Towards the end of the Masterpiece Theatre 2018 version of Little Women, I started to warm up a bit to Maya Hawke’s version of Jo March. She wasn’t exactly transcendent, but she was certainly stronger in the role by the end of the series than she was in the beginning. I really felt I had been too hard on her.
Then I switched over to the Katharine Hepburn version from 1933, and my goodwill for Maya evaporated in an instant. Sorry Maya. Simply put, there is no one, since the invention of film, better suited to play Jo March than Katharine Hepburn.
Jo March’s description – coltish, proudly awkward, intelligent, fiercely independent, who can’t stand “niminy-piminy chits” and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her – reads like a sketch of the actress herself. And who is more New England than Katharine Hepburn? Perhaps Robert Frost. But Hepburn’s a bit better suited for celluloid.
The 1933 film was directed by George Cukor, a champion of women’s stories in his day and evidently one of Hepburn’s favorite directors to work with. It focuses a great deal on the beginning of the book – the opening Christmas scene, the play acting they do and the breakfast with the Hummels – and sacrifices a tremendous amount of the middle vignettes I would consider to be major parts of the book (no book burning, no ill-fated ice skating, no visit to “vanity fair”, no pickled limes).
Some beloved scenes from the book appear here that are not in the 1994 or 2018 versions. One of my favorites is when Jo visits Laurie early in their friendship as he recovers from illness, and she critiques his grandfather’s portrait as the grandfather (unbeknownst to her) listens in. She recovers herself and impresses the old gentleman by holding her own once she finds out he’s listening. It’s classic Jo and Hepburn does a beautiful job with it.
After Hepburn, the 1949 June Allyson version (shot on a sound stage, no less) felt a bit extraneous. What’s especially odd about it is that its script clearly uses the 1933 script, rather than the book, as its basis. You can tell because some unusual, non-book blocking and setting decisions (for example, to have Amy and Beth attend the ball but sit upstairs, where Mr. Lawrence talks to them about the piano) are duplicated in the 1949 version. Even Jo’s catchphrase from 1933 (“Christopher Columbus!”) is carried over here.
June Allyson is respectable but is no Katharine Hepburn (who is?). What the 1949 version brings to the table is a dynamite cast to surround Jo – all are stars, not just June Allyson (although, admittedly, in the cover of the book above they all look like they’re planning to murder someone).
Janet Leigh of later Psycho fame plays Meg, Margaret O’Brien (Tootie from Meet Me in St. Louis) is Beth (made the youngest so they could use O’Brien), none other than Elizabeth Taylor plays Amy (how perfect is that?!) and Mary Astor is an ideal Marmee. O’Brien’s version of Beth, despite the sacrilegious age ordering, is one of the tenderest performances of any of the versions I sat through. June Allyson and I bawled through Beth’s big scene – we couldn’t help it!
So, my next blog post will close out this excursion into Little Women territory by talking about the 1994 version and how it stacks up. But I must admit…there’s one other version out there, and I opted not to watch it.
As I was finishing this blog post, I discovered that a 1978 miniseries version existed starring Susan Dey, Eve Plumb, Meredith Baxter Birney, and (I am not making this up) (really, look it up) (I’m serious)…William Shatner as Professor Bhaer. I just flat-out refused to watch it.
“But Lorraine,” Brian said, “you said in your blog you’d watch every single version.”
“Yeah, but…William Shatner as Professor Bhaer. There has to be an opt-out clause for this. I just can’t.”
And so, I won’t. At least not this Christmas! Maybe next holiday season I’ll be willing to pay for William Shatner in Little Women on Amazon. But not in 2018!
Happy New Year, friends!