**/**** Image B Sound C-
starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas, Edna May Oliver
screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
directed by George Cukor
by Walter Chaw A scant six years after The Jazz Singer introduced talking to the motion picture, George Cukor's Little Women came to the screen with the awkwardness of a foundling art form (silent-picture burlesque and stage melodrama) in tow. It's extremely difficult to view the film unjaundiced by a modern opinion of performance, script, and direction: Although the adapted screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman won an Oscar that year, Little Women is impossibly dated and difficult to swallow. Part of the problem is the casting of actresses (each one at least a decade too old for her role), whose performances are such sweeping caricatures that it takes some effort to remind oneself that they were once acceptable simulacrums of reality.
Or perhaps the fault lies not with the era in which the film was made, but earlier in the creative process, with Louisa May Alcott's Austen-esque examination of the plight of four sisters left with their indomitable "Marmee" (Spring Byington) while daddy's away at war. Their struggles, which range from the attentions of fine young gentlemen to withering illness, take on the hue of a cozy illusion of domesticity only achieved in our time by Martha Stewart or other delusional sociopaths with the time and money to be free of real-life concerns such as war, angry creditors, and spending holidays with the in-laws. Indeed, when one contemplates Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version of Little Women, the question arises as to whether Alcott's novel can ever be twisted to resemble something other than a twee fantasy of frictionless sorority and romantic deaths as scant diversion from the carnage of the Civil War. At the least, this discussion of Little Women surfaces in a similarly turbulent time in American history when butchery again finds itself on our shores--and how ironic that it should, since there is possibly no more innocuous or edgeless a whimsy than Little Women.
A discussion of Cukor's film, then, can take one of several directions. It can be a brief chat detailing the numerous collaborations between Katharine Hepburn and Cukor (Little Women is the second of ten collaborations in a relationship that saw its zenith at The Philadelphia Story), an unkind recounting of the film's datedness, or a social examination of Victorian domestic gender fantasies that undoubtedly influenced Martha Van Rensselaer's turn-of-the-century "science of home economics" movement. In the interest of brevity, and to the relief of all involved, allow me to content myself with concentrating on the film while allowing that there is a very good reason why Little Women has been brought to the screen five times, to the television four more, and as a TV series another three. I strongly suspect that should the reason ever be properly elucidated, therein would also be revealed Martha Stewart's evil manifesto for world dominance through hijacked illusions of privilege.
Jo (Hepburn) is the second-oldest sister of four. A tomboy, an iconoclast, a writer for the unfortunately-named periodical THE SPREAD EAGLE, Jo is closest in age to the eldest Meg and resents it terribly when Meg agrees to marry dull Mr. Brooke (John Lodge). They have been taught to develop their intellect and moral fortitude, as was subversively fashionable for the time (the resolution that became the fifteenth amendment (allowing black people the vote) was drafted in the same year (1868) as Alcott's novel, paving the way for women's suffrage), and though youngest Amy (Joan Bennett) wishes to marry rich, and sickest Beth (Jean Parker) moons around waiting to become a tragic counterpoint, Jo has taken the feminist message to heart. As played by Hepburn, there can be no mistaking the "mannishness" of the character--in case you're not certain, there are no fewer than a dozen lines dedicated to driving the same point home. If her lusty swagger and deep-timbred elocution fail to clue you into Jo's uniqueness, the girl even makes the magi's sacrifice of selling her hair to a wig-maker to finance Marmee's visit to their injured father. What is most destructive, however, is the unchallenged implication that for Jo to be truly equal to a man in her achievements, she must first disguise all about her that is Woman.
Little Women tells the story of how these young women--girls, really--perform self-written plays for their neighbours, have interminable discussions about their hopes and dreams, and dash around in bucolic cityscapes to the bemusement of the citizenry. A cherished Christmas dinner becomes the opportunity for a sickeningly paternalistic altruism, while the tragic death of an infant results in the clumsily foreshadowed death of the sick one. Meanwhile, Jo rebuffs a well-meaning dolt for an equally well-meaning foreign dolt (exotic=more attractive to the ever-progressive Jo) and pursues a suspiciously autobiographical career in writing women's fictions proselytizing to moony children.
Little Women is filmed in a wide, stately fashion that would become a hallmark of Cukor's studied career. The fashions and the sets are wonderful to behold, and the lighting is brilliant if notably without subtext. The problem with the direction is Cukor's inability to adequately convey the passage of time. What should sprawl over the course of several years (lending depth to Jo's denial of a long-time admirer's love) instead appears to be a series of events spanning a few weeks, with the cast displaying no signs of age as the film progresses. Probably still enjoyable for a younger audience or folks easily diverted by romantic fantasies, Cukor's Little Women is a cultural relic infinitely more interesting for the insight it lends to Alcott's piece and the infancy of filmmaking than it is entertaining in a conventional sense.
The Warner DVD is the prime example of making a silk purse from a sow's ear. Despite some severe digital artifacts, the image is amazingly clean. There are remarkably few lines and scratches marring the picture, although several of the close-ups demonstrate a too-bright haloing. For a film sixty-eight years old this year, it's hard to find too much complaint about the picture quality. As for the sound, loud atmospheric hissing obscures some of the quieter dialogue, but as most of the lines are delivered in stage projection and high-pitched squealing, it's not much of a problem. Scoring-session music cues (essentially an abbreviated score track), a brief essay on the Cukor/Hepburn collaboration, a dreadfully dated trailer interesting for a glimpse at what horrible shape the original negative could be in, and the requisite cast and crew biographies round out the sparse disc. Originally published: November 25, 2001.