the four March sisters, who love each other fiercely as they negotiate life's misfortunes and their own petty jealousies.
Hollywood has adapted this classic four times to the screen with varying degrees of success, but the version most faithful to the novel's spirit is the 1933 production directed by George Cukor (My Fair Lady) and co-written by Sarah Mason and Victor Heerman, whose screenplay won an Oscar.
The emotional spine of the movie is the coming of age of Jo March (Katherine Hepburn) and her growth as an independent woman and a writer. Feminists have long claimed her as a prototype for their values, but Alcott and the filmmakers are careful to balance the blossoming of her talent and career with her passionate attachment to her family, whose needs are usually her first priority.
The Marches live in a small New England town during the time of the Civil War. At one time they were rich, but financial problems have made them part of the struggling middle class. The father is off fighting to free the slaves, and his wife (Spring Byington) and daughters are forced to support themselves.
Jo is an aggressive tomboy who contributes to the family income by serving as a companion to her rich, mean-spirited Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). It's Christmas eve, and the sanctimonious old lady congratulates herself as she gives each of the girls a dollar bill. The four sisters fantasize how they will spend it, but eventually they decide to forgo their personal pleasures and pool the money for a gift for their hard-working mother, a generous gesture typical of the girls. The day ends with all of them gathered around the piano with their mother, singing the hymn, Abide With Me — an image of family togetherness rooted in religious belief.
On Christmas morning, a sumptuous hot meal has been prepared in the grand manner they were used to before they lost their money, but their mother persuades them to give it to a poor, hungry family in an act of pure Christian charity.
The March sisters are also all too human. They live next door to the wealthy Laurence family, and when Meg March (Frances Dee) becomes smitten with their tutor, Mr. Brook (John Davis Lodge), Jo opposes the match.
“Do you have to go and fall in love and spoil all our happy times together?” she laments because her sister has stopped confiding in her as before.
Jo's feelings make no difference, and Meg and Mr. Brook are soon married. But Jo has her own romantic difficulties. The tutor's former pupil, Laurie Laurence (Douglass Montgomery), loves her. Even though the two have developed a deep friendship, she rejects him, citing as reasons her ambition as a writer and his taste for high society elegance.
Jo moves to New York where she supports herself as a governess. Her stories are published in popular, low-brow magazines. The German-born Professor Baer (Paul Lukas) encourages her to aim higher and exposes her to the worlds of opera and theater.
Aunt March takes Jo's flirtatious sibling, Amy (Joan Bennett), on the European grand tour always promised to Jo. Jo's resentment has the potential for turning to bitterness when she later learns a romance has blossomed between her rejected suitor, Laurie, and Amy during their travels.
Meanwhile, Beth March (Jean Parker) has contracted scarlet fever while looking after the baby of an impoverished family. The filmmakers show Jo praying for her, indicating that her literary ambitions haven't extinguished her faith. When Beth's illness becomes worse, Jo drops everything in New York and rushes home to be with her.
Jo is an exemplary person for our times. Her spirit isn't embittered by the disappointments and conflicts in her personal life and career. Her outlook is grounded in love of God and family, and Little Women shows how these commitments sustain her.
Next week: Luchino Visconti's The Leopard.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.------- EXCERPT: