14 May 2016

Why I Like MGM's 1949 Little Women

Jo and Laurie
I admit that I used to find the version of Little Women that starred Katharine Hepburn and was directed by the great George Cukor to be more authentic. The later MGM version seemed glossy and, although I liked the 1994 version with Winona Ryder, I thought it bent over backwards to be hip.
Beth, Meg, Jo, Amy, and Marmee
But I have changed my mind after re-viewing the 1949 version. I think June Allyson has been unjustly categorized as a saccharine, prissy actress, which is really unfair. It's true that she had a number of "perfect wife" roles, but she also made an effort to do different types of stories, too. She was very good as Constance in the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, for example; also as an extremely feisty zoo official in The Reformer and the Redhead. And I do not find her performance as Jo March to be at all soft or wishy-washy.
The 1948 version was based both on the original novel and the Academy Award-winning screenplay
Beth thanks Mr Laurence
written by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman for the 1933 filming. Apparently the film was initially developed by David O. Selznick, who planned to star Jenniifer Jones as Jo (which I personally feel was a terrible idea). It must be admitted that the production is too glossy and expensive looking. The Marches, like the Alcotts, were poor; they could not afford suites of mahogany furniture or sewing machines or velveteen table covers. I suppose by MGM's standards it still looks shabby compared to, say, Tara in Gone With the Wind, but it's pretty grand for residents of Concord, Massschusetts in the 1860's.  But director Mervyn leRoyused real shaved ice as snow, so the opening winter scenes look more authentic!
Janet Leigh is a lovely Meg
Happily, all of the performances in this version are excellent, with Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O'Brien as Beth, a blonde Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Mary Astor as Marmee, Peter Lawford as Laurie, and Rossano Brazzi as Prof Bhaer. The script for this version, like the 1933 film, selects incidents from the beloved book and sticks closely to Alcott's telling. All the actors do a fine job; Allyson's Jo is fresh and convincingly boyish, Taylor's Amy is fastidious and pert, Lawford a rather subdued Laurie, Brazzi a delightful Prof. Bhaer.
But the real strength of this version centers around O'Brien's Beth. This remarkable young actress -- and it's amazing to realize that she was twelve -- shows with riveting clarity the development of her character, from her shy and fearful beginnings, to her shock at the death of a child she cared for, through to her wistful acceptance
Margaret O'Brien, brilliant as Beth
of her fate. Her strength and understanding are truly heartbreaking.
Amy, Meg, Jo, and Beth on Christmas Morning
Beth's precocious perspective allows the adult part of the plot to be just as effective as the girlhood story. Jo's sense of helplessness, responsibility, and loss are all the more effective. The three love affairs are charming -- gentle Meg roused to the defense of the sincere Mr. Brook by meddling Aunt March, and Amy's maturing into a lovely, socially adept young woman fit to marry into wealth and position, both work exactly as they should.
Elizsabeth Taylor as a grown-up  Amy
And the casting of the extremely charming Rossano Brazzi (in his first role in an American film) as Prof Bhaer was also an excellent choice, deflating somewhat the complaints of those die-hards who insist, despite Alcott's strong denials, that Jo really loved Laurie. This Professor may be poor, but he is also most attractive, wearing scholarly eyeglasses and speaking with an accent -- and Brazzi could handle singing in German, though of course he was Italian. His romance with Jo is very convincing.
(It's too bad none of these films really had the time to go into the Professor's friendship with the girls' father, and their enjoyable talks about philosophy, but you can't have everything.)
What all the movies -- and, I venture to say, all the dramatizations -- do share is the final coming together of Jo and her Professor.
No one would dream of changing the scene of the two of them standing in the pouring rain, or their lines of dialog. Because Alcott was one heck of a writer, and she knew exactly what she was doing.

"I have nothing to give but my heart, which is so full -- and these empty hands --"
"Not empty now!"