I still remember visiting Louisa May Alcott’s home in Massachusetts and of course, my sister read her magnum opus innumerable times when we were younger but for some reason, maybe it was a fear of what the title suggested, I still never cracked it open during my childhood. But I’ve always been intrigued by the story usually brought to me in snippets or in bits and pieces from films (namely the wonderful 1994 version).
Here we have a quintessential Cukor picture that embodies the nobler side of humanity — the little women as represented by the March family — and it’s a winsome charmer, where the world seems vibrant and gay.
Despite their humble state, the March girls are cultivated by love and affection. They grew up playing at John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress when they were children and now as they become young women they have real burdens.
And yet their lives are still fortified by hope and the pure optimism of youth is captured within this picture. It provides access to that time of life which you wish you could hold onto. You see it most aggressively in Jo (Katharine Hepburn) — young, wild, and free as she is — her life full of frolicking and exuberance. She sees the world as perfect bliss surrounded by her mother and sisters — her father to return from the war at some point, a hero in her eyes.
Her next-door neighbor starts out a stranger and soon becomes one of her finest companions. Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) stirs up all her energy and welcomes being brought into the fold while his stately grandfather proves to have one of the most capacious hearts with which to bless the March girls with. Not to mention the fact that Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brook takes an immediate liking to Meg (Frances Dee) and she harbors a mutual fondness for his gentleness and good manners.
Even a life such as this is struck unmercifully by tragedy. Beth (Jean Parker) is stricken with scarlet fever after watching a neighbor’s baby die in her arms. These are the depths of woe. These are the moments for which the March family stands around the piano and sing a chorus of “Abide With Me.”
The shining moment arrives when the father of the house returns. He barely has any screen time in the entire picture because after all, this isn’t his film. But his presence is used exquisitely to aid how Cukor approaches the material. We look on as he sees each daughter and his wife until the camera’s focus turns completely on Beth bedridden and stricken with sickness as she is. Seeing her father the girl miraculously rises to her feet recalled to life after being incapacitated for so long. The miracle of the moment isn’t lost to us nor the imagery of her father arriving as a savior to lift her up. It’s deeply moving.
But it’s funny how life works. Things cannot and will not stay the same forever. Sisters mature. People grow up and share the company of men. We too grow and progress though we only seem to see it in others and not ourselves.
Jo cannot bear for her older sister Meg to get married – to be forced to watch things change within her household – still they do change and she must accept it. However, she cannot accept that Laurie is in love with her and she reacts to his professions the only way she knows how.
The final act follows Jo as she looks to pursue her career as a writer, Meg is happily married now, and Amy (Joan Bennett) is off to Europe with curmudgeon Aunt March. Time passes and old wounds slowly begin to heal, especially when Jo meets another person of peace in Professor Baehr (Paul Lukas). He is a man of great intellect but humble means and he encourages his “little friend” in her writing. Developing a relationship that they both cherish deeply.
Little Women has always been such a striking example of how life can end up so much different than we could ever imagine and yet in hindsight, there are hardly any complaints to be had. It’s never about the complaints but the difficult things that tear us apart only to tie us closer together. Because, at the end of this story, Jo has progressed so far and yet she still has her family and they love her as much as ever.
Katharine Hepburn feels perfectly at home in the role of Jo always the tomboy, independent, boisterous and such. She rumbles with “coarse talk” her favorite exclamation being “Christopher Columbus!”
I’ll try to head off any criticism that might suggest this adaptation is quaint or dated because I would argue that it’s recalling a different era that in so many ways boasted so much that we should yearn for today in our current world. People putting other’s before themselves — living only with what is necessary not in excess or in pursuit of some self-serving hedonism. These are people who cherish what family can give them and the simplicity of quality time and relationships.
Where Christmas festivities have nothing to do with gifts or monetary value but a spirit of giving and a joyful heart. The March sisters even have the original home theater putting on a performance of their own creation letting their imagination and creativity ignite.
What I respect deeply about this story is that it doesn’t feel like it has to be a romance. True, people get married and fall in love but that is not the pretense for the story. As their father entreats them in his letter, they are to “conqueror themselves.” Finding a man is not the point of their existence and this story makes it clear that life is so much more than that. It’s about love, selflessness, humility, and a great many other traits that we would do well to pursue.