At the Movies: Little Women

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I believe there have been eight versions of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: two silent films, one made in 1917, another in 1918; the acclaimed Katherine Hepburn version in 1933; the first color version with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, and Meg O’Brien in 1949; a 1994 version with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, and Christian Bale; a 1978 television mini-series; a 2017 mini-series; and now the 2019 Greta Gerwig production with Saoirse Ronan and a host of remarkably gifted actors.

I saw the 1933 movie version of Little Women, with Katherine Hepburn as Jo, about a month ago. It was the first time I had ever seen any version and while I liked it, I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it again.

A few nights ago, my bride took me, not unwillingly, but not especially eagerly, to see the current Greta Gerwig version, and the difference is that I would happily walk a mile in tight shoes to see it again. 

At its best, moviemaking is an art form, and good, bad, or indifferent, it is the most complex and risky art form of all. It involves writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound, music, song-writing if it’s a musical, set design, art design, costumes, props, lighting design, editing, as well as half-a-dozen other ingredients that straddle the thin line between art and technology, and seamless collaboration between all of those entities. It is possible to have all the very best ingredients, put together under the most auspicious circumstances, and still come up with a complete dud. I could give you many examples, but because I just recently tried to watch it, I’ll cite only one, and in case any of you are naive and silly enough to consider ever investing any of your money in a movie, think of this as a cautionary tale.

Bells Are Ringing was a huge Broadway success, starring one of the greatest comediennes of all time (and one of my favorite actresses), Judy Holliday. It ran for over 924 performances, was nominated for four Tony Awards, winning two (including one for Judy Holliday and one for male lead, Sidney Chaplin), and one Theatre World Award for Chaplin. Three of the songs from the production became popular standard hits.

So, there you are, sitting in your Beverly Hills mansion, contemplating investing in a sure-fire, can’t-fail, slam-bang-home-run movie adaptation of a proven hit. Let’s try it.

A-list star talent? Check: Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, Jean Stapleton.

A-list director? Check: Vincente Minnelli, Academy Award-winning director of over thirty-six films, most of which were box office and critical hits, most of them now considered classics.

A-list writers? Check: Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the team responsible for such little known successes as Singin’ in the Rain, The Bandwagon, Auntie Mame, The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, many others, nominated for more awards than I care to enumerate, winners of eleven of them.

A-list composer? Check: Jule Stein (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gypsy, Funny Girl, Peter Pan, many others, and winner of (among other awards) a Tony, an Academy Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor recipient.

A-list music scorer? Check: André Previn, nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winner of four (Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma la Douce, and My Fair Lady) not to mention eight Grammys.

A-list cinematographer? Check: Milton Krasner, who won an Academy Award for Three Coins in the Fountain, and who did such gems as All About Eve and The Seven Year Itch.

A-list editor? Check: Adrienne Fazan edited Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Kismet, and many others, winning an Academy Award for Gigi.

A-list producer? Check and double-check: How do you feel about the great, the legendary Arthur Freed, producer of more successful movie musicals than anyone, including An American in Paris (Academy Award), Gigi (Academy Award), Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Lady Be Good, Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town, Brigadoon, Showboat, The Light in the Piazza, and on and on?

Why, when you look at all those credits and consider the success of the Broadway production, you can’t rightly call it “investing.” It’s more like being given free access to the US Mint for as long as you like.

So, how did the film version of Bells Are Ringing do? It lost nearly two-million dollars upon release (back in 1960, when two-million dollars was real money). How is it now, after all these years? Does it have legs? Has it gotten any better? I lasted longer than my bride (about an hour) before I finally gave up and brushed my teeth, which was far more entertaining.

Are you beginning to get the picture? Russian roulette is as conservative and cautious and safe as houses compared to making a movie. And when it comes to remaking a beloved old classic that has been done to death, the 1933 version of which won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Movie, well… All I can say is that Greta Gerwig must be the kind of lady who would think nothing of marching up to a hungry lion in the Serengeti and rapping its knuckles and telling it to stop that infernal roaring or else. Courageous, that’s the word I was thinking of.

The primary theme of Little Women (judging by this production and the Katherine Hepburn one) is girls coming into womanhood while trying to balance personal ambitions against society’s traditional expectations of love and marriage, family and motherhood. That could result in a heavy, clunking, boring film, but Ms. Gerwig’s handling of the material is light, lively, frequently funny, and always entertaining. And yes, in places it will also move you to tears.

Ms. Gerwig has restructured the storyline from its traditional A,B,C format, by jumping back and forth in time. I admit that it took me a few minutes of being confused before I figured out what she was doing, but I suspect it allowed her to keep much more of the source material than the 1933 version by using a sort of vignette style. If I’ve made it sound choppy or awkward, that’s is my fault and completely inaccurate. It flows smoothly and coherently along, and that’s why a good editor is critical to filmmaking. Kudos to Nick Huoy.

The cast is outstanding and the performances are breathtaking. Because I have standards (pretty low, but I’ve got ‘em) I don’t waste my time going to most of today’s movies. And because I’m a reclusive old curmudgeon I have to be dragged to the few I do see. The result is that I have only seen a few of these actors before, but Ms. Gerwig managed to assemble an extraordinary ensemble, led by the magnificent Ms. Ronan. Fiery, tomboyish, intelligent, creative, loving, Ms. Ronan’s Jo becomes a symbol of the kind of woman for whom individual, artistic achievement is just as important and just as valid—or more so—as domestic achievement. Which is why, of course, Little Women is a classic. Feminist issues and feminist problems—human issues and human problems— endure from generation to generation, and the struggle to deal with those issues and to overcome those problems also endure. It’s why Shakespeare’s plays still resonate and still speak to us and are still relevant four hundred years after his death. As Jo, Ms. Ronan’s portrayal of dreams and desires and struggles also resonates with us, and she imbues those struggles with humanity and charm. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her.

(My bride, for absolutely inexplicable reasons, fell in love with Timothée Chalamet. Yes, yes, he’s an excellent actor and does a wonderful job here, but, well, I just don’t get it. Humph.)

Too many movies these days use constant, unrelenting and much too loud music to tell the audience how they should be reacting to each scene, instead of letting the script, the director, and the actors do their jobs. Either I was sucked in by the performances, or Ms. Gerwig restrained her use of music, or Alexandre Desplat’s score was unobtrusive, but with the mild exception of subliminally recognizing certain classical pieces, it never interfered with my enjoyment of the film. Kudos to him.

I’ve saved the best for the last. Movies are a visual medium. The look of a film is every bit as important as the script, the directing, the performance, or the music, and in the right hands, the right look—good cinematography—can make a movie. Yorick Le Saux is a French cinematographer I’ve never heard of, none of whose films I’ve seen, but his work is the closest thing I’ve seen to the classic Merchant-Ivory look that made Howards End, A Room with a View, Remains of the Day, and others so unforgettable. As we watched the movie, I found myself thinking, Why, that looks just like a Winslow Homer, or, That looks just like an American impressionist (Darleen was more specific, narrowing it down to Childe Hassam), or, That looks like an Albert Bierstadt or a Fredrick Edwin Church. All of those are mid- to late-nineteenth century landscapes artists for a movie set during the American Civil War. Mr. Le Saux is not only very gifted, but he clearly did his homework. Kudos to him.

Above all, kudos to Ms. Gerwig. I hope someone locks her on a sound stage somewhere and keeps her churning out movies, real movies with real stories, movies that qualify as the most complex art form of all.

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3 thoughts on “At the Movies: Little Women”

  1. Dear JP,
    With all due respect and so as to not get sidetracked later please let me begin by saying that your apparent shock at your bride’s attraction to Chalamet for “inextricable reasons” doesn’t speak well of your perception. Not now, but when you were young, you may have influenced people for the same “inextricable reasons”. You were twice cast to play characters named Whitney in the early 80’s.
    But I digress.
    I agree with your points almost entirely except Martin and Holiday weren’t film leads at the time. Holiday was rarely in films and hadn’t been in a film in years while Martin was busking as second fiddle to every A-lister he called ‘Pally’ since he split with Lewis. His only romantic lead after leaving Lewis was Ten Thousand Bedrooms which is more bedrooms than people who bought movie tickets.
    Love reading your blog and happy new year.
    Ken from Dallas

  2. I have both read the book, Little Women and have watched the movies. I have watched both Katherine Hepburn and Wynonna Ryder attempt to portray Jo. Katherine was by far my favorite. Old is always better than new, right? Sadly my class schedule does not allow for much movie-going, so I rather doubt I will see this one in the theater.

    Please tell me, you are planning on watching and reviewing 1917 because that is one I’m making time to watch.

  3. I read Little Women in junior high, and then Little Men, and they were the first books I enjoyed reading! I continue to read them every so often, just as my husband reads Lord of the Rings every few years. I read them with my daughter when she was old enough and she requested seeing the new adaptation on Christmas Day on her visit to see me (she is 19 now). We loved it – the time flips, the casting, the ways in which the movie differed from the book… we liked it much better than the 1994 version. I saw Star Wars when it first came out for my 5th birthday. We saw the final installment on Christmas Day (my husband, daughter and I) 2019. I much preferred Little Women! (which is sad as Star Wars 4-6 was my childhood!). I am glad you enjoyed it enough to see it again, walking with tight shoes to get to the theater! While it may never be wholly understood by young men, the story speaks to the heart of young women. If you get a chance, go see the Alcott home. The tour is wonderful and while you are there, you can see the homes and stomping grounds of other 19th century icons.

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