"Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girl’s book. I said I’d try."
- Louisa May Alcott
In the intervening century since Alcott first committed Little Women to paper (in haste and for money; published in two volumes – the first in 1868, the second, one year later) the novel has become a perennial favorite the world over, interpreted as everything from a new format in children’s literature, extolling the virtues of the all-American girl, to an inspiring pre-feminist manifesto. Pressed by her publisher, Thomas Niles to create a story that would appeal to very young girls, Alcott hurried along the manuscript, by her own admission, considering it ‘fairly dull’. Alas, how wrong can an author be about their own work? The galleys were read by Niles’ niece, Lillie Almy, who immediately fell under the author’s spell. Referring to adolescence, Alcott would later write, “They are the best critics, so I should definitely be satisfied.”
Indeed, Little Women would go on to become a publishing phenomenon, inspiring Alcott to pen two sequels – Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886), continuing the adventures of the March sisters; Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg – each directly modeled on Alcott’s own beloved familial sisterhood. Today, Little Women remains a uniquely refreshing novel, perhaps because it does not adhere to the literary precepts of its own time, is written in a matter-of-fact style without the usual prosaic embellishments, and, at its crux, is poignantly devoted to its close-knit family drama, validating the virtues of that blood bond and friendship in times of joy as well as personal hardship. Alcott knew something of the latter much too well – her mildly tyrannical father, an ever-present and dictatorial figurehead in her life, though rarely a positive influence. Fundamentally, Little Women served to satisfy a need in Alcott; to validate her worth as a woman first, writer second; a sentiment echoed by its thorough embrace by women – young and ‘not so’ – in Alcott’s time, able to slip into such sweet escapism from their own societal gender constraints.
Since the advent of movies, Little Women had enjoyed no less than two lavishly appointed big screen adaptations, beginning in 1933, and, later revived for television in 1978. But by the time director, Gillian Armstrong undertook to retell the tale once more in 1994, Little Women was very much a war horse on its way to the proverbial glue factory. Yet, Anderson’s timing could not have been more apropos. Beginning with Merchant/Ivory’s surprise hit, Howards End (1992), period costume dramas had made an unexpected and most remarkable comeback as a popular form of entertainment. Perhaps it was the nostalgia and impeccable quality of these adaptations that so endeared the public’s response to them. And it is to Armstrong’s credit, her adaptation of Little Women managed to capture Alcott’s elusive sentiment, never cloying, that runs like an artery through the novel. In retrospect, the 1933 RKO version of Little Women is a transparent ‘star vehicle’ for Katharine Hepburn, dominated by Hepburn’s indomitable New England pert and plucky bluenose. The 1949 film, saturated in the richest of 3-strip Technicolor hues and made at MGM, re-cast ‘America’s musical sweetheart’, June Allyson in the non-singing lead of Jo March. Alas, here too, the picture dilutes her presence with an impressive ensemble, including Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien and Peter Lawford. It is glossy, as only MGM in its prime could manufacture such a loving portrait, but decidedly too storybook-ish – and occasionally mawkish – to be thoroughly enjoyed. The characters are marionettes rather than people, their strings plucked by the studio’s strict devotion to the author’s text. The 1978 TV version is perhaps the most misguided of the lot; lacking the appropriate production values and starring Susan Dey, William Shatner and Greer Garson, the latter underused to forgettable effect.
But Armstrong’s movie is thrice blessed: first, in its exquisite cast; second, afforded the necessary budget to devote itself to period immersion, and finally, by Robin Swicord’s deft screenplay; a miracle of concision without sacrificing either character development or substance. Winona Ryder is an emphatic Jo; one imbued with the vestiges of a genuine female heart, angst-ridden and yearning to break from the rigid constraints of Victoriana. A lesser actress would have played to type, sidestepping the soul of this amiable girl. Instead, Ryder gives us an enterprising old salt, revitalizing the centerpiece of the film’s storytelling. It is still Jo March we follow most intently in this remake; Ryder revealing unanticipated wellsprings of passionate intellect behind Jo’s mask of rambunctious humor. Trini Alvarado is a demure Meg, lovely and thoughtful; Claire Danes, an affectingly fragile, Beth, and, Kirsten Dunst (as young Amy) and Samantha Mathis (as her adult incarnation) provide seamless transition from naïve childhood whimsy to burgeoning womanly inquisitiveness. The one constant in the cast is Mrs. March, played with unassuming maternal warmth by the extraordinary Susan Sarandon. Previous versions have made this a thankless part. But clever writing gives Sarandon the opportunity to be ever-present, even when almost cast in cameo, striking with indelible imprint that lends her ‘Marmee’ a sense of place and stature that is ultimately very rewarding.
The menfolk are better served this time around too: particularly Christian Bale’s fine-looking neighbor, Laurie; who favors one sister – Jo – but then passionately falls under the spell of another - the grown-up Amy. Bale has, of course, proven his acting chops in many movies before and since this one. But herein, he is particularly engaging; a dashingly romantic figure with guts and a heart that can be easily wounded – and just as easily mended; at times, uncommonly boastful, but always sincere. Gabriel Byrne is formidable as Friedrich Bhaer, the German professor who opens Jo’s eyes and unlocks her heart to pursue her chosen calling. Finally, there is Eric Stoltz, as Laurie’s tutor, and Meg’s eventual husband, Mr. Brooke. Again, previous movie adaptations have either made short shrift of this character or entirely written him out for lack of time. Armstrong’s film doesn’t give Stoltz a lot of screen time. Even so, Stoltz still finds ways to be an ingratiating presence; particularly his joyously spontaneous reaction of relief and disbelief at discovering Meg has born him a son and a daughter in tandem.
Little Women opens on a melodic main title; one of the most gorgeous pieces of music yet composed for the cinema – ‘Orchard House’ by Thomas Newman. Curiously, this piece of music would later serve as a tag for the trailer to 1995’s Sense and Sensibility; the actual movie scored by composer, Patrick Doyle. The orchestral richness in Newman’s tapestry of notes completely sets the tone for Little Women, plainly etched and quietly building to a crescendo of intertwining melodies that ultimately tug at our collective hearts. At the outset, we are focused on the March sisters; a foursome of comely maidens in Concord, Massachusetts, devout in their loyalties to each other. The star of the family is Jo, who gathers everyone together to enact plays she has written about daring dukes and moustache-twirling villains, preening suitors and fainting damsels in distress.
The more demure Beth is hopeful her younger sister’s authorship will one day find a more permanent and prominent place amongst the great writers of the world. Amy is the baby of the family, easily bored and generally spoiled. She uses a clothespin to pinch her nose, presumably to bend it to exactly the right shape and size. She’s also willful and fussy. Alas, even so, she proves lovable. Meg…well, it is her sincere hope to win a handsome husband someday. Asked if she should be expected to marry for money – as the March family is constantly in danger of slipping from their lower middle-class standing, Mrs. March (whom the girls have affectionately nicknamed ‘Marmee’) encourages all her daughters should rather find their happiness in true love. To Jo, frequently struggling with her own stubborn resolve to be more than merely wife and mother, quite unable to rectify her temperament with the edicts of her sex, societal constraints or the demands made by an elder and decidedly conservative-minded aunt (Mary Wickes), who will not abide her tomboyish audacity, Mrs. March explains, “Oh, Jo. You have so many extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to lead an ordinary life?”
Jo reluctantly attends Aunt March at her fashionably appointed home while she convalesces from the flu. The understanding has always been Jo will become Aunt March’s live-in companion, and she, in turn, will take Jo with her to Paris when next she travels to Europe. Alas, these prospects are not to be. The first act of Little Women is devoted to the superficialities of life – mostly, the simple joys that strengthen these sisterly bonds of the March girls. Each is excitedly anxious to find their place in society; invited to various cotillions to show themselves off, but frowned upon by girls from the upper social strata, overheard cruelly suggesting Meg is obviously being groomed to marry well. The inference Meg is ‘husband hunting’ wounds Amy’s pride more than it does Meg’s – although she later becomes mildly intoxicated on some spiked party punch. Meg is spared the indignation of making a complete fool of herself by Mr. Brookes, Laurie’s tutor, also in attendance at the party.
Mr. March (Matthew Walker) is a military man, off fighting in the war. When he is wounded and left in hospital in Washington D.C., the elder Mr. Lawrence (John Neville) graciously offers Mr. Brookes as Marmee’s escort on the journey; also the necessary wages and a carriage to bring her safely to her husband’s bedside. Invested with the responsibilities of managing the household, the girls do their mother proud by remembering Marmee’s charitable duties to the Hummel family; an impoverished mother and two children living in a hovel not far from the March’s home. Alas, charity leads to tragedy. The Hummel baby is stricken with a particularly virulent strain of influenza and dies in Beth’s arms. Soon thereafter, Beth falls ill too. Although she momentarily recovers, the illness weakens her heart. Bedridden, Beth is slavishly attended to by Jo who quietly confides she cannot bear the thought of losing Beth to which Beth sweetly replies, “Now I’m the one who’s going away. But I know I shall be homesick for you…even in heaven.”
In previous adaptations, Beth’s death has been dealt a fair bit of drama. Again, it is Gillian Armstrong’s version that is far more affecting, perhaps because she holds her camera on a two shot of Winona Ryder and Claire Danes, allowing these immensely talented actresses to uncomplicatedly emote to one another. Danes in particular does this moment proud; her voice frail and fading, her anemic smile capturing that peaceful repose without amateur theatrics or guile. And Ryder knows precisely when to let the tears fall, to make us completely buy into the immensity of her pain. Shortly thereafter, Beth dies in her sleep, leaving Jo inconsolable. Thus, when Laurie declares his romantic intensions toward her, Jo can think of no good reason to accept him for her own, however sincerely his heart. Laurie is wounded by Jo’s rather cruel rejection. He suffers a momentary lapse of good judgment, having inherited his grandfather’s estate, and departs for Europe where he embarks upon a hedonistic lifestyle.
In the meantime, Aunt March elects to take Amy, who has since grown into adulthood, to Paris instead of Jo. Jo is, of course, disappointed, but happy for her sister. With nothing more to keep her safely ensconced at Orchard House, Jo departs to seek gainful employment in New York City as a governess, taking up residency in a tenement house and using her spare time to write lurid tragic romances she sincerely hopes to publish. Jo becomes smitten with Professor Baehr, who presents himself as a well-travelled man of culture. He introduces her to a colleague, Jacob Mayer (Donal Logue), and is pleasantly surprised when Jo illustrates both passion and critical thinking on the topic of woman’s suffrage. “I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good. They vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” Impressed with her deduction, Mayer suggests Jo ought to have been a lawyer. “I should have been a great many things,” is her astute reply.
Baehr is taken with Jo. Alas, he is also much older. To promote Jo’s social betterment, and to remain near her side, Baehr introduces her to new experiences, including the opera. He also promises to offer his unvarnished opinion about her writing which occupies a good portion of Jo’s free time. Alas, the news is hardly conciliatory. Jo’s stories lack the sincerity she so obviously possesses as a woman. Worse, they neither speak intelligently to the audience nor reveal any part of Jo’s truer nature. Jo is understandably shaken and frustrated by Baehr’s critical assessment. He, in turn, becomes quite ashamed at having so completely dismantled her illusions in one fell swoop with his stark opinions. Yet, as fate would have it, Baehr’s admonishments motivate Jo to do better. She returns to Orchard House, elated to learn that while in Europe, Amy and Laurie’s paths have crossed. More than that, the old friends have since become engaged. In the wake of their happiness, Jo begins to write the story of her devotion to Beth, eventually mailing the completed manuscript to Professor Baehr who is awe-struck by its tender simplicity.
Jo March has, indeed, become a writer. And Baehr, true to his word, shares this manuscript with his publisher who vows to turn it into a book. Hurrying to Orchard House to inform Jo of this fortuitous development, Baehr is confused when he learns ‘Miss March’ is engaged to Laurie. Assuming Jo, rather than Amy, is soon to be married Baehr hastily departs at once without seeing Jo. Mercifully, Jo discovers her misinformed suitor on the open road not far from Orchard House. He praises her work and offers wounded congratulations on her pending marriage. When she explains the truth of the situation to him, he sheepishly admits, “But I have nothing to give you. My hands are empty.” Gently placing her palms in his, Jo admirably suggests, “Not empty now.” They embrace as a light patter of spring rain filters through the dense foliage all around them.
Little Women was always a poignant story, intoxicating and equally as impossible to forget. Remarkably, no other movie adaptation has so completely captured the essence of the novel. Perhaps part of the reason is the fine ensemble casting. Individually, everyone is giving this material their all. Cumulatively, they become an indelibly etched family unit, as close knit as a cable sweater, and just as enveloping and warm. Armstrong’s direction is relatively unobtrusive. Cinematographer, Geoffrey Simpson’s camerawork shows off the immensity and sumptuousness of these period sets and costumes. But it does not cheat the audience out of the family’s richly satisfying screen intimacy. As such, Little Women reveals itself to be a rare and irrefutable American celluloid treasure. Gillian Armstrong has an uncanny sense of timing. Period costume drama, particularly of such visualized grace and magnitude, readily falls flat in its slavish devotion to evoke courtly manners and societal mores. Herein, it is prudent to comparatively reference Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, released the year before. Both films are immaculately groomed with screen opulence; perhaps, Scorsese’s even more so. But the creatures who inhabit Scorsese’s mahogany paneled tearooms and immaculately trimmed solariums almost immediately devolve into a rigid configuration of posed and poised mannequins; the costumes wearing the people instead of the other way around.
Little Women’s great salvation is it rarely succumbs to the conventions of its time. These people are just people, caught in a decidedly different period in history than our own, yet still flesh and blood, imbued with - and challenged by - the same anxieties, desires and daydreams that afflict humanity, whatever the era in our evolutionary chain. We can believe in Jo and her sisters; can hope and dream alongside their fervent resolve to carve substantial niches for themselves; admiring their seemingly effortless grace and occasional light struggles to rise above it. Finally, we can cheer loudly when their patience is rewarded, their satisfaction met in a flourish of dreamily lit romance. Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography deserves genuine praise here; a veritable stylized feast from start to finish. The nooks and crannies of Orchard House and its surrounding neighborhoods are soothing to the senses. To visit the March family is to be magically teleported to an oasis of Victoriana; to bask in the afterglow of sunlit morning rooms, candlelit ballrooms and hearth-burning front parlors.
And director, Gillian Armstrong has given us more than a sense of place; rather, an exquisite evocation that just seems to have always belonged, or perhaps, lingered in the hearts and minds of anyone who has ever read Louisa May Alcott’s book, fallen under its spell, and thus imagined it in visual terms. Here is a world truly alive; not a waxworks straining for believability in all its clever production design. Colleen Atwood’s costuming is decorous, as expected; its bodices and hoopskirts faintly reminiscent of similar attire seen in countless other movies depicting this epoch from American history. Surprisingly, they function just as well as mere clothing instead of artful recreations that draw our attention and/or are best served on an anthropological museum mannequin. Little Women – the novel – is as timeless and relevant as ever and this movie manages to retain something of that persistent and changeless appeal. What a joy and treasure it has remained in the intervening decades. Ditto for Armstrong’s film – an enduring masterwork surely to endure for decades yet to follow.
Alas, Sony Home Entertainment seems to have mislaid the virtues of this catalog title. Why else should it remain absent from hi-def for so long? No Blu-ray announcements as yet either; and a genuine pity too, since Geoffrey Simpson’s lush visuals could definitely benefit from an upgrade to 1080p. For now, we must content ourselves with Sony’s DVD. The studio has, for some time now, taken the high road where mastering its back catalog for home video consumption in concerned. We have Grover Crisp to thank again; and thank him we shall herein and profusely, for remaining industrious and committed to seeing no Columbia movie looks anything less than solid on home video. This DVD lives up to the standards of its own format.
It looks bright and clean and generally as good as can be expected. Colors are richly saturated and flesh tones have a pleasing naturalness, reflected either as cool pinks during day lit scenes or softly illuminated oranges under the influence of candlelight. Contrast is excellent, but there are a few hints of digitized artifacts in background detail, also extremely minor and fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement. These won’t distract. But they are present. The image has a pleasing and consistent look overall. We get a pair of audio options: the original 2 channel stereo, and, a new – and much preferred – 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Extras on this collector’s edition are plentiful, beginning with Gillian Armstrong’s fairly comprehensive audio commentary which provides scene-by-scene reflections on the process of bringing these ‘little women’ to life.
There is also an all too brief ‘making of’ featurette, originally produced to promote the movie as it was being shot. Sony gives us an isolated musical score, something it rarely did back in the day; a historical timeline, and, a stills gallery, showcasing Colleen Atwood’s costume design with Atwood’s accompanying commentary. Finally, there are production notes and a pair of ‘trivia’ games to wade through. Bottom line: Little Women is required viewing for everyone – especially around the pending Christmas holiday. It warms the heart and nourishes the soul as all too few movies do. Armstrong's integrity to her source material ensures us a richly diverse and extraordinarily satisfying movie-going experience. This is what great film-making is all about. Very highly recommended - until Sony gets off its lump to give us an even more stunning Blu-ray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)