Sunday, October 9, 2011

Little Women (1933)

At a time when movie studios were pushing the limits of what audiences wanted to see, during the period just before the production code of ethics patrolled what was allowed to be seen on screen, films portrayed increasing amounts of sexuality, violence, and immorality to bring audiences into the theater. In a near direct contrast to that approach comes RKO’s 1933 feature Little Women, based on the classic novel which many people have read and what school children still read to this day. The picture that is Little Women is so simple and pure that it stands out from the other products being featured in movie houses at that time, almost as if giving people a breath of fresh air after the viewing the violent gangster films, gruesome horror movies, or risqué pictures with the likes of Mae West or Jean Harlow. Little Women would be a delightfully simple picture, one without the flashiness, heart pounding thrills, or headlined with megastars. The classic tale would be adapted for the screen for the first time as a talking picture and charmed a multitude that came to see it.

Little Women is a coming of age tail of young lady and her three sisters as they discover important life lessons as they grow up during the time when things were thinner for their family, during the American Civil War. The film follows primarily the story of Jo March (Katharine Hepburn) who lives with her three sisters, Amy (Joan Bennett), Beth (Jean Parker), and Meg (Francis Dee), and their mother who they affectionately call Marmee (Spring Byington). Together the women learn the meaning of sacrifice and other life lessons while they grow and mature during the time when their father is off fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War. The film plays in a form of small vignettes as we see the girls learn to be unselfish and care for each other becoming less the girls we are first introduced to and more into young ladies. Jo’s tale has her bloom from a tomboy to a woman, striving to become a writer, finding success in her creative skill publishing stories, starting a relationship with a neighbor boy named Laurie (Douglas Montgomery), but moving to New York to continue to strive to her vocation. In the process Jo and the family loses Beth to illness, as well as Jo losing Laurie’s romantic love as he falls in love with Amy. In a moment of maturation Laurie’s relationship with Jo is not soured as they share a loving respect for each other and Jo finds love in Professor Bhear, her friend and writing coach in New York. Together the family has changed and struggled, but together they are strong with the love they share for each other they all become little women.

The picture is one very different for that of the normal products of that period. It carries with it a sense of nostalgia as it harkens back to the age of storytelling from when the original book was published. The film has no real plot or protagonist. There is no climax or major event to overcome. Instead the picture is one of growing up and letting go of childish things. Through the film there are laughs and sorrows, pain and joy, loss and love. Despite the film’s time span taking place over a handle full of years, the film does not show the passage of time very well as everything seems to look the same throughout until Jo leaves for the city and all of a sudden the girls are women as they go their separate ways. The acting is fair, with some cliques, but Hepburn’s performance is marvelous as she plays the strong willed lady that defiantly does things her way. Director George Cukor was known for coaxing great performances from his actors and this was one of his early triumphs, as Hepburn was not known as easy to work with. In all this picture is one of those films where you, as an audience member, live life along with the characters, growing and maturing as life continues to teach one through the years.

The story of the production of Little Women is that of the film’s major pieces, and those pieces were uncredited producer David O. Selznick, director George Cukor, and star Katharine Hepburn. Selznick was a long time producer at RKO, but came to a point where he would leave the studio to go work at the much larger and extravagant MGM, but for contractual reasons would return to help produce this one last film, fulfilling his last duty. Out of competition in the business and that his name was now associated with competitor MGM, Selznick’s name would be left off the credits. Cukor was not widely well known for his past work, but his latest film Dinner at Eight manifested just how he could joggle major personalities into great performances. Here Cukor would deliver such a performance from the stubborn minded new star, Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn was still very new to the Hollywood scene, practically willing herself to being a star. She was strong and known for her stage presence, making instant demands from the studio when she was signed. Her first director, which happened to be Cukor, would help her start in the movie industry and became a lifelong friend. Katharine would make many demanding requests during her career and for this film she requested that the dress she would wear in much of the picture be based off a dress seen in a illustration of her grandmother. The studio obliged her with the creation of the dress. Even though she had a commanding performance with Little Women, Hepburn would be nominated for her acting in her work from earlier in the year in Morning Glory at the Oscars celebrating 1933. Many believe that he work in Little Women was more praiseworthy, but for its time her earlier work in 1933 would shine the brightest, naming her best actress.

Hepburn and Joan Bennett (who was covering up an inconvenient pregnancy)
The supporting cast was a myriad of players from very interesting backgrounds. Joan Bennett who played Amy, probably the second most followed sister in the picture, was an actress in movies since she was a little girl. She kept the wardrobe department busy as she was pregnant during the production and her altered clothing would help cover up that incontinent fact. Jean Parker, who played the dying sister Beth, was just beginning her acting career. Frances Dee, who played the young Meg, was a young actress that did extra work while on summer vacation in Los Angeles and turned it into a job and acting career. To play Marmee was Spring Byington, who like many was a veteran of the stage in only her second, and most famous, picture. The cast would rounded out by youthful Douglas Montgomery as Laurie, marking the peak of his career; Edna May Oliver, a well used character actor, plying the girl’s crotchety old aunt; and Paul Lukas, a Hungarian actor with many supporting credits to his name, as the man that eventually wins the favor of Jo at film’s end. As you can see the film did not carry star power, and was driven primarily by the popularity of the novel that far preceded it.

Despite the popular tastes at the time, the Louis May Alcott based film would go on to be a great success. At a budget of about one million dollars, RKO invested well into the feature and it paid off handsomely. The picture broke opening week box office records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with over $100,000. Critics were charmed by the movie and audiences would watch it multiple times, even sending their children to see it for its connection to the literary classic first published 65 years prior. Little Women would be recognized at the 6th Academy Awards ceremony as the film was nominated the for best adapted screen play (the film’s only win), best director, and even best picture.

There is not much else to say about the film other than it is a Hepburn classic. The film is not ground breaking or specifically marvelous by any means. Younger audiences may find it dull, but this picture was a classic of its time. The story of Little Women was one that was done before, with two silent versions, and would be made many times over since its release, but this one seems to stand out at the true timeless classic. Maybe it is Hepburn, or perhaps the insightful direction of Cukor. Maybe it was the time period it was made, when the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of some Americans, even after the first World War. One thing is for sure audiences of the 1930s were reminded in the story about their own struggles and sacrifices as the characters were going through during the Great Depression, creating a bond with the story. Years later the film still stands as a fine motion picture that helped catapult Katharine Hepburn to even greater status in the kingdom of Hollywood.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The (1947)

20 th Century-Fox Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Starring: Gene Tierney , Rex Harrison , George Sanders Honors: #73 on A...