Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 12, 2023)
More than 150 years after its initial publication, Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women remains an enduring classic. The saga first leapt to movie screens in 1917, but 1933 brought the tale’s first sound iteration.
Set in New England during the Civil War, we meet the women of the Marsh family. While they wait for Mr. Marsh (Samuel S. Hinds) to return from battle, Mother Marsh (Spring Byington) – known as “Marmee” – holds down the fort.
Marmee lives with her four daughters: 16-year-old Meg (Frances Dee), 15-year-old Jo (Katharine Hepburn), 13-year-old Beth (Jean Parker), and 12-year-old Amy (Joan Bennett). Spirited Jo aspires to become a published writer but spends much of her time subservient to wealthy Aunt March (Edna May Oliver) to earn money for the family.
Meg also works as a tutor for local kids, whereas Amy attends school. Too shy for classes, Beth helps around the house.
As time progresses, the girls mature and take different paths. In particular, Jo becomes romantically interested in handsome neighbor boy Laurie Laurence (Douglass Montgomery) but finds her interest in a career as a writer takes precedence.
When I watched the 1994 Little Women, I deemed it “a tremendously sappy and irritating piece of work”.
When I watched the 2019 Little Women, I deemed it “slow, disjointed and dull”.
At some point, I needed to wonder if I simply didn’t like the Alcott source. However, I felt that perhaps I found more issue with those adaptations than the core material, so I gave this 1933 take a look.
Did the 1933 Little Women finally prompt me to love the story and characters? No, but I do feel this version works much better than its more recent iterations.
Though all three come with the same elephant in the room: actors much older than their characters. This impacted all three of the versions that I viewed, though at least the 1994 production cast two different actors as Amy, so Kirsten Dunst’s “Younger Amy” actually offered a performer the right age for the role.
That doesn’t prove true for the 1933 flick – at least in the early scenes. Of course, the characters grow older as the movie progresses, but it still seems silly to see 23-year-old Bennett as a 12-year-old.
Hepburn was also 11 years too old for “younger Jo”, but she manages to pull off the part well. No, we don’t buy her as 15, but Hepburn’s spark adds enough charm to allow me to largely ignore this issue.
Really, Hepburn becomes arguably the most significant reason the 1933 Women tops the 1994 and 2019 editions. While talented, both 1994’s Wynona Ryder and 2019’s Saoirse Ronan tended to make Jo seem obnoxious and insufferable.
Which feels like a potential trap for the character, but Hepburn walks the right side of that line. She displays Jo’s independent and hard-headed streak but manages to ensure that we like her and don’t find her to become grating and smug.
I will credit the 2019 Women as the most even-handed of the three. It actually gives all four young March ladies reasonable screen time, whereas 1933 and 1994 focus mainly on Jo.
This seems understandable, as Jo provides easily the most compelling character. Still, I’d like more balance, and the 1933 and 1994 versions tend to forget Jo’s sisters exist.
Indeed, once Jo heads away from home to pursue her vocation, we literally lose track of her sisters. Huge chunks of the story pass that should just be titled Little Woman.
If we ignore the source, this becomes less of a problem – again, substantially because Hepburn carries the tale. She manages the role’s different emotions and ages in a subtle manner that gives the film heart.
The 1933 version doesn’t make me love the story, but it becomes a substantially more engaging rendition than I’d seen with the 1994 and 2019 iterations. Carried by Katharine Hepburn, this becomes a fairly engaging melodrama.