Release Date(s)1933 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women has been adapted on film several times, but none captures the essence of the book as well as the 1933 version, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo and directed by George Cukor. With much of its dialogue taken directly from the book, it tells the story of four sisters growing up during the Civil War era as they experience joy, disappointment, confusion, sadness, and romance.
Like Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Women is composed of vignettes showcasing episodes in the lives of one family’s siblings. We meet the four March sisters, Meg (Frances Dee), Jo (Hepburn), Amy (Joan Bennett), and Beth (Jean Parker) during a snowy New England winter. The girls and their mother, whom they call Marmee (Spring Byington), are doing their best to remain cheerful while the head of the family is off serving as a minister in the Union army. Money’s tight and the two elder March girls have taken jobs to help out, Meg as a governess and Jo as companion to crotchety Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). Notwithstanding their privations, a happy spirit exists among the sisters.
In one memorable scene, aspiring author Jo stages an elaborate play for family and neighborhood friends, starring herself as both the villain and the hero. To rescue the fair damsel, Amy, Jo climbs a makeshift ladder against a cardboard castle that comes crashing down. In another scene, Jo is preparing to go home at the end of her work day when Aunt March demands that she first polish a dusty banister. Figuring the fastest way to get the job done, Jo starts at the top and slides all the way down.
The girls believe that their new neighbor in the huge mansion across the street is a mean old man, but they soon discover that he’s kindly Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), who has moved there with his orphaned grandson, Laurie (Douglas Montgomery). Jo and her sisters soon befriend Laurie, and Mr. Laurence is moved to do the March family many a generous service.
As time goes by, Meg becomes romantically interested in Laurie’s tutor and Amy gets the chance to travel the world with Aunt March. Jo rejects a marriage proposal from Laurie, who has loved her from the time they first met. Around the same time, Beth is stricken with a case of scarlet fever. Jo’s world is rapidly changing and she’s saddened by it. “Why can’t we stay as we are?,” she asks Meg. But change is inevitable and Jo goes to work for Marmee’s friend in New York, who wants a governess to care for her children while she runs her boarding house.
One of the boarders is Prof. Bhaer (Paul Lukas), who takes an interest in Jo and introduces her to some of New York’s cultural treasures. Jo asks him to read some of her short stories, sensational thrillers that she has been able to sell to publishers of pulp periodicals. The professor is quite candid in his evaluation. He recognizes her talent, thinks she’s misdirecting it, and advises her to write about what she knows. She respects him and their relationship gradually transforms from one of mentor-apprentice to one much deeper.
Hepburn is the perfect Jo. With a tomboyish mischievousness and devil-may-care attitude, she embodies the most daring and independent of the March girls. Jo dreams of becoming a great writer, craves adventure, and stubbornly resists the inevitable approach of womanhood. Devoted to her sisters, Jo will do anything for them and is a protector as well as a loving sibling. Hepburn’s body language, especially in the early scenes, is energetic and always in motion, as if she can’t be still for even a moment.
Director George Cukor has elicited both youthful exuberance and later, heartbreak, as Hepburn shows the trials that maturity and responsibility bring. Bennett, Dee and Parker are fine, but it’s clearly Hepburn who dominates the film.
The daunting presence of Edna May Oliver as Aunt March adds some vinegar to the story. Harsh, overbearing, and opinionated, Aunt March is an ideal fit for character actress Oliver, whose long, sour face speaks volumes. She intimidates, even frightens her nieces, though it’s clear that she loves each of them dearly.
Jo’s voice is filled with enthusiasm. Amy, the youngest, puts on airs and misuses big words while mispronouncing them. Meg, the eldest, speaks in a refined, ladylike manner. Shy Beth speaks little and softly, and rarely leaves home. Aunt March barks orders, never smiles, and intimidates with her curt tones. Marmee is all nurturing and loving, never raising her voice.
Little Women was shot by director of photography Henry R. Gerrard on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Picture is sharp and far surpasses the prints shown on TV years ago. There are no embedded dirt specks, scratches, emulsion clouding, cue marks, or other visual damage, making for a theater-like experience. Lighting is used dramatically, as in a close-up of Jo when she’s tearfully praying for Beth to get well. And there’s a beautiful scene in Jo’s bedroom in which moonlight is streaming into the room. As the girls grow up, their make-up becomes more pronounced, except for Jo, who avoids outward symbols of being a woman. Most of the film takes place in interiors, with a few early scenes shot outdoors simulating a wintry New England.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Sound effects include the collapse of the living room set for Jo’s play, a downpour, and the crying of a neighbor’s newborn baby. Max Steiner’s score highlights the emotions, with its lovely main theme reprised throughout.
Bonus materials on the unrated Warner Archive Blu-ray release include the following:
- Salt Water Daffy (21:14)
- In the Dough (21:47)
- I Like Mountain Music (6:57)
- The Organ Grinder (7:16)
- Scoring Stage Suite of Recordings (25:00)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (3:00)
Salt Water Daffy – In this 1933 short, Jack Haley and Shemp Howard play pickpockets who lift an antique pocket watch from a Navy Admiral. Trying to elude their pursuers, they run into a Naval recruiting office and inadvertently wind up enlisting. The bumbling recruits are relegated to the recruits’ center where they mistakenly give a haircut to a visiting European naval dignitary. Again banished, they’re put on garbage detail and discover the dignitary is not who he appears to be.
In the Dough – Roscoe (“Fatty”) Arbuckle stars in this 1933 short as Slim, who starts his first day of work at a bakery on the same day that local gangsters pay a visit to his boss, demanding protection money. When the boss refuses to pay, the gangsters hatch a plan to destroy the bakery, but the plan backfires.
I Like Mountain Music – In this Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1933, the magazines and books in a drugstore come to life and sing the title song and others. Caricatures of celebrities Will Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Ed Wynn, and Sonja Henie are shown. There’s an extended sequence with bad guys breaking into the cash register and Sherlock Holmes on the case.
The Organ Grinder – This 1933 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon features an organ grinder and his monkey making their way down a New York street. The monkey climbs up several stories to collect tips from a couple of women. He dances for a group of kids and uses some props to impersonate Harpo Marx, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. He then plays two songs at the piano, the title song and 42nd Street. After an unfortunate encounter with a fruit cart and a crash into a music store, he drives out in a jalopy as a one-man-band.
Scoring Stage Suite of Recordings – This audio only extra features the Max Steiner score of Little Women without dialogue and sound effects.
Little Women is a sentimental portrait of a New England family making the best of difficult circumstances, looking after less fortunate neighbors, and sacrificing for one another. As they share their hopes, missteps, joys, and trepidations, they are bound by love. Though this might sound saccharine, under Cukor’s direction the characters are human beings—hardly perfect but guided by inherent kindness.
- Dennis Seuling